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How DC Comics turned an iconic Asian myth into the new superhero 'Monkey Prince'

By Matthew Jackson

Next week, DC Comics will publish DC Festival of Heroes, a celebration of the company's Asian characters and Asian creators commemorating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Within its pages, readers will find DC Comics mainstays such as Cassandra Cain, Ryan Choi, Connor Hawke, and many more characters in brand-new adventures from all-star comics talent, but the celebration isn't relegated to pre-existing superheroes.

Festival of Heroes will also feature the debut of Monkey Prince, a new Asian superhero created by writer Gene Luen Yang (Superman Smashes the Klan) and artist Bernard Chang (The Second Life of Dr. Mirage) and based on the classic Chinese character Monkey King, best known for his appearance in the 16th-century classic novel Journey to the West.

In a press roundtable earlier this week, Festival of Heroes editor Jessica Chen explained how the idea of Monkey Prince grew out of her own childhood fascination with Monkey King, a super-strong, super-fast, shape-shifting hero who's been passed down as a beloved Chinese cultural figure through generations. For Chen, who grew up with Monkey King stories thanks to her parents, the character always felt like an intriguing fit for the DC Universe.

"In a way, Monkey King was kind of my first superhero, and after being at DC Comics, I've always wanted to somehow introduce Monkey King as a superhero because his origin story just kinda writes itself," Chen says. "So I've been kind of vocal about that around the hallways over the years."

Last year, in anticipation of upcoming publishing events like Festival of Heroes, Chen got the green light from DC editor-in-chief Marie Javins to pursue a Monkey King-themed story, and she immediately thought of Gene Luen Yang, the acclaimed creator behind graphic novels like American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints.

"Immediately we started brainstorming 'How do we translate this Monkey King character to DC so it's very specifically DC in its DNA?'" Chen explained.

For Yang, whose DC Comics work includes New Super-Man and the Harvey Award-winning Superman Smashes the Klan, the idea of translating Monkey King's time-honored and often-adapted legend into the DC Universe was an intriguing challenge.

"I mean, one of the issues with doing something with the Monkey King is that in Asia, specifically in China and in Japan, he is so popular that it feels like almost every working cartoonist in China and Japan has done something with him," Yang told SYFY WIRE. "There is adaptation after adaptation of Journey to the West, of the story that originally tells his adventures. And even Dragon Ball Z, which is one of the most popular anime and manga series on the planet, is essentially a retelling of the Monkey King story. So, one of the questions that we struggled with early on was, first, how do we not overlap with any of the stuff that's out there? And second, we just felt like there was no reason to bring him into the DC universe unless it could feel very natively DC.

"So, we talked a lot about, 'What does it mean? What is that? What is DC? What can DC bring to the Monkey King legend, and what are the ways of expressing the Monkey King legend in a uniquely DC way?' "In terms of story, one of the overlap points that I saw was, in the original Monkey King story, a lot of the action is built on this idea that demons wanted to eat holy people. They wanted to eat the heroes and saints of the time, because they believed that by eating holy people, by eating these heroes and saints, they would be able to get immortality. There was something magic about their flesh. So, DC is full of heroes. It's full of these paragons of moral virtue. So, it felt like a really nice and easy overlap, so we wanted to play with that idea.

As the project took shape, Monkey King became Monkey Prince, a shapeshifting teenage hero whose adventures are overseen by his mentor Shifu Pigsy (also based on a major Journey to the West character) and whose relationship with his father is... complicated. To craft the art for the character's debut, Yang and Chen turned to Chang, best known to DC readers for long-running work on titles such as Batman Beyond and Green Lantern Corps and who shares a childhood history with Monkey King's story.

"As an immigrant growing up here in the U.S., American superhero comics, like Batman, Superman, that was like my gateway into learning English and also American culture," Chang says. "Going back to the bedtime stories, that was just actual books [featuring Monkey King]. And at the time, because I came here so young, I wasn't able to read Chinese, so it was all imagery that was in my head. When my father would read a couple of pages every night, the Monkey King is like an original superhero, where he could fly, have super-strength, have all these abilities and powers to fight all these rogue villains, all of these different kinds of bad guys. So, it became a natural progression that my father kind of reintroduced this Chinese superhero to me at a young age."

Just as Yang had to work out how to introduce the character into the DC Universe narratively, Chang had to make him a natural fit visually. That meant designing a new costume, complete with a mask and chest emblem. You can see Monkey Prince in action, plus some character designs, in the gallery below.

"Gene had talked about a mask to hide his identity when he becomes the Monkey Prince. Even, also, an iconic logo that he would have that would be recognizable," Chang says. "You know, Superman has the S, but even the S represents something in his story. Batman has the bat. So, we wanted to create something that was iconic, that could last, that would also represent this character visually."

Over the course of his debut story, "The Monkey King Hates Superheroes," readers will meet Monkey Prince, get a sense of his powers, see him interact with a DC Comics icon or two, and even get a sense of exactly why he hates superheroes, along with a few hints at a larger backstory. So, does all that setup mean we'll see more of Monkey Prince in the near future?

"I think working on this, even though it's a 12-pager, originally it was even supposed to be kind of shorter, and there's just so much stuff. And once we really started digging into the character and how he would integrate into the DC universe, you really begin to see all the other possibilities," Chang teases.

Yang adds, "Yeah, I think all we can say is Jessica, Bernard, and I, we have got a lot to say. We have got a lot to say about the legend of the Monkey King in the DC universe, and it looks like we're going to get the chance to say it."

However, Monkey Prince is far from the only superhero taking center stage in Festival of Heroes. Following an introduction from writer and activist Jeff Yang, the massive special features everything from a new Tai Pham Green Lantern story by Minh Lê and Trung Le Nguyen to a Cassandra Cain short written and illustrated by Dustin Nguyen to the title story: A direct rebuke of hate groups starring Katana and a few special friends, written by Amy Chu and drawn by Marcio Takara. It's a lot to pack into one comic, but Chen assures fans that it's far from the end.

"The more we can see ourselves reflected in mainstream media, in front and behind [the scenes], the more we are closer to long-term changes in our society," she says. "And so this book is a celebration of how far we've come, but it definitely won't be the last of how much more we'll continue to push for representation."

DC Festival of Heroes will be available in stores on Tuesday, May 11.