Annotations for The Monastery Atop The Heavenly Mountain #1
By Jess Nevins
(Additions and corrections are of course welcome)
(most recent update: 21 July 2019).
Annotator’s Note: The following are the annotations to The Monastery Atop the Heavenly Mountain #1. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Tony Harris, Wade von Grawbadger, and Gregory Wright, and published by Wildstorm in Fall, 1998 (on-sale date 7 Oct 1998). Now extremely rare—its print run was low by contemporary standards, its sales worse, and the later issues were never published, the series being cancelled after the first issue—I got to read it only as a favor from a die-hard Alan Moore collector--The Monastery Atop the Heavenly Mountain #1 is generally seen by comics critics and scholars as Alan Moore’s trial run for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose first issue would go on sale at the end of January, 1999, a scant three and a half months later.
Ordinarily I do annotations on the day of publication, and try to preserve the suspense and mystery of the plot as it occurs—so, for example, I don’t identify a character until the comic identifies them. I don’t want to ruin any surprises. But this is a twenty-one-year-old comic, so I think it’s fair to say that the statute of limitations on any spoilers is up.
Cover: As is usual with an Alan Moore comic, the cover does a lot of work. The Monastery Atop The Heavenly Mountain #1 (hereafter Monastery) is both a traditional Gothic story and a satire of the Gothic narratives.
The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765); the first phase of the Gothic, what today is seen as the “traditional” Gothic, ran until roughly 1830, when the Gothic was superseded by the historical novel. There were proto-Gothic narratives before The Castle of Otranto—scholars of the Gothic have found stereotypically Gothic elements in works as far back as Shakespeare’s plays—and what’s called by critics the “neo-Gothic” novel began appearing in the mid-1830s, so that the Gothic genre or the Gothic mode can be accurately said to have existed since the sixteenth century, with numerous examples of Gothics published today.
While critics have long argued for dividing the Gothic into binary types, with the most commonly accepted binary being the “male Gothic” (male protagonist, theme of the quest for the restoration of a patrimonial legacy) versus the “female Gothic” (female protagonist, theme of the threats posed to the protagonist by a male authority figure), there are certain elements, motifs, and tropes common to most traditional Gothics, including but not limited to
ancient architecture, often a castle or other edifice, usually supposed to be haunted; inside the edifice were trapdoors, deserted wings, darkened staircases, and paintings of great significance to the central mystery of the story; beneath the edifice are dungeons and cramped, claustrophic tunnels; weather operating as either an omen or as the objective correlative of the protagonist or antagonist; messages delivered in dreams; a surfeit of high-pitched emotion, including fits and swoons; corrupt and often lust-filled clergy, usually Catholic; tyrannical patriarchal figures; a device, from a birthmark to a cameo or miniature, that is crucial in the resolution of the plot; and scenes set in tombs and crypts.
Most of these tropes appear in Monastery. The choice of a monastery is fitting for traditional Gothics, and while the monastery being Buddhist rather than Catholic, and located in Tibet rather than somewhere in Europe, is unusual for a traditional Gothic, as we see in The Monastery the change in religion and location work.
Traditional Gothics did not have illustrated covers, but the cover of Monastery is a reference not to the traditional Gothics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but to the Gothic romances of the twentieth century. Gothic romances appeared across the twentieth century, but the appearance of Gothic romances as paperback originals, beginning in 1960 with publication of Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellyn and Phyllis Whitney’s Thunder Heights, created a craze for Gothic romance novels which lasted well into the 1970s and which continues to be published and filmed today.
The cover of Monastery is a reference to this:
The image of a woman fleeing from a darkened Gothic-style mansion became a stereotype of the Gothic romance, as you can see here. In the case of Monastery, what we have is a male figure—Mr. Knightley, as we’ll see—fleeing from the Buddhist monastery, illustrated in much the same way that Walter Popp illustrated the protagonist of The White Star. The cover tagline of Monastery—“Within the ancient monastery, a mystery lurked…as an expedition of exploration turned to terror”—matches the tagline, in both script font and color and wording, of The White Star. This being an Alan More comic, nothing is coincidental.
