It feels appropriate that the very first manhua (Chinese comic) review for AUKN is the well-known Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi), hereafter abbreviated as MDZS. The series has already picked up a fair number of fans in the UK thanks to its animated show (available on Tencent’s free WeTV app as The Founder of Diabolism), its live action drama (available on Netflix as The Untamed), and its original novel series (also available in the UK from Seven Seas). For manga readers who have yet to give the series a try, however, this might be the most accessible retelling yet.
The story starts off simply, in what might easily have been a cautionary ‘monster of the week’ episode in a different series. Our hero Wei Wuxian has been dead for thirteen years when he finds himself abruptly summoned back to the world of the living in order to carry out a stranger’s dying wish. The circumstances of his original demise have made him infamous throughout the land, so he ends up adopting the identity of the dead man whose body he now inhabits in order to revisit familiar places, people and feelings in a world where everyone else has apparently moved on.
It’s a compelling setup which immediately presents two concurrent mysteries to unravel. Firstly, Wei Wuxian needs to work out what’s going on in the present so that he can carry out his summoner’s dying wish and learn more about his situation. Meanwhile, the reader needs to pick up on the hero’s little snippets of exposition to understand the wider context of everything that’s happening. How does Wei Wuxian fit into the complicated political backdrop of this fantasy version of ancient China, dominated by clans of ‘cultivators’ who wield powerful spiritual arts? And why was he so reviled that his name is still spoken in hushed tones more than a decade after his death?
This last question is the strongest hook early on because Wei Wuxian is an engaging, likeable protagonist who quickly carries the main narrative. As we watch him shamelessly playing the fool to avoid anyone realising who he is, gently pushing the good guys in the right direction without taking any credit, it seems unimaginable that he could ever have been a villain. I personally appreciate the way that he’s portrayed as a wily-yet-flawed genius who gets things done, even if it does mean spending most of this first volume liberally covered in blood while animated corpses run riot all around him.
I should also mention that this is a danmei story (China’s equivalent of BL), and if it seems as though those elements are missing from my review it’s because they are hardly touched upon in this first volume (indeed, Wei Wuxian’s fellow cover star Lan Wangji barely appears in this book). While a few background details from the novels are definitely glossed over to keep the focus on the action and avoid antagonising Chinese censors, the lack of male-male romance in this book is simply because MDZS takes a while to establish its story before the main couple’s relationship comes to the fore. I think that the payoff is worth the wait, but fans who are hoping for a quick-paced, spicy BL comic should go into MDZS with those expectations suitably tempered.
Speaking of censorship, Seven Seas have reassured fans that this English release is a direct adaptation of the Taiwanese (PinSin Studio) edition, so while the manhua adaptation is never going to be as detailed in its depictions as the novels, we should be getting some more intimate moments later on. The comic was previously partially available online from Tencent but this is a brand new translation and the first English edition ever released in print form. I didn’t have the chance to see the physical version of the book for this review but Seven Seas have promised foil highlights on the cover and a large trim release; it should be a handsome addition to anyone’s collection.
The comic itself is in full colour and illustrated by Luo Di Cheng Qiu, who capably switches between moments of gory horror, dashing heroism and light-hearted comedy – complete with charming chibi characters – as required. Manga readers will feel at home with the art style, and while there’s less consistency between panels than with the animated (donghua) version of the story, there are advantages to the format which more than make up for the occasional lack of polish. In particular, the artist makes good use of their panel layouts to depict concurrent conversations and flick between viewpoints without ever overwhelming the reader, a trick which isn’t possible in either prose or animation. It means that the minor characters get more opportunities to react to what’s going on than in their blink-and-you-miss-it moments in other mediums.
It’s worth mentioning that the Chinese ‘cultivation’ fantasy genre comes with a lot of unique terminology about spiritual development, clans and sects, and this manhua adaptation favours the approach of revealing that world to the reader naturally through its storytelling wherever possible. This approach carries across to the English translation. Cultural references are inferred rather than spelled out through the script wherever possible; that the Lan clan’s white robes resemble funeral attire (a notable cultural difference from a western perspective) is important but it’s neatly worked into the dialogue rather than overtly explained. A short glossary is included at the very end of the book to outline some of the translation choices and there are a few extra notes in the margin on certain pages to help with genre-specific terminology.
(If you want to dive deeper, I recommend picking up Seven Seas’ release of the original novels, for which they put together an extensive compendium of character profiles, locations and other helpful liner notes which still apply to this manhua.)
The dialogue never makes it feel as though the characters are stiltedly explaining their own world to an outsider, but the trade-off is it does expect that the reader pays proper attention to each page. And paying attention is important, because all of the major characters have multiple names and titles which will become more relevant in future volumes. The book benefits from a careful reading and still retains its charm when it’s revisited, when the reader will understand why certain characters reacts to certain plot points based on what we learn later on. This is one of the reasons that I think the comic adaptation might be one of the more accessible ways for a newcomer to delve into the world of MDZS; there are a lot of different names and cultural elements thrown at the reader while they’re still trying to keep track of Wei Wuxian’s current and former lives. With a comic, the reader is free to absorb everything at their own pace, flicking back to previous panels or the glossary if they ever feel lost.
In that respect I think that this comic adaptation works equally well for new readers, who will benefit from the visual storytelling to help draw them in, and for existing MDZS fans who are looking for another way to enjoy a beloved story. The first volume of this manhua adaptation due for release in the UK in print and digital editions on 7th March 2023, while the second volume is due for release in June. I know that I’ll be eagerly awaiting the rest!