Every culture in the history of the planet has its own mythology. The stories we tell to explain the world, to inspire and to entertain through the long nights. Ancient Greeks had a pantheon of gods, from Zeus to Hades. The ancient Norse had the nine realms, from Asgard to Jotunheim. And, as many modern cultural scholars will tell you, modern Western civilization has…superheroes. The sprawling, shared universe told over decades of dark knights and men of steel, with an impassioned base of devotees to rival any other.
The world of superheroes is constantly additive, as new storytellers borrow and expound upon each story of those heroes which came before them. And, going back to even the earliest days of the genre, superheroes have borrowed on older mythologies still. The stories of Wonder Woman and Shazam would not exist as we know them without the legends of Greek myth. The tale of the Spectre is directly informed by a Judeo-Christian concept of justice and divinity. But as far as superhero influences go, Asian cultures have always been severely underrepresented. This year, the creative team of Gene Luen Yang and Bernard Chang are doing something to change that. The time has finally come in the DC Universe for a Chinese legend’s Journey to the West. Let us meet the Monkey Prince.
If you’ve guessed that the very existence of a “Monkey Prince” suggests that there’s got to be a “Monkey King,” then you’re already on the right track. The DCU’s Monkey Prince was first introduced in 2021’s DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. But just as Diana of Themyscira was created by a conspiracy of gods, the Monkey Prince’s roots are much, much older than comics themselves. The Monkey Prince’s father, the Monkey King, first appeared in the 16th century classic work of Chinese literature, Journey to the West—which has since become a staple of Chinese mythology. It’s a story which has been adapted and expounded upon countless times since its original writing, including one you may be familiar with: the story of Son Goku in one of the world’s most popular comics, Dragon Ball. Journey to the West is primarily the story of the monk Tang Sanzang, who with the help of some fantastical allies defeats a series of evils from China to India while spreading Buddhist ideals throughout the land. Of these allies, none are more fantastic than Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
The first seven chapters of Journey to the West are dedicated to the Monkey King’s origin and early exploits. According to the legend, Sun Wukong was born from a magic stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, blessed by the five elements. The cunning and clever Sun Wukong rules over the mountain’s native monkeys, until he finds himself powerless to stop one of the oldest monkeys from passing. The Monkey King then sets out from the mountain in search of a way to beat death itself.
Sun Wukong travels abroad and learns Taoist magic and martial arts, but is warned by his master to never use these techniques in vanity, or to teach them to others. But when Sun Wukong returns to his mountain, he finds that the monkeys have been subjugated in his absence by the Demon King of Confusion, and the Monkey King embarks on a new quest to gain the power he needs to free them. Sun Wukong accomplishes this by tricking the Dragon Kings into granting him a formidable armory, which he uses to defeat the demons. The Monkey King saves his people, but having been made fools of, the Dragon Kings seek to destroy Sun Wukong. Once again, the Monkey King gets the better of his enemies by erasing his name from the Book of Life and Death, so that his soul cannot be collected.
The Dragon Kings beseech the gods themselves to intervene, and one of the greatest and oldest of all Chinese deities, the Jade Emperor, invites the Monkey King to heaven for a position as the godly realm’s horse attendant. But clever and haughty as the Monkey King is, Sun Wukong rises through the ranks until he is equal to the Jade Emperor himself.
Throughout his journeys, Sun Wukong picks up a truly incredible suite of powers. It’s said in Journey to the West that he possesses 72 supernatural abilities, including superhuman strength, speed, weather control, self-transformation, the ability to freeze others in place, and the power to create anything from a single plucked hair, from a weapon to another copy of himself.
The gods, suffice to say, are not happy about all of this. They set up a variety of traps and schemes to foil the Monkey King of Heaven, all of which fail until none other than the Buddha himself gets the better of him, and traps him under a mountain for 500 years until he learns humility. That’s when the Monkey King meets our hero, Tang Sanzang, and bests his selfish instincts with the aid of his new comrades to serve a higher purpose.
The New Kid
Let’s skip ahead to the 21st century, and Marcus Sun, the Monkey Prince—who, along with his father’s amazing powers, seems to have inherited the mountain-sized chip he once carried on his shoulder. As we learned in the DC Festival of Heroes, while the Monkey King has been welcomed once more to the realm of gods, Marcus Sun is attending Fawcett High School in Philadelphia.
Marcus’s origins will be explored in the Monkey Prince limited series, but as of today, they remain unknown. One thing we already know is that he doesn’t seem to hold his godly father in high regard. In fact, it seems he only became aware of his origins recently. Along with his father’s former disrespect for the gods, Marcus doesn’t seem to have much patience for superheroes either—despite the fact, unknown to him, that his best friend at school, Billy Batson, is a hero himself.
Teaching him to control his new powers, as well as the humility it took Sun Wukong 500 years to gain, is one of his father’s original comrades under Tang Sanzang—Zhu Baije, former commander of a cosmic army who was banished to Earth as a half-man, half-pig for his wanton drunkenness and debauchery. His friends, including Marcus, call him “Pigsy.” Here, he hopes to be as effective in teaching his friend’s son as Tang once was in showing them the righteous path.
Adjusting your life to the powers and secrets of one mythology is difficult enough. But with Sun Wukong behind him, and the greatest dangers of the DC Universe ahead, how will the Monkey Prince survive the worlds of Chinese and American folklore combined? If we know Gene Luen Yang and Bernard Chang, the answer will lie in bringing them closer together.
Monkey Prince #1 by Gene Luen Yang, Bernard Chang and Sebastian Cheng is available tomorrow in print and as a digital comic book. Click here for an exclusive first look at the issue!
Looking for more Monkey Prince? Read the ten-page prologue, Monkey Prince #0, for free on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.