DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, is a timely new anthology showcasing DC’s Asian superheroes. Arriving in May for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it presents many of the top Asian storytellers of comics. Included in the 100 page commemorative anthology is an original 12-page story by Gene Luen Yang and Bernard Chang. “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” introduces a new DC superhero who teams up with Shazam to battle Doctor Sivana and a Chinese deer demon.
Monkey Prince references the 16th century Chinese classic, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. It is the story of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and his epic journey to bring the Buddhist sutras to China from India. In China, it has been the subject of plays, operas, movies and TV shows. What’s more, it inspired Dragon Ball, Into the Badlands, and Yang’s own award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese. “We’re treating Journey to the West as canon, like DC canon. It actually happened within the DC Universe,” says Yang.
Den of Geek had a video chat with the two creators, Gene Luen Yang and Bernard Chang about the significance of the newest Asian hero coming to the DC Universe.
Den of Geek: What was your first memory of Monkey King?
Bernard Chang: Well, when my family immigrated to the States in 1978, we lived in Indiana. I was reading comics when I was in Taiwan, but when we came to the States I was reading like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, any comics I could get at the newsstands. At some point my father saw that I was taking a liking to superhero stuff and he was like, “I wanted to introduce you to this Chinese superhero.”
Every night he would read me bedtime stories from Sun Wukong from Monkey King. He wouldn’t read the whole chapter, but he’d read a little bit for a few minutes and then I’d go to sleep dreaming and imagining these characters, these places, these adventures. It was from a book. It wasn’t from an actual comic book. None of it was translated. It was all in Chinese.
I think [those stories] really helped to cultivate this curiosity and imagination and creativity. This is a world that I’m completely unfamiliar with in a sense, or half familiar with, but half not. The sad part to this story is that my parents got divorced when I was around 10, and so my father never got to finish the Monkey King Journey to the West story.I had the book, but it was in Chinese so I couldn’t read it and I couldn’t figure out the ending. Anytime this lore comes up, it always brings back fond memories.
Gene Luen Yang: I think I have a very similar story to Bernard. I heard the Monkey King stories first from my mom at bedtime and she wasn’t reading out of a book. She was just telling them off of the top of her head. I also remember visiting Taiwan when I was a kid. I was born in the United States, but when I was four, my mom took me back to Taiwan to hang out with her parents and her relatives. I remember there was a cartoon on TV at the time, that was Monkey King.
I was a little bit different from Bernard. I actually fell in love with the Monkey King first and then came into American superheroes when I was much older. When I was like in fifth grade, I started getting really into superheroes, but it’s the same thing. I think it’s the same kind of love.
The love I have for Monkey King is very similar to the love I have for superheroes. Both of them are these heroic stories that are all about color and brightness and hope and magic. I think this particular project, especially, it allows Bernard and I, the chance to explore those in-between spaces between these two very different storytelling traditions.
What was it like to finally work together?
Bernard: We’ve had peripheral friends, acquaintances, but this is like a culmination of that in life. In Chinese, they call it “yuanfen.”
As in ‘fate’?
Bernard: It’s like fate, destiny, but it’s like a circular, like there’s a path that you take, whether in relationships or work or whatever it is. The people that you meet, the people that you come across, are there for a particular reason. Right now, this moment in my life, in our lives, I’m presented kind of another childhood opportunity to finally almost tie up loose ends, but also pave new paths. For me, out of any other comic book project, there’s a very personal thread. I hope that that comes out in our work.
It’s not just about me satisfying myself, but also passing along that wonderment, that joy, that excitement of a little kid about to go to sleep, about to dream of this wondrous world and these adventures that these crazy characters go on. We hope to pass that on to a next generation, or at least our version of that, because we’re not retelling that story. We’re telling our own story based off certain things, inspirations from it.
Given what’s happening with #StopAsianHate and all the Asian crimes, how important is it to you personally to be doing this special issue?
Gene: I think behind all of these crimes I think it’s an impulse to dehumanize Asian-Americans. One of the big stereotypes that we deal with here in America is that all Asians look alike, right? Behind that idea is that we’re all just this one big mass, no individuals. When you think of a population like that, it becomes much easier to commit violence against them.
Bernard: We’re doing this, it’s not because of the movement that this project is born out of, but when you read characters, when you read any kind of comic books, when I was reading comic books growing up, it was about the characters in the story. It’s about these characters learning from their faults and trying to do the right thing and overcoming obstacles. Monkey King also being very mischievous and having his own personality, but those are all human traits.
Over the last few years, pre-pandemic, before that, when I was traveling quite a lot around the world to many different comic book conventions and meeting different fans in Europe and Asia, in South Africa, in India, you notice everyone, they look different, but they’re all attracted to the same values. We’re all very similar at the core. I think our story, however it plays out in terms of what’s happening in the world today, will still remain true to its basic principles.
Gene: This project got started before the Atlanta shooting, which although the Asian hate stuff had been going on for a while, the Atlanta shooting to me was a turning point. At least I saw that in the circles that I’m a part of. Even [for] Asian-Americans who wanted to deny it, I think that became the point at which it was no longer deniable. It’s a little bit of that fate that Bernard was talking about as well, that this project is coming out shortly after that. We weren’t really planning it, but it feels like it was meant to be.