The satirical element of Monastery—the aspect of the issue that is sending up the Gothics as well as homaging them—begins with the title. The Monastery Atop the Heavenly Mountain is similar in arrangement to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the most important Gothic novel after Otranto, and T.J. Horsley Curties’ The Watch Tower (1804-1805), and many another Gothic novel with the name of the haunted edifice in the title.
Page 1. Panel 1. “Mount K’un Lun” is, in Chinese mythology, the home of Xi Wangmu (西王母), the Queen Mother of the West, one of the most important goddesses in the traditional Chinese pantheon and the wife of the August Emperor of Jade, the ruler of the Chinese pantheon.
“The Heavenly Mountains” is one translation of Tian Shan, a large system of mountain ranges in Central Asia running along the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest China.
“Many decades ago.” I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Moore isn’t more specific about the location or date of Monastery; authors of traditional Gothics usually kept the time and place of their settings ambiguous, although as we’ll see the Gothics usually had a medieval time frame, while the date of Monastery’s events can be deduced from internal details.
Panel 2. “Jade Lake” is the site where, according to legend, Xi Wangmu fell in love with King Mu of the Zhou, three thousand years ago.
At the far end of the lake can be seen a strand of fruited trees. These are likely the trees of the orchard of the Peaches of Immortality, which grant immortality to those who consume them and which Xi Wangmu, with the August Emperor of Jade, is the guardian of.
Panel 4. The giant glowing white snake emerging from the lake is Madame White Snake. In the traditional legend Madame White Snake is a white snake spirit who practices the Taoist magical arts in the hopes of becoming immortal. She gains a younger sister, a green snake, and then plot complications and romance ensue.
Panel 6. Madame White Snake’s human form is very similar to Joey Wong’s White Snake in the Tsui Hark film Green Snake (1993), a retelling of the legend of Madame White Snake. Here is Wong as White Snake (on the right):
Panel 8. The figure speaking to Madame White Snake is the evil high priest of the Blood Monster, the villain in the Tsui Hark film Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983). In the film a group of warriors fight against the minions of the Blood Monster and then the Monster itself. Here is the evil high priest in Zu:
Page 2. Panel 2. “must get back to Zu mountain” is a reference to the setting of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain.
Panel 3. Approaching Madame White Snake and the high priest is Xi Wangmu herself. She is portrayed here in a style similar to her traditional appearance in Chinese paintings, as in this one by Xie Wenli:
Xi Wangmu’s “running out of boys” is a reference to the myths that Xi Wangmu would maintain her “yin essence” by draining the yin from her sexual partners; Xi Wangmu’s preference for partners was boys or young teenagers.
Panel 6-8. “Po,” the man spying on Xi Wangmu, the high priest, and Madame White Snake, and then running away when discovered, is, I think, a reference to Master Po, the teacher of Kwai Chang Caine in the David Carradine tv show Kung Fu (1972-1975). Flashbacks in Kung Fu show Master Po as an old, blind man, but Kung Fu is set in the middle of the 19th century, and as we’ll see Monastery is set some decades earlier than that, which is why Po, here, is only middle-aged.
Page 3. Panel 1. The aerial view of London seen here is of Regency London, which though built up over the previous century was still a much smaller city than it would metastasize into during the 19th century. My guess is that Moore and Harris were working off the famous 1817 map of London, which is online here.
The smoggy quality of the air in this panel is due to the constant burning of coal which Londoners engaged in. London became famous in the 20th century for its smog, with the Great Smog of London in 1952 being the archetypal example, but London before the 20th century was no better, and as far back as the English Civil War travelers to London decried its foul fug and Hogo.
Page 4. Panel 1. The portly gentleman addressed her as “Sir Joseph” is Sir Joseph Blaine, the cunning naturalist and spy-master from Patrick O’Brian’s superb “Aubrey and Maturin” series of books. (Note the insects crawling from his pocket—Blaine has a particular fondness for beetles). Lightly based on Sir Joseph Banks, Blaine is the head of the espionage department of the British government during the Napoleonic Wars.
