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Inside the DC Comics celebration of Asian superheroes and Asian creators with editor Jessica Chen

The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes
(Image credit: Bernard Chang/Sebastian Cheng/Janice Chiang (DC))

DC Comics celebrates their Asian heroes and comic creators this week in DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (opens in new tab). The 100-page anthology has an all-star line-up of creators that include Mariko Tamaki, Greg Pak, Gene Luen Yang, Dustin Nguyen, Amy Chu, Francis Manapul, and more, with them working on heroes (and a few villains) such as Cassandra Cain/Batgirl, Grace Choi, and Connor Hawke to new characters like Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy.

(Image credit: Jim Lee/Alex Sinclair (DC))
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Before DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration hits comic book stands on May 11, Newsarama had the chance to talk to editor Jessica Chen about what went into putting together this book. We discuss the importance of anthologies in the comic book market, the process behind Chen pairing off creators with certain characters, and we even discuss the origin of creating DC's newest character, Monkey Prince. 

Newsarama: Jessica, DC has been doing a good number of anthologies over the past couple of years. Why do you think they are important for the comic book market and DC's market in particular?

Jessica Chen

(Image credit: Jessica Chen)

Jessica Chen: The coolest thing about anthologies, in my opinion, is that it's very inviting to new readers. And, as you know, in order for a company to kind of continue to share our best stories with people we want to open up to others who might not be so tied to straight continuity. 

Not only that, but I personally love giving anthologies to my friends as well because it's a quick, short 10 pages of a fun time - 20 minutes you get to pick up and put it back down and pick up and put it back down. So, I think it's very inviting.

Nrama: When putting together an issue like DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration that collects so many different characters, voices, and aspects of Asian culture, what's the greatest challenge, and were there any characters you wanted to feature but couldn't?

Chen: I kind of lucked out, putting this together, because it's such an important project to me and it's very personal because I am Asian. So, I was really lucky not to really have much of a challenge. 

I really did make sure though I represented all of Asian culture - not just East Asian, but Indian, Asian American, and people from all different backgrounds. Because DC has so many different Asian characters as well - there were a couple I couldn't feature, but I did my best to put in the best characters that people would want to read. 

Nrama: What went into finding the creators for this book?

Chen: DC is really cool about fully supporting our vision of the book and who we want to hire. I put a list together of Asian American, Asian creators and talent, and I just put the best talent together with the best characters, and that was just pretty much it. That's what goes behind every book we do actually. So, nothing really different. 

Nrama: Can you speak about the decision-making process when it came to pairing creators, along with who got first dibs on heroes to use for their stories?

Chen: This process of creating books is not so black and white. It's a big mixture of everything. Specifically, I knew I wanted, for instance, Mariko Tamaki to write a Cassandra Cain Batgirl story. In my mind, that just sounds awesome. So, I reached out to her specifically with like, "Can you write this story?" She was like, "Oh yeah." 

For others, for instance, like Alyssa Wong. I'm familiar with her writing, so I was like 'Here are some characters I feel like you'd be good writing.' And she chose Grace Choi to write. 

It was a little bit of everything, but the most important thing was that it was just so fun for me because these are all just the best talent possible that I got to work with on this book to make this book something I'm really, really, really proud of. I can't wait for you guys to read it. 

Nrama: You have several new characters debuting in this, including Monkey Prince. How did Monkey Prince first emerge? Was it something Gene and Bernard brought to you or was it more of a discussion?

Chen: Growing up, my parents would tell me stories about Journey to the West and Monkey King. I remember thinking as a child, he was just such a cool character because he has all these cool powers. So, in a way, Monkey King was kind of my first superhero. 

And after being in DC Comics, I've always wanted to somehow introduce Monkey King as a superhero because his origin story just kind of writes itself. So, I've been kind of vocal about that around the hallways over the years. Last year, editor-in-chief Marie Javins reached out and was like, "Hey, remember that passion project that you kept talking about - go." So, I was like, "Really?" 

With that sort of encouragement and support, I reached out to Gene Yang because he's done his research. He has dealt with researching Monkey King and also Monkey King means a lot to him growing up. His mom also read him stories about Monkey King's adventures in Journey to the West.

So, immediately we started brainstorming. How do we translate this Monkey King character to DC? So, it's very specifically DC in its DNA because there's been other renditions of Monkey King in other media. I think we came up with something great. The missing piece was Bernard Chang. I've talked to Bernard Chang over the years and I also know that Monkey King means a lot to him growing up. I know his dad used to tell him stories about Monkey King.