In terms of the relationship, the Monkey King is supposedly the father of the Monkey Prince. We’re going to get into the details of what that might look like. It’s a slightly more complex relationship than that.
How much did earlier versions of Journey to the West artwork inform what you were drawing, Bernard?
Bernard: Well, there’s obviously a massive amount of stuff that’s already been done about Monkey King. Part of it is trying to find what I remembered as a kid and then modernizing it because the story does take place in the DC Universe here in the United States.
It was a very true collaborative stage, because Gene would send over drawings that he’s already done. Gene’s also an artist, so it’s great to help use that as a visual bouncing board, a platform to jump off and go back and forth. Then just Jessica [Chen], our editor, has really provided a lot of great visual references. But really there’s been no kind of a leash on anything. It’s just go as wild and as crazy as you can and then let’s just make this thing jam.
There’s a lot other designs we haven’t shown yet. Hopefully, as the story progresses, we’ll be able to see some of that come up.
If someone asked “Who is the Monkey King?” what might you recommend?
Gene: The first translation that I read when I was in my 20s was the Arthur Waley translation, which has been the standard for a very long time for the English-speaking world. Just recently, Julia Lovell did a translation that I thought was great. It came out just a couple of months ago.
In terms of pop culture, there’s an anime series called Monkey Magic that I really liked. Looking back now, it was a mix of traditional and 3D animation and some of the 3D animation looks really dated. In terms of the energy and in terms of his personality, it really captured something about him.
Monkey Magic was distributed through the UK, and so many leading martial artists from the UK like Ray Park reference Monkey Magic as a major influence.
Gene: Yeah. Just recently there’s a movie called Immortal Demon Slayer that I thought was really good too. That’s a Monkey King movie.
Bernard: I mean, there’s a lot. A Taiwanese artist did an adaptation. His name is Tsai Chih Chung. He did it as like a weekly strip. It was like an American-style strip where every three panels was a joke. I thought that was really well done.
Maybe I’m a little stubborn, but everything that I’ve seen since has never really measured up to what was in my head as a kid.
Do either of you have favorite chapters for Monkey King?
Gene: For the 12-pager we did, we did draw on one specific story. If you read the original, the Monkey Prince does something very similar to something that the Monkey King did in the original.
I’ve always been partial to the Gold Horned King and the Silver Horned King. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them portrayed well in media, like in a cartoon or a movie, but I think that they could be. There’s something very, very powerful and sinister about the way they’ve described them in the book that I think could translate really well into visual media.
Bernard: I’ve always been attracted to just the Monkey King himself, living in the mountain, being mischievous, going up to heaven, causing havoc, coming back down, celebrating with his friends and family.
Are we going to see Monkey Prince and Batman? I can totally see Pigsy and Wonder Woman.
Gene: Yeah. I think Wonder Woman is a very natural fit, right? Shazam too, which is why we chose to use them because both of them are tied deeply into Western mythologies. It seems like within the DC Universe that the different deities from the different mythologies all kind of know each other, at least they’re all related in some way. So having the Monkey Prince interact with them would be super easy, super logical.
The Monkey King is so iconic. That must have been challenging to capture his spirit for Monkey Prince.
Gene: Oh, dude. Yeah. Bernard did enough art to fill up an entire wall. It was amazing. The different iterations that he did. Just working with Bernard, I could tell that this was a passion project because he was just putting out version after another, after another. I think all of us wanted to get it right, but because Bernard’s the artist, he just put in hours and hours and hours into this thing. It’s been really impressive to see.
Bernard: It’s inspired by the Monkey King but it is my own character and reflective of our times.
Gene: Yeah. There’re so many iterations of the Monkey King out there, right? This version has to feel distinctively DC like it belongs in the DC Universe. That was a driving factor in everything we did.
What do you mean by distinctively DC?
Gene: DC duperheroes have these symbols that look like letters, but aren’t necessarily letters. Like Superman’s, it looks like an S, but in stories, it’s a Kryptonian symbol for hope. Aquaman’s looks like an A, but in story, it’s like this ancient Atlantean glyph. For Monkey King, we wanted him to have a symbol that looked like an M for monkey, but really it’s actually a representation of Flower Fruit Mountain, which is where the Monkey King was born, right? The origin of his story, or the origin of his power. I mean, that’s something else too, right?
In DC comics, Flash wears a lightning bolt on his chest because that’s the origin of how he got his powers. Shazam also wears a lightning bolt because that’s how he got his powers. He was struck by lightning.
Bernard: Well, the chest insignia, I mean, not to sound corny, but I went to sleep after working on some stuff. Then woke up the next day with a dream about this design.
Sun Wukong came to you in a dream. That’s awesome!
Bernard: Well, sometimes when I sleep, I’m dreaming that I’m working and then I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, I’m a little behind on my deadline.” I’ve also fallen asleep drawing. That’s not very good too, but a lot of good stuff happens to sleep.
DC Festival of Heroes: An Asian Superhero Celebration goes on sale May 11th, 2021.