Panel 2. “Sir Joseph,” in Panel One, being Sir Joseph Blaine, that makes “Stephen” in this panel Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin. In the “Aubrey and Maturin” series Stephen Maturin is an Irish-Catalan physician and spy—quite the most formidable spy in the Napoleonic Wars.
In the novels Maturin is described as being physically unprepossessing, verging on ugly, just as he is portrayed here. Knowing what we know about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we can only speculate what a Kevin O’Neill Stephen Maturin would have looked like—probably very much what Patrick O’Brian envisioned. (Tony Harris does a fine job here, of course).
Bringing Maturin and Blaine together in Monastery makes the devoted O’Brian fan in me wonder about when, exactly, Monastery is set. The chronology of the O’Brian novels is at once precise and maddeningly vague—as O’Brian himself admitted, all of the events in his novels couldn’t be realistically placed in anything like a real world chronology—there was simply too much going on to fit in the years he chose. My best guess is that Moore is choosing early 1805, during the events of H.M.S. Surprise (1973), during the time that Jack Aubrey is on blockade duty and before Maturin departs for Spain. I could be wrong, of course; those wishing to dispute me are directed to the Aubrey Maturin Chronology.
Panels 3-6. These panels duplicate the four panels from George Cruikshank’s famous “The Art of Walking the Streets of London” (1818):
Maturin and Blaine ignore them because such riotous behavior was par for the course during the Regency Era, and people simply kept walking.
Page 5. Panel 1. Maturin and Blaine are entering the Theatre-Royal of Covent Garden, one of the foremost theaters of its time—after its destruction and reconstruction in 1809, the Theatre-Royal became the leading theater of the time.
Panel 2. The image here, of the chaotic foyer of the Theatre-Royal, is an homage to the caricatures and cartoons of British cartoonists of the era. A good summary of them, with images, is here; I think the image in this panel is an homage to Henry Alken’s “Political Quadrille” (1808):
I confess to not being as knowledgeable of Regency era politics as I perhaps should be; this image is an homage to Alken, but I’m unable to identify the figures being satirized here by Moore and Harris.
Panels 4-5. The discussion of Russia entering the war against Napoleon places Monastery as taking place before April 11, 1805, when Russia formally joined the alliance of the Third Coalition against France.
Page 6. Another one of those page-sized panels in which I feel like Moore has it in for me personally. (Of course, Monastery was published in 1998, before I began annotating Moore’s work, so he couldn’t have intended to kill me off with this panel. Unless he somehow knew ahead of time….) The depth of references in this page is both a continuation of the reference-heavy work Moore had done in Supreme in 1996 and 1997 and an advance on it—we can see this as an anticipation of the very detailed panels of League.
The pair seated in the upper left are Mr. Knightley and Daniel Mendoza. Mr. Knightley was created by Jane Austen and appeared in Emma (1815). In Emma Knightley is a landowner and gentleman farmer who spars with and eventually falls in love with the titular Emma. The Knightley seen here closely resembles Jeremy Northam, who played Mr. Knightley in the 1996 film version of Emma. Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) was a famous Jewish prizefighter and the champion of England from 1792-1795.
The pair seated next to Knightley and Mendoza, referred to as “Ruthven” and “Stuart,” are Lord Ruthven and, I think, Charles Stuart. Lord Ruthven was created by John Polidori and appeared “The Vampyre” (1819); “The Vampyre” was the first significant English-language vampire story, with Lord Ruthven being the titular vampire. Charles Stuart (1779-1845), later Baron Stuart de Rothesay, was a British diplomat who became a major figure in the British espionage bureaucracy during the Napoleonic War.