I think what it is for us Asian-Americans growing up with the story, it brings this sort of a wonder of first hearing about his adventures and his powers. And I really hope to kind of instill this sort of wonder that we all felt when we were younger hearing these stories to a newer audience, a new Western audience, or maybe even other Asian American audiences, who may have the same sort of nostalgia and respect for this character we all love. 

So, it was kind of my idea, but me, Gene, and Bernard really created the origin and the essence of Monkey Prince together.

Nrama: Will it be a long wait before fans find out exactly why the Monkey Prince hates superheroes, as the title of his story makes clear? Will we be seeing more Monkey Price following this special? If so, can you tease where?

Chen: First of all, Gene Yang is a genius. When he told me that was going to be the title of the story, I just lost my mind. You're going to find out real soon, as soon as next week on May 11, why Monkey Prince hates superheroes. 

And let me tell you, it's almost too clever. I don't want to spoil it. In terms of Monkey Prince, I guess you're just going to have to tune in later this year to find out if we see more of him. 

Nrama: Monkey Prince is great, but can we talk about the greatness that is Shifu Pigsy. Are we going to get more backstory about this character moving forward?

Chen: Shifu Pigsy is just so cool because first of all, he can fly with his ears, and in the story that you will read 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."

This character is very much like everyone's favorite Asian uncle. At least when I read this character, he reminds me of like one of my uncles. I can't wait for you guys to read it and learn more about Shifu Pigsy and his personality. His design in general is just awesome. Bernard Chang is a genius. He nailed that in the first try. 

Nrama: Some creators love short stories, and others find it really challenging to work in just a few pages. As an editor, what do you look for in a creator that lets you know they can pull it off in an anthology like this?

Chen: If you can write a good 20-, 22-page story, you can do the same sort of effect in three pages. I haven't worked with a lot of short stories - like three pages, five pages, but for this anthology specifically, I wanted to make sure to feature as many creators as I could as much talent as I could. So, you will be surprised that some of these three-pagers, five-pagers pack the most emotion sometimes. 

For instance, the Dustin Nguyen story is only three pages, but I almost cried every time I read it. Same with the Lantern story, that one hit some sort of a shared validated experience as an Asian-American that you will see when you guys read it. But there really is no difference with a short story and a long story. If you're a good talent, you can make it work the same either way. 

Nrama: Did any of these shorts help you find creators for bigger stories or projects?

Chen: Let me think about this. I don't know if I can say this yet, but it's ambiguous enough. I am working with Alyssa Wong on something coming down the line and I won't tell you what yet. 

Nrama: You also have Jeff Yang, a popular contributor to CNN and the Wall Street Journal - and also a prominent Asian American activist. How did you end up having him come aboard to write the book's foreword?

Chen: I followed Jeff Yang for a long time now. He edited Secret Identities (opens in new tab) in 2009, the Asian superhero book, and that's actually what inspired me to do this anthology for DC when I read that more than 10 years ago. I've since followed his journey and he is an activist, a well-known one in the Asian American community. He's very vocal about equality and justice for the Asian American community. 

I knew with the timing of this book and what he means to me in terms of the creation of the specific anthology. I thought that mixture of superhero background and also his Asian American experience was the perfect combination for a foreword. 

And when he turned in his first draft because it's coming at a time where we are facing anti-Asian violence in the community, I just cried and cried and cried reading it because he also added very personal experiences and touches in there that I can relate to. I'm really hoping that other Asian Americans will pick up this book and feel that shared, lived experience to feel less alone right now in this time of need. 

Also, Jeff Yang really rules! 

Nrama: Beyond the teasers dropped in this special for future stories starring some of these characters, what can you tell us about efforts DC is making to put more AAPI stories out there in the near future, both from Asian creators and starring Asian characters?

Chen: One of DC's values that really, really lines up with mine is the importance of reflecting the readers in our books. I cannot tell you how important, well you guys know, how important representation matters, and the more we can see ourselves reflected in mainstream media, in front and behind - like me, the more we are closer to long-term changes in our society. 

This book is a celebration of how far we've come, but it definitely won't be the last of how more we'll continue to push for representation. I mean, I for sure will make sure it happens because this is a very important subject to me. Hence why I pitched DC to trade this book in the first place. So yes, we will continue to do more, and I think that's awesome. 

Nrama: With the unfortunate rise in hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, how important was it to show DC superheroes addressing this head-on with Amy Chu and Marcio Takara's 'Festival of Heroes'?

Chen: So, so important at least to me, and to the Asian community. Me and Amy Chu talked about this. One of the coolest things, at least personally for me, about creating superhero content and comics is the ability to take real-life issues and problems that everyday people deal with that we're unable to solve or we feel helpless about fixing and then being able to have our superheroes do that in a cathartic way. 

