World Comic Book Review

11th April 2024

The Manara Library, Vol. 3: The Ape (review)—“Classic fable journeys to the West”

Writer: Silverio Pisu

Artist: Milo Manara

Dark Horse Comics, August 11, 2018

EVERY SCENE IS BIZARRE in the most tasteful way in the world of Milo Manara, like underground comix for the Medici. A few years ago I was pleased to find Dark Horse collected THE MANARA LIBRARY in nine handsome hardbound volumes, the last in 2015, three for erotic and six for other graphic novels and stories. You may know about Mr Manara from “Click!” and other popular tales in various languages in scattered albums, yet there is much left to discover. These nine volumes are a treasure chest of wicked delight, arousing perpetual amazement at the delicate affect of a line, the splendor of shadows, the likeness of a face and studies of faces, menageries of figures and backgrounds both real and fantastic all mixed together, and of course the beautiful women ever present as a subtext, and effortless movement ever pulsing on the page like a movie screen. That’s Manara: an addictive hallucinogen.

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In Volume 3, the chief feature is the story “Trip to Tulum,” composed by Frederico Fellini, presenting a significant collaboration between two giant Italian artists. Another longer piece, THE APE, scripted by Silverio Pisu, first appeared in a Milan magazine in 1977-78, serialized in ten chapters; and in English five years later in Heavy Metal magazine. The story is an allegory using Eastern religions, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism as foils with a complex message somehow relating to modern times, conflicts between ideologies and superpowers, and those who rule the universe versus those vital youthful rebels who contradict and test the boundaries of power and the resilience of rulers to withstand them. The script by Pisu is carried over in symbolism flashing in the artistic spectacle produced by Mr Manara with no conceivable limitations. Transformation! –and anything might happen.



Even the uninitiated like me can see the story of the young ape is based on a previous text, some classic fairy tale adapted to reflect the present; and it turns out virtually every Asian person from any country is likely to know something about the legends of monkey from the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West, published anonymously in the 1500s by an expert author, now thought to be Wu Cheng’en. The complete text was translated into English only in 1983. I was surprised when I asked my Japanese wife about the classic novel and she started singing “monkee magic, monkee magic” from a cartoon she always watched as a child. She found a picture of the classic cartoon monkey wearing a golden crown.

“My dad liked to listen to Mozart,” she told me, “and I remember when I was young reading Journey to the West, and it’s so long, and the symphonies were so long, so now they run together: whenever I hear Mozart I think of Son-Goku [the monkey].”

The creature has been here in the house all along. Other Asian cartoons and renditions abound, including in English a recent series “New Legends of Monkey” on Netflix. Those familiar with monkey from associations like this might resent a ribald version by Italian artists with unscrubbed manners.

In the Pisu/Manara version, the liability of the golden headband that allows the monk to control the mischievous monkey in the original story is omitted. The young ape has more human attributes and wears a Mongolian war helmet. Costumes and architecture mix Asian cultures, as might be allowed in the godly environs in the story and the main theme of crossing cultures, traveling first eastward to the mountains of flowers and fruit, and finally westward to fetch the power of the Buddha.

A central point, how to deal with those who challenge authority, is laid out in the reasoning of the emperor’s favorite concubine, Indira, who says: “Because the ape is immortal, if you cut him into 20,000 tiny pieces, you’ll end up with 20,000 tiny and very annoying little apes! I suggest you promote him rather than punish him.” Much of the plot revolves around this decision. So too went radical movements in the 1960s and later, and evidently often before, as authorities co-opted opposition and absorbed competitors. The solution is not perfect as the story shows, but may work well enough for a long time: don’t attempt to annihilate, rather incorporate and neutralize.

Gratitude to Wu Cheng’en and Silverio Pisu for making a panoramic canvas for master Milo Manara to draw upon. The story is not erotic, yet Manara’s signature nudity appears, just for fun and gratefully to lighten the appearance of bodies and creatures more diverse and sometimes grotesque that march through the densely populated scenes. Eros also adds a significance, a view of genuine life where we expose and share. Peering into the Jade Emperor’s harem in the Cloud Palace seemed to me not a gratuitous peep to titillate, but raised a lurking question: What does one do with one’s time as a god once everything is accomplished? It occurred to me only in non-Christian religions do we get to imagine what gods do in their spare time.

The moral question what one does once everything is accomplished is reinforced in the first chapter by the young ape taking his people to live in a paradise behind a waterfall curtain where they celebrate in laughter, dancing, and lovemaking for a thousand years before monkey wants more. Sounds like a good honeymoon. An expert on Chinese cartoons, Nick Stember, blogged in 2016 that the Pisu/Manara Ape seems to conflate Monkey and Pigsy in the original story “into a single character, creating a sort of horny, hungry, hairy superman.”

Ah superman. The Nietzchean overman is exactly what appears to be under the surface of this Italian interpretation of the classic Ming novel telling how Buddhism came to the East. I don’t get it rightly. Yet something twinged at the end when Mr Manara forced recognition of a frustrated period of protest, and a series of protests since mounted by our youth chanting and marching and striving to save our people forever, like the fearless young ape.