The pair in the row of seats in front of Knightley and Mendoza, called “Carwin” and “Lady Barrymore,” are Carwin and Mary Ann Pearce. Carwin was created by Charles Brockden Brown and appeared in Wieland (1798) and Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist (1803-1805). Carwin is a ventriloquist who in the American Gothic novel Wieland acts as the villainous spur to the titular madman and murderer; Memoirs of Carwin tells of Carwin’s childhood. Mary Ann Pearce (?-1832) was better known as “Lady Barrymore” and “the Boxing Baroness,” a notable woman of London during the Regency who in the 1820s became notorious as a pugilist.
The pair in the row of seats in front of Ruthven and Stuart, called “Julian” and “William,” are Julian, the 5th Earl of Worth, and William Blake. Julian, the 5th Earl of Worth, was created by Georgette Heyer and appeared in Regency Buck (1935). In Regency Buck Julian is the unwilling guardian and eventual husband of Judith Taverner, the heroine of the novel. Regency Buck was the first of Heyer’s novels set during the Regency period and was one of the novels that established the historical romance genre. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker, and one of the great creators of the first half of the 19th century. His depiction here is quite similar to the famous portrait of him by Thomas Phillips:
Page 7. Panel 2. The “Mrs. Siddons” addressed by Blaine here is Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), the best-known English actress of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Panel 4. The play in the background is a stage version of Robert Southey’s epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). An Arabian fantasy about an evil group of sorcerers fighting against the titular Muslim hero.
There was never a stage version of Thalaba the Destroyer, but it was common practice at this time for popular works, whether poetic or narrative, to be turned into plays. In some cases, as with Matthew Lewis’ Rugantino; or, The Bravo of Venice (1805)—itself a loose adaptation of Heinrich Zschokke’s Abällino the Great Bandit (1794), a very popular and influential German novel of a noble outlaw—the stage version of the novel became so popular as to outstrip the novel itself.
Panel 6. “take you to the Hotspur, which will ferry you across the Channel” is a reference to the H.M.S. Hotspur, the sloop that C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower commanded. Forester’s Hornblower novels and stories (1937-1967) are about a British naval officer (later Captain, Commodore, and Admiral) active during the Napeolonic Wars. Monastery taking place early in 1805, the relevant Hornblower novel is Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962).
Page 10. Panel 2. While it’s true that France was at war with Britain and the rest of Europe in 1805, there was always a certain traffic between France and England, even during the war, whether covert diplomatic missions or scholars, natural philosophers (scientists), and inventors attending scholarly talks and scientific presentations at the Académie des sciences. It may seem surprising that Blaine, Maturin, Knightley, and Mendoza so easily arrived in Paris, but Blaine and Maturin, in the Patrick O’Brian books, are noted naturalists, and their reputation obviously preceded them.
Panel 3. This image of the various scientists of the Académie at work in chaotic, frantic fashion is an homage by Harris and Moore to this famous 1698 image of the Académie scientists:
I’m not knowledgeable about the famous citizens of Paris circa 1805 and can’t identify most of the individuals portrayed here. Anyone?
Page 11. Panel 2. The two creatures being dissected here are, I think, Blake’s “flea” and Fuseli’s incubus.
William Blake’s “Ghost of a Flea” (1819-1820) is a painting of a spirit which Blake claimed to have seen in an 1819 séance:
That’s how it went in our world. In the world of Monastery, however, the “flea” is clearly a type of creature or monster, man-sized and threatening. Perhaps the “flea” seen here is the original and what Blake saw in his séance was truly its “ghost”?
Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” (1781) is about a sleeping woman menaced by an incubus and a nightmare (the horse on the left):
Clearly the natural philosophers of the Académie have trapped the incubus and are dissecting it out of curiosity as to its innards.
Panel 3. Another panel where Moore is trying to kill his annotators, this time through obscurity rather than the sheer amount of detail in the panel.
The young cavalryman addressed as “Étienne” is, I think, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard as a young man. Conan Doyle’s wonderful Brigadier Gerard stories, published from 1894-1910, are about the exploits of Étienne Gerard, member of Napoleon’s 10th Hussars, during and after the Napoleonic Wars.