We knew that in this very celebratory 100-page issue, we had to address this somehow because the Asian community is under distress. I've been under distress. When you read that story, there's going to be a lot of catharsis because we do have Katana, Cyborg, Blue Beetle come in and help save the day, even though they aren't the real heroes in the end, and you'll see why once you read it.

Nrama: Are there currently plans for a bigger role for Grace Choi in the future, and is part of featuring her here to introduce her and others to new eyes?

Chen: I've never worked on Grace Choi as a character before, but I've read her growing up. It was a really big treat to be able to edit a story of hers. 

I'm not sure there are any plans with her down the line, but because of my renewed love of her, I may consider having her appear again here and there. I'm not sure where yet, but you know, keep an eye out.

Nrama: Another great story is Hawke & Kong. Was this something pitched by the creative team or from the editorial side, and what do you hope fans get out of their team-up most?

Chen: Like I said previously about how this is a mix of people I reached out to for a specific character and who pitched me with who they wanted to write. 

I pitched Greg, "Maybe you should do a new Superman story that's really fun. You have a really fun sensibility of writing I think that will work." Then he came back saying, "I think it'd be fun if I wrote a Connor Hawke story because personally, I am able to talk about the bi-racialness of it because I am biracial as well."

I thought that was a great idea. Then I went, "wait a minute, how fun would it be if we did a team-up because that's something we've never seen before. And these two characters, Connor and Kenan are both so different in their personalities. It will definitely create great storytelling."

That's how that idea came to be. It was just a mixture of what everyone wanted. A perfect example of just organic, creative collaboration. 

I know as both a Connor Hawke fan and as a New Superman fan myself, that if you're a fan of either reading the story you're going to have a lot of fun and you're going to laugh a lot because it's so silly. Without saying too much, the last page reminds me of just sitting at home with my aunties and my mom. So, I hope when you read that you feel that same sort of lived-in experience as well.

Nrama: Piggybacking off of the Connor Hawke discussion, will 2021 be the year of Connor Hawke in the DCU?

Chen: I don't know if it will be the year of Connor Hawke, but if you're a Connor Hawke fan, it's a really good time to be one right now because he's also running around in Robin. 

He'll be appearing in this anthology and we also have a Green Arrow 80th coming out. So, he'll have a story there as well, which is a very good one. It's a very emotional story. I read it already. 

We're all really making sure to take care of this character because he hasn't appeared in a long time, and I know the fans love him a lot. The character is in good hands. 

Nrama: How far back into the DC archives did your research go to fill out those character bios featured in the book?

Chen: We did our best based off of actually what me and Andrea Shea have grown up reading. Then we went back and read some more to double-check some information. We also checked with Benjamin LeClear, who is our archivist, for some missing info that we weren't sure about. That was really fun. Kind of being able to go back to these characters and re-read their origin and appreciate it because in the 80 years our characters have gone through so much stuff and they've evolved immensely. So, it was good to check in again with these characters. 

Andrea is the associate editor on the book. I haven't worked with Andrea in a long time. We were in the Super-group together for a little bit, but we only did Super Woman briefly together and she was still an assistant. So, this book was such a great opportunity to check in again and see how far she's come as an editor. She has grown so much and we kept saying through this whole process: 'it's teamwork that makes the dream work.' We worked together so well, we're the dream, and so the team just works is what we kept saying. I love her. She was great. Shout out to her as well.

Nrama: I know there are a ton of spectacular stories, but what's one or a handful that truly stand out?   

Chen: When I read the whole thing from front to end recently sending it to the printer. This time reading it through because I've read every story at different times, I'm going to pick a favorite, and I really still couldn't. Obviously, I love the Monkey Prince story because we worked on that really hard, but they're just all so good in different ways. 

It's literally like when you're eating at a festival or like eating a really good meal, you need everything because everything balances each other. Sorry for the really boring answer, but that's just the facts. I'm very proud of his book. They're all great stories. 

DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration goes on sale May 11 in comic shops, bookstores, and on digital platforms. For the best digital reading experience, check out our list of the best digital comics readers for Android and iOS devices.

Kat has been working in the comic book industry as a critic for over a decade with her YouTube channel, Comic Uno. She’s been writing for Newsarama since 2017 and also currently writes for DC Comics’ DC Universe - bylines include IGN, Fandom, and TV Guide. She writes her own comics with her titles Like Father, Like Daughter and They Call Her…The Dancer. Calamia has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and minor in Journalism through Marymount Manhattan and a MFA in Writing and Producing Television from LIU Brooklyn.