This month, DC celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in style with DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, a one-shot anthology featuring 100 pages of all-new material starring DC’s Asian characters, written and illustrated by Asian creators. But along with familiar heroes and villains including Cassandra Cain, Emiko Queen, the New Super-Man and Katana, the issue also introduced a brand-new DC character: The Monkey Prince.
The Monkey Prince debuts in “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes,” the final story of DC Festival of Heroes, written by Gene Luen Yang (Superman Smashes the Klan, Batman/Superman and so much more) and illustrated by Bernard Chang (Teen Titans, Batman Beyond and, again, so much more). The Monkey Prince is a unique addition to DC’s roster of characters, taking direct inspiration from the Monkey King, the mythological character from the 16th-Century Chinese novel Journey to the West, but given a modern spin and firmly rooted in the DC Universe of today (down to attending Fawcett High School alongside Billy Batson).
Both Yang and Chang spoke in-depth about the Monkey Prince, and how their childhood affection for Monkey King stories helped shape the character—who, given how his introductory story ends with “the adventures of the Monkey Prince continue later this year,” appears to be sticking around DC far beyond this initial tale.
How important was it to introduce a new Asian DC character, specifically an Asian-American, in this story? If you look at Jim Lee and Alex Sinclair’s great cover to DC Festival of Heroes, you realize we had to go fairly deep on the bench to fill it up with characters. What did you see that this character adds that wasn’t there before?
Gene Luen Yang: It’s not that that there’s not that many Asian characters—it’s that there’s not that many that aren’t problematic. (Laughs) There’s Egg Fu. There’s a whole bunch from the 1940s. There’s Chop Chop.
It was a thrill. (DC Editor) Jessica (Chen), Bernard Chang and I, we talked about how this was kind of a bucket list item for us. We all are heavily interested in seeing Asian representation within the DC Universe. But even beyond that, there’s something about the Monkey King. All three of us have childhood memories of hearing Monkey King stories from our parents. For all of us, it’s tied in with our love of superheroes. There’s a lot of overlap between the Monkey King and the American superhero genre. They both are heroes, they’re battling for the fate of the world, they’re both dressed up in fancy, colorful costumes, and they both have these fantastical, superhuman powers. It felt good to bridge that gap between those two loves—American superheroes and the legend of the Monkey King.
Bernard Chang: My family immigrated to the US when I was six. And immediately, I took a liking to American comic books like Batman and Superman. They helped me learn English, but also taught me a lot about values, like in Superman’s motto, “Truth, justice and the American way.” So, when my dad saw I was consuming a lot of superhero stuff, he wanted to introduce me to an original Chinese superhero and got his hands on a Monkey King book. He would read to me a few pages each night as bedtime stories, and I would go to sleep dreaming about these amazing and fantastical adventures.
My parents ultimately got divorced and he never finished telling the ending. To this day, I still don’t know how Monkey King and his crew survived their journey west, so Monkey Prince will essentially be me closing a loose end after all these years.
This story will surely be a lot of people’s first exposure to the original mythology. There are fun aspects of the character to discover in this introduction—that he’s a kid, and that he’s kind of a jerk, seemingly for good reasons. How did the Monkey Prince come to life for both of you?
Yang: In Asia—in China and Japan specifically—Monkey King’s story is so popular that it’s become almost ubiquitous. I think they release a couple of Monkey King movies every year. Dragon Ball Z is based on the Monkey King story. Goku is essentially an anime version of the Monkey King. There are just so many versions of him.
One of the questions we had to ask was, why are we doing it? What makes our version different? We wanted to firmly ground our character in the DC Universe. We wanted it to feel like a story that couldn’t be told anywhere else. The main character isn’t the Monkey King himself, he’s actually the son of the Monkey King—that’s why he’s called the Monkey Prince. Second, we wanted to tie him into DC heroes and DC conventions. We wanted some kind of relationship between the character and the heroes and villains that already exist in the DC Universe. One of the conventions of DC superheroes is that there’s a secret identity, so we wanted to give him one. We wanted to give him a human identity and something to hide.
Chang: Monkey Prince Is all about attitude and character. My initial reaction to the original Monkey King character is that he’s a rebel, a mischievous figure who defied the gods and wanted to do things his way. So, bringing that element into the design was a key factor. There are already a ton of previous adaptations of this great story, so I wanted to find a balance between the traditional uniform elements (in reflection for previous fans of the mythological hero) and our modern-day superhero elements you would find in heroes in the DC Universe and form that into a new, authentic variation for our times and story.
I was also initially drawn towards the curlicue motif, with it also representing clouds or wind, which the monkey would fly around on, and you can see that throughout his armor. I balanced the traditional deep red, for blood and family, with an old gold, for history and flashiness, and teal, a more modern and hip variation of traditional green or jade.