The figure next to him, with the over-sized sabre strapped across his back, is, I’m guessing, Maurice Landay’s Carot. In Landay’s Carot novellas (1911-1913) Carot is an agent of Napoleon who is known as as “coupe-tête,” or “the decapitator,” because of his lethality with the sword.
The figure speaking to Brigadier Gerard, wearing all grey, is Baroness Orczy’s Man in Grey. As seen in Orczy’s The Man in Grey (1918), Monsieur Fernand, the eponymous character, is a “secret agent” for Napoleon during the wars, solving crimes and bringing justice to both English spies and common criminals.
The trio in the center-right of the panel is Potocki’s Alphonse van Worden, Cousin de Grandeville’s Adam, and Eugene Sue’s Wandering Jew.
Van Worden appears in Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805-1815). A multilevel novel full of interlocking narratives that span a number of genres, Manuscript’s frame story is about the Walloon soldier Alphonse van Worden.
Adam appears in Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grandville’s Le Dernier Homme (1805). Le Dernier Homme, the first work of proto-science fiction to portray the end of the world, features, among other things, the Biblical Adam, who is cursed by God to watch all his damned descendants enter Hell. In the novel Adam survives until the end of the world, which explains why he’s around in 1805 and available for Moore to use.
The Wandering Jew is an old antisemitic stereotype. The legend, which dates to the 13th century, is about Ahasuerus, a Jew who scorned Christ and was cursed to wander until the end of time. While there have been many stories and novels published which feature the Wandering Jew, I think that the Wandering Jew seen here is from Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844-1845), one of the most popular and enjoyable romans feuilleton (novels serialized in newspapers) ever written. Sue’s The Wandering Jew is about, among other things, the reading of a will and the resolution of a fabulously rich legacy which a Jesuit priest is trying to acquire.
The pair in the center bottom, addressing each other as “Lieutenant” and “Chevalier” are, respectively, Lt. Gabriel Feraud and the Chevalier de Trélern. Lt. Gabriel Feraud was created by Joseph Conrad and first appeared in “The Duel” (1908), but the Feraud seen here is the one played by Harvey Keitel in the Ridley Scott film The Duellists (1977). (Feraud here is physically modeled on Keitel). The Chevalier de Trélern was created by Frédéric Causse under the pseudonym of “Jean d’Agraives” and appeared in the dime novel L’Aviateur de Bonaparte #1-22 (1926). In the dime novel the Chevalier is a brilliant inventor and French patriot who creates for Napoleon a propeller-driven dirigible, which Napoleon uses to conquer most of Europe.
Page 13. Panel 1. This panel of Venice, with the the Chevalier de Trélern’s dirigible in the sky in the background, is a reference to Canaletto’s The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice (1730):
Panels 4-6. The confrontation takes place on the Rialto Bridge.
Panel 5. The spooky-looking woman in command of the thugs, called “Signorina Biondetta,” is Biondetta, from Jacques Cazotte’s Le Diable amoureux (1772). In Le Diable amoureux a Spanish nobleman is tempted toward the path of vice by the delectable Biondetta, who is Satan in disguise.
Panel 6. Mendoza’s one-punch knockout of the thug, while de rigueur for superhero comics, makes even more sense historically, as Mendoza was a formidable boxer at a time when boxing was a much dirtier and rougher sport (bare-fisted, of course, and only gradually disallowing moves that more closely resemble pro wrestling than boxing) than it later became. If any fool stepped to Mendoza, he would have stretched them out like the Game Chicken.
Page 14. Panels 1-3. The “Abällino” who comes to the aid of Knightley, Mendoza, and Maturin and frightens Biondetta away is the titular character in Heinrich Zschokke’s Abällino the Great Bandit (1794), a landmark and hugely popular work which helped establish the late 18th/early 19th century craze for noble outlaw stories in Europe and England. In Abällino the noble Count Rosalvo, seeing that his beloved Venice is imperiled by conspirators, thugs, and assassins, uses two disguises to rid Venice of its criminal scum: the noble “Flodardo” and the huge, monstrous, and ugly outlaw “Abällino.”
