Nerds, let us unite over the Monkey King because I never thought I’d see the day when DC Comics would accept perhaps the most legendary mythical figure in Chinese lore as canon in the DCU.
In February, Jessica Chen, a DC comics editor, posted a Lunar New Year greeting to the Facebook group, Subtle Asian Traits. It was there that I first heard of “DC Festival of Heroes” — the company’s first-ever Asian heroes anthology.
Although I’m a casual DC fan, seeing a poster of them all in their uniforms and ready to fight meant a lot to me. It’s been a long and incredibly demanding year for those who’ve been tracking news of bigotry and violence against the Asian community. In a sense, having a depiction of Asian heroes who’re welcomed for all that they are made me feel a little more accepted.
But, when Jessica dropped another post in April about how the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) would appear in that anthology, that was when I and thousands of others, nerded out.
One thing Jessica, writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Bernard Chang, the stellar creatives behind “The Monkey Prince,” and I shared in common was our love for the King and TVB’s 1996 “Journey to the West” TV series. The Hong Kong-based broadcasting company and actor Dicky Cheung’s rendition of the Monkey King had an entire generation of Chinese kids and adults clambering over to the screen and locked in for hours.
I still remember a moment in a class when my stoic professor brought a huge bag of assorted “relics,” and told us to identify everything we could about them with no prior research. When he placed a golden-bronze statuette of Sun Wukong on my desk, I gasped embarrassingly deeply, grabbed it and gushed about everything I knew of him and his companions and why he was supremely cool. My professor let out a resounding, “YES,” gave me a high-five and then continued his lecture. The power of the King lives on.
There was no one more iconic, arrogant, grand, rebellious and mischievous. He was a mythical figure who declared himself “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven” and frequently challenged those who stood atop the heavens. He constantly boasted a sing-song proclamation of his titles, skills and 72 transformations that could rival that of a certain Mother of Dragons.
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Jessica, Gene and Bernard explained how they, and colorist Sebastian Cheng and letterer Janice Chiang, would listen to tales of the Monkey King’s exploits and hijinks from their parents, along with the show.
It was the collective fondness of those memories that led them to take and “instill certain elements of his personality and lore into our Monkey Prince,” Jessica told NextShark. “Sun Wukong calls himself ‘Great Sage, Heaven’s Equal’ because he’s so powerful himself [that] he doesn’t understand why the Heavens are above the law and think they are ‘better’ than everyone else, and so we wanted to reflect a similar sentiment with Monkey Prince, but to superheroes.”
Much like how his predecessor defied the heavens, their reluctant hero would refuse to acknowledge himself as such.
“It’s also a nod to the source material,” Gene said. “In ‘Journey to the West,’ the Chinese classic novel, the Monkey King reluctantly guards a monk named Tripitaka. We wanted to mirror that dynamic, so the Monkey King reluctantly guards American superheroes.”
The Prince, whose real name is Marcus, will also sport the signature “obedience” circlet, in case he goes too wild.
To Bernard, this is a very personal project and carries significant ties to his relationship with his father. Having grown up with American superhero comics, his father saw an opportunity to introduce a Chinese superhero.
“He would read to me a few pages from ‘Journey to the West’ every night and I would go to sleep, dreaming of all the fantastical adventures they would go on,” he said.
However, Bernard’s parents would divorce before his father could finish the story, leaving the journey unfinished.
“Monkey Prince serves as both a rekindling of my childhood dreams and wonders and completing the journey left by my father,” he explained, adding how it was a bonus he got to collaborate with Gene.
Jessica recalled the wonder and excitement she had as a kid from Wukong’s powers, listing the few that all of us fans recall fondly: how he flew on a cloud; was the sole wielder of his golden staff (that he could shrink and expand at will!) and stored in his ear for safekeeping; and how he plucked and blew strands of his hairs to create tiny monkey clones to do his bidding.
“In a lot of ways, Monkey King was my first superhero (sorry Batman and Superman),” Jessica continued, “and so having worked in comics for almost a decade now, it’s always been a dream of mine to combine my two loves — superhero comics and Monkey King — and that’s how the Monkey Prince was born!
The Journey Continues
The Prince made his debut in the 12-paged comic, “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes,” from DC’s Asian superhero anthology.
While the comic sits on a centuries-old legacy, its story will be treated as a sequel to the original 16th century “Journey to the West” Chinese classic and the latter will be considered DCU canon. So when Wonder Woman was a budding warrior on the island of Themyscira, the Monkey King and his companions were trekking west to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures.
“As we’ll show in future Monkey Prince stories, the characters of ‘Journey to the West’ have even interacted with DC Universe characters in the past,” Gene said.
Since the character is his own entity, as much as he will draw influence from the stories of Sun Wukong we know of, there will also be some major differences. For instance, the “Monkey King is supposedly the father of the Monkey Prince,” he told Den of Geek.
The Prince’s major character arc will also mirror his predecessor’s.
“‘Journey to the West’ is the story of an arrogant monkey’s path toward spiritual enlightenment. ‘The Monkey Prince’ is the story of a Chinese American teenager who has trouble fitting in, who’s also on a path toward spiritual enlightenment.”
And Pigsy isn’t one of the Prince’s companions, but his mentor.
Jessica explained him as “everyone’s favorite Asian uncle” to GamesRadar. “He acts as the support system that every kid needs. He’s very positive with the words he says. When you are getting out of hand, he’s also very kind to you letting you know, ‘Hey, this is not okay, but you can do better.’”
All Images via DC Comics