Speaking of those links to the DC Universe, the story connects the Monkey Prince to Shazam, which feels like it instinctually makes sense, and also immediately established this isn’t some story off to the side, but a functioning part of the DCU. How did you arrive on Shazam as the character that Monkey Prince would be closely connected to?
Yang: First, I do love Shazam. (Laughs) We are planning on tying him to other characters as well. But for his debut, Shazam just felt very right. First, he’s tied to mythology. Every letter of his name is tied to a different god. We are introducing a character that is also tied to a god. Pretty early on, we knew we wanted the Monkey Prince to be a teenager. I think there’s something about the American conception of adolescence that ties very well with the character of the Monkey King from the original stories. He’s trying to figure himself out, he’s trying to gather power to himself, he’s really arrogant, but then he also has these moments of self-doubt. Even in the original, 500 years ago.
All of that felt very teenager to us, so to tying him to Billy Batson felt very natural—a teenager with mythological ties.
And it appears they have something of a rivalry—well, a one-sided rivalry at this point. Let’s dig more into the evolution of the character. What was it like collaborating on Monkey Prince’s design and making sure he had a distinct visual place in the DC Universe?
Yang: I’ve been a fan of Bernard’s for a very long time. I’ve been a fan of his since his Doctor Mirage days over at Valiant. Forever! Then especially after I started working for DC, I’ve always wanted to work with him. We would see each other at conventions for years—“Oh, let’s do something together!” So, when this opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance.
He’s the perfect artist for this particular character. Not just because he’s an awesome artist, but also because he has that connection—he grew up with those stories. He really understands the character. He understands not just the original stories, but the reason why he’s appealing. We talked a lot about what it would mean to bring a character who is rooted in both the DC Universe and the legend of the Monkey King to life. We wanted both of those elements to be there. That’s why he has armor that is reminiscent of old Chinese armor. He also has those superhero elements in there and Americanized elements. Like the sneakers. That chest emblem—we went crazy on that chest emblem. That was a conversation that lasted maybe a month and a half, to figure that out.
That was something we saw as uniquely “DC.” DC chest emblems are iconic. We looked at how chest emblems function with other DC characters. A lot of them are characters from the English alphabet, but within the story, they have other functions. Superman’s “S” isn’t really an S, it’s a Kryptonian symbol. Aquaman’s “A” isn’t really an A, it’s like an old Atlantean glyph. So, the “M” on the Monkey Prince’s chest—it’s not really an “M.” It’s a nod to his origin. In the original legend of the Monkey King, the Monkey King was born on Flower Fruit Mountain, and that “M” is really a graphic presentation of Flower Fruit Mountain.
Chang: The M emblem came about when we realized we needed a graphic symbol for our hero. Gene’s original pitch doc had the character with an “M” circlet. Every great DC superhero has one. Superman with his “S” family crest. Batman with the bat. So, when Jessica and Gene brought this up, I asked them to give me a couple days to think about this.
The next morning, I woke up, literally having dreamt I was drawing the character, with this idea for an “M” floating on a cloud. So, I started sketching variations of this M cloud—round, pointy, left, right, up, down. We had a string of emails and Zoom meetings and I would sketch live and erase, and sketch again. And gradually the M began to take shape as the mountain, which just made sense, because the original Monkey King was born on Flower Fruit Mountain.
The DC Festival of Heroes story is only twelve pages, but ends on a very clear note that there’s more coming. What do you have in mind for the future of this character?
Yang: We’re hoping that it will introduce American readers to Chinese mythology, and Chinese readers to the DC Universe. We really want it to feel cross-cultural. On the fun side, we want the Monkey King to go up against other DC characters, both heroes and villains.
We have to talk about the sneakers. Bernard, how did you land on giving the Monkey Prince that very distinctive touch?
Chang: The Monkey Prince is a teenager named Marcus going to high school, so you know whatever he’s wearing has to have some hotness to it. Personally, I just released my own sneaker collab with a boutique performance/lifestyle footwear company called Brandblack, based here out of Los Angeles. The owner, David Raysse, and I both went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and played on the Division III basketball team together. He would go on and design some legendary kicks for Fila, Adidas and Skechers, and eventually founded Brandblack, so after all these years, we came together to pool our collective talents and experience and collaborated on the Rare Metal II Aqua 3D, which inspired the look for the Monkey Prince’s sneakers.
DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, featuring 100 pages of new material including “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” by Gene Luen Yang, Bernard Chang, Sebastian Cheng and Janice Chiang, is now available in print and as a digital comic book.