Count Rosalvo/Abällino acts as he does in this sequence, as a 19th century version of Batman, because in Abällino the Great Bandit he acts like that. Abällino the Great Bandit is one of the forgotten landmarks of superhero fiction, with Count Rosalvo, in his two crime-fighting disguises, being the prototypical Batman.
Panel 4. The group is entering Teatro la Fenice, one of the most important opera houses in both Venice and in the history of opera itself.
Panel 6. The opera being performed is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s La Vendetta di Orfeo (1782), Gluck’s sequel to the much-better-known Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). La Vendetta di Orfeo is an unusual combination of the traditional Italian “noble outlaw” story with a story not told before in Italian opera: the revenge that Orpheus takes on the Greek gods for their part in the killing of Eurydice, his lover. (Traditional scholarship attributes this “vengeance on the gods” plot to the German “Zerstörung der Götter” genre of novels from earlier in the century).
La Vendetta di Orfeo was a failure, like Gluck’s Echo et Narcisse (1779), and was responsible for Gluck returning to Vienna for good. According to opera legend, the premiere of La Vendetta di Orfeo caused riots in the streets of Venice, in part because of the opera’s subject matter and in part because of the possibly-apocryphal “Composers’ Duel” in the streets outside the Teatro la Fenice, between Mozart and his manndampfband and the conservative traditionalists of J.W. Hassler and his Uhrwerk Orchester.
Page 15. Panel 2. The woman Knightley introduces as his “old friend…the Countess de Loredani,” is Victoria de Loredani, from Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya; or, The Moor (1805). Zofloya is the rare “male Gothic” written by a woman with a female protagonist. It is about the temptation and downfall of Victoria de Loredani, a beautiful young woman, by Zofloya, a Moor who is Satan in disguise. (Zofloya is surprisingly spicy for an 1805 Gothic).
Zofloya takes place in the 15th century. As we’ll see, though, the Countess’ appearance here is the result of having successfully sold her soul to Zofloya—a retcon of the ending of Zofloya.
Panels 3-4. The implication to be drawn from this dialogue is that Knightley and the Countess were sexually if not romantically associated during Knightley’s Grand Tour of the Continent. Which may upset the more devout Jane Austen fans, but is a logical conclusion to be drawn from Austen’s portrayal of Mr. Knightley as being worldly and experienced when he meets Emma in 1815.
I think Moore is subtly working in a reference to Austen’s Masters and Mysteries (1796), one of Austen’s abortive attempts at novel writing. (Masters and Mysteries was never published, but the manuscript is in the British Library, shelfmark 12630.pp.15, which is where I read it and presumably Moore read it). Master and Mysteries is generally seen as an attempt by Austen to write a formal Gothic novel (she would satirize the genre with Northanger Abbey, written in 1798) and is partially a bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) about “George Knightley” and his experiences in England and in Europe. (Masters and Mysteries is also partially a Gothic novel set in an abandoned monastery in the “Thibetan Alps”—an obvious inspiration for Moore in the writing of Monastery). In Masters and Mysteries Knightley meets, in passing, a mysterious, alluring European woman, although Austen leaves their encounter brief. Moore is extrapolating a later relationship based on that meeting.
Page 16. Panel 1. The “native guide” offered by de Loredani is Hajji Baba, the Persian rogue, scoundrel, and hero of James Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan (1824), a charming and influential Arabian Nights-style novel.
Page 17. This image is a combination of an imitation of early 19th century maps of Asia, like this one:
and the tradition, from films of the 1930s and 1940s, to show airplane movements across long distances by superimposing lines over maps:
as is done in this panel.
Page 18. Panel 1. The monastery of the comic’s title. Which has more than a passing similarity to Thikse Monastery in India:
Most Buddhist monasteries are not as big as Thikse, but the larger monasteries do have a sprawling appearance that is not dissimilar to that of the haunted edifices of the Gothics.
Panels 2-3. This pair, “Lung Kai” and “Lord Shih,” are references to Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung and Shih Shih-lun, the protagonist of the anonymously-written Shih-kung An (1798).
