Words by: Gene Luen Yang
Pencils & Inks by: Bernard Chang
Colors by: Sebastian Cheng
Letters by: Janice Chiang
Edited by: Jessica Chen
What a treat! That’s the first thought that comes to mind.
It’s not often one gets to read a Big Two title about an Asian hero put together by a full-on Asian creative team, AND overseen by an Asian editor as well. I say ‘often,’ though really, it’s ‘never.’ That pretty much never happens. That’s not a common occurrence. This is precisely why it is such a delight to see it happen. It needs to happen more. It needs to be so normal and so common that it becomes utterly unremarkable.
But until that day arrives, we’ll loudly remark upon the likes of The Monkey Prince!
In an industry where most characters of color are still created and in the hands of, by and large, White creatives, this book is a breath of fresh air. Certainly, BIPOC voices can then come on and take those characters and put authenticity into them, giving them weight, but the paychecks and royalties for said character and all the benefits of such hard work? In the end, they go to your same ol’ pool of already successful White creators. I wrote about the issue before at length last year, and it’s a built-in problem that still remains.
This is all precisely why it is such a tremendous delight to see a ton of Asian-American talent get to create a new Asian-American character for a new era from the ground-up like this. It’s not ‘fixing’ or ‘deproblematizing’ the works of misguided or offensive White creators who came before but just constructing something wholly fresh and new as they see fit. They make it, and any success or royalties or credit will be tied to them, as much as that can be in these work-for-hire corporate scenarios. That needs to be much more common, as people with the actual authentic, lived-in experiences need to be in the room, getting an actual say.
All of that contributes to the joy of this title, certainly. It’s an important book. But what contributes even more to the joy is the fact that it’s just excellent comics. Now, that shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone who’s read a Gene Yang comic before, as he’s consistently one of the best out there, period. Nevertheless, while not shocking, it is supremely satisfying to read through this.
‘The Monkey Prince’ is openly a legacy riff on the legendary Chinese literary character ‘The Monkey King’ aka Sun Wukong. Wukong is a massive Asian icon whose escapades have sparked the imaginations of countless Asian children and adults alike. A key figure in the legendary novel Journey to the West, one of the four classics/masterpieces of Chinese literature, he is its most popular character. Wukong is immortal, can shapeshift into damn near anything, and has access to 72 unique powers, whilst also boasting super-strength, speed, and well…the list goes on. You get the idea. The Monkey King can do a lot. He even has his supreme magic staff- The Riyu Jingu Bang and surfs on clouds. He is an astonishingly ‘super’ figure, so to speak. Oh, and he’s the basis for Son Goku of Dragonball.
Thus there is a sense of weight and obvious excitement to seeing an Asian-American creative team tackling this. And the way they do so is really interesting and quite in line with Yang’s prior work. Our lead isn’t just Chinese; they aren’t just Asian. They’re Asian-American. They’re Chinese-American. Marcus Shen, the son of The Monkey King, does not know who he truly is. But he must learn. He must integrate his heritage that he’s been unaware of to move forward. It’s in line with much of Yang’s prior work dealing with America, American Culture, and Chinese Culture, and what ‘normal’ means and just wrestling with questions on Asian American identity. Those are not loud or overt here, as the book opts for a much more youthful straight-forward superhero inviter in the first issue, but these things are certain baked in and are sort of the background radiation of the whole enterprise.
It’s perhaps why Superhero comics are such an effective filter to use to tackle this quintessentially Asian subject, for the superhero is a deeply American construct. Put the two together, Chinese tale and American fiction, Asian and American, and you have a lot of stuff to play with and examine. And if Yang’s track record holds true, it’ll be done as really sharp, fast-paced genre work rather than anything unengaging.
Bernard Chang’s work here is also standout, as he nails the big action beats, from the power they necessitate to the frenetic sense of movement to the minute little gestures and body language bits in more laidback sequences. Sebastian Cheng’s colors also prove to be a lovely match here, as they give the title a strong palette to work with. But maybe most impressive and joyous is that legendary letterer Janice Chiang is working on this. A true elder stateswoman and a trailblazer, she remains one of the most prolific letterers of all time and is an icon. And it’s great to see her still killing it, as her work very much fits what the book is going for and definitely lands.
The team seems to very much be attempting to make this the defining Young DC Superhero title in the realm of their monthlies, as thus far The Monkey Prince has been seen with everyone from Billy Batson to Damian Wayne, which is also tremendously exciting. And that’s partly why the artworks so well for it; Chang’s great with designing and drawing younger heroes, and the bright colors only help.
In the end, what we’re dealing with here is a boy who is struggling. Marcus is lost, he’s unhappy with how things are in his life, and he’s overwhelmed by fear. But he will be free, and he will discover who he can be beyond that fear. That’s the book. How that journey unfolds and how the team decides to do it, that’s what I can’t wait to see.