Bramah’s Kai Lung, who appeared in The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900) and two sequels (1922 & 1928), is a wandering Chinese storyteller whose stories are great arch fun. Calling him “Lung Kai” rather than “Kai Lung” is both a Moorean trick which is used in the various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen issues and a more accurate rendering of the name in Chinese, “Lung” being far more common a family name than “Kai.” Lung Kai’s aphorism here is one of the trademark bits from the Kai Lung stories; “One who chooses to haunt a house must make sure they are not in turn haunted” is similar to “However high the tree the shortest axe can reach its trunk” and “He who flies on an eagle’s back must sooner or later drop off” and the many other aphorisms Kai Lung wields.
Lord Shih is, as mentioned, a reference to the protagonist of Shih-kung An, whose traditional translation into English is The Cases of Lord Shih. The Cases of Lord Shih is a collection of mysteries in which the crimes are solved by Shih Shih-lun, a Judge Bao-like crime-solver. When Lord Shih refers to his “illustrious grandfather” in Panel 3, he is referring to Shih Shin-lun.
Page 19. Panel 1. The inside of the monastery being larger than the outside is well within the Gothic tradition.
This panel is an homage of Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s “Carceri” sketches (1745-1761), specifically “The Gothic Arch:”
Page 21. Panel 3. I don’t recognize most of the items in this panel. Anyone?
Starting from the upper left:
The human skin hanging from a hook is probably a reference to the full-body skin suit worn by Joey Wong in King Hu’s film Painted Skin (1993). Painted Skin, based on the short story in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740), is about a scholar who falls in love with a beautiful maiden, only to discover that the maiden is a ghost who must wear a skin suit in order to look human.
The stained prayer mat on the floor is probably a reference to Li Yu’s erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat (1693), about the sexual exploits of a young scholar.
The giant rock is probably a reference to Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber (1791). Among many other things, Dream of the Red Chamber is about a sentient stone who travels the world and is eventually given existence as a mortal. Clearly it has reverted to being a rock by 1805.
The carved pillar on stop of the stone turtle is probably a reference to Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin (circa 1350?), one of the classics of Chinese literature. Water Margin tells the story of 108 outlaws who rebel against the government, are granted pardons, and then fight against other rebels as well as foreign invaders. The novel begins with the release of the 108 “Stars of Destiny” from their imprisonment under a stele-bearing tortoise.
The pillow is probably a reference to the Judge Bao stories. In later Judge Bao stories, such as in Shih Yu-k’un’s The Three Heroes and Five Sworn Brothers (1879), Judge Bao uses a magic pillow to communicate with the underworld while he sleeps.
The skeleton in the eunuch’s costume is likely a reference to the Tsui Hark film New Dragon Gate Inn (1992). The film, a remake of Dragon Gate Inn (1967), is about an inn in the Chinese desert that plays host to a group of rebels, criminals, and Imperial agents, with various wackiness and wüxia fighting ensuing. The skeleton in the eunuch’s costume is a specific to the wicked eunuch of the film, whose leg and arm are carved down to the bone during the climactic fight.
The flower is undoubtedly a reference to Ronny Yu’s film The Bride With White Hair (1993), about a love affair between a swordsman and a woman raised by wolves. The flower is the centerpiece of the final scene; it is said to bloom once every seventy years, and can reverse the effects of aging.
The jars labeled “centipede,” “snake,” “scorpion,” “lizard,” and “toad” are probably a reference to the Shaw Brothers’ film Five Deadly Venoms (1978). In the film warriors of the Poison clan, each practicing a different style of animal kung-fun—centipede, snake, scorpion, etc—clash, some good, some evil.
The horrific tree is a reference to Tsui Hark’s film A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). In the film a debt collector falls in love with a ghost who he must rescue from the clutches of the Tree Demon, seen here:
Page 22, Panels 1-6. Lord Shih’s monologue here is a reference to what might be called “dark Buddhism,” the lesser-known (in the West) and less-reputable offshoots of mainstream Buddhism.
The history of Buddhism is one of expansion, like the other major religions: India in the third century before Christ, Afghanistan in the second, Tibet and Mongolia in the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ, Korea and Japan in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, southeast Asia and the larger islands in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. The renaissance of Theravāda in the eleventh century, and then the expansion into the West in the nineteenth.
But during the expansion phase variant Buddhisms arose. These Buddhisms kept the architecture of Theravāda or Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna Buddhism but had doctrinal differences—in some cases severe—with those three. Leng, Dmag, Klad Klor, Nak-Po—these all were led and taught by unsavory lamas, claiming to be buddhas. None of them lasted more than a century or so, but they added dark and unhealthy colors to the overall portrait of Buddhism.
Lord Shih’s monologue in these panels is a specific reference to Yi-Dvags Buddhism, which arose in the 13th century during the ruler of Shakya Bzang-po as dpon-chen. Unlike its variant Buddhist counterparts, Yi-Dvags Buddhism lasted long enough to be promulgated in the west in the early 19th century by the Jesuit traveler Ippolito Desideri in his Historical Heresies of Thibet (composed 1731, not published until 1804). This in turn played into the vogue in the 1800s for Satanism in England and France, and led to a brief spate of “Boudhist” novels in England, including William Beckford’s Akbar: An Asian Romance (1806), Matthew Lewis’ The Black Lama of Thibet (1807), and Henry Ian Koch’s Daulat the Devil, or, The Triumph of Iniquity (1808), the latter being so depraved and pornographic (by contemporary standards) that its publication was suppressed and its author arrested and transported.
Pages 23-24. The double-page spread which ends the issue is a riff on Jack Kirby’s cosmic art in Fantastic Four #51 (June 1966):
The three images in accompanying the spirals and circles are references to Buddhist iconography. In Buddhism the lotus (upper left) represents purity and enlightenment; this lotus is black, likely representing a purity of evil and a negative enlightenment, or a knowledge that kills. The waving flag (lower left) represents the Buddha’s banner of victory over the Four Maras (“evil influences”); here the flag has the Maras’ names on them (“aggregate,” representing our clinging to the aggregate illusions of “reality;” “destructive emotions,” symbolizing our addiction to negative emotions such as anger and hate; “the Lord of Death,” representing death itself; and “the sons of gods,” representing our hunger for illusory pleasures). I would hazard a guess the banner represents the victory of the Four Maras over the Buddha. And the spiky wheel (upper right) represents the Wheel of Dharma, which represents the Buddha, the Buddha’s teachings, and the walking of the path of enlightenment. The Wheel of Dharma seen in this panel is spiked and has blades on it—quite the dangerous reverse of the traditional Buddhist Dharma Wheel.
You’ll note that the entire two-page spread seems to form a human face when looked at from a distance. I believe the human face coming appearing in this portal is the ultimate Buddha of Yi-Dvags Buddhism, the Buddha “of the Hungry Void” (“Śūnyatā Bubhukșā”). According to Yi-Dvags tenets, reality is a sickly-sweet illusion covering up the rotten corpse of the universe, which in turn is an illusion concealing Utkala, the Hungry Void Buddha, who is destined one day to swallow the universe.
The Monastery Atop the Heavenly Mountain #1 is, as mentioned, only the first issue in a projected series, which unfortunately never came to pass due to very bad sales on the first issue. (How Wildstorm managed to underprint a brand new Alan Moore/Tony Harris comic, undersell it—do you remember any advertising for it? Any at all?—and then decide to cancel it after only one issue, I’ll never know).
So what we get in this issue, though very tasty, is only the prelude to what’s to come, and no more represents where Moore would have gone with this series—which may have been an ongoing rather than a limited series, based on Moore’s comments in the back of the issue—than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 1 number 1 does the rest of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
We can only hazard guesses about what might have happened, although anyone who talks to Alan Moore should ask him about this. So the following is not something I have any knowledge of—he never mentioned Monastery to me any time I talked to him about League and its inspirations—but rather suppositions and guesses.