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SYFY WIRE Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse’s Jia and the Nian Monster celebrates Chinese New Year legend with explosive new series

By Jeff Spry

Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics has been on the razor's edge of provocative storytelling since it was founded in 1986 by CEO Mike Richardson. From its humble beginnings inside a local comics shop in Bend, Oregon, the indie publisher has launched and nurtured a number of iconic, award-winning titles, including The Mask, Hellboy, B.P.R.D., TimeCop, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Wars, Robocop vs. Terminator, Black Hammer, and The Umbrella Academy — to name a few.

Richardson is also active in the company's entertainment arm, serving as executive producer on multiple TV series and movies based on Dark Horse properties like The Mask, TimeCop, Virus, Mystery Men, SYFY's Dark Matter, and Netflix's The Umbrella Academy.

His newest passion project is Jia and the Nian Monster, an original graphic novel based on an ancient Chinese legend that describes the origins of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Richardson wrote the story himself based on research into Chinese fables and legends, then chose rising star Megan Huang to help illustrate the 80-page historical fantasy.

SYFY WIRE spoke to Richardson on the eve of the graphic novel's release to hear what motivated him to take up the pen again, what readers can expect in this enchanting book, and how he crafted the courageous Jia and the sympathetic lion-like creature known as the Nian Monster.

Jia Cover

This was one of your biggest writing projects in the past couple of years.  How did it feel picking up the pencil again for Jia and the Nian Monster?

Well, I’ve been putting out books pretty regularly. The last one was a graphic novel called Echoes. Then Father’s Day and 47 Ronin. I always have one going so I never stop. Some just take me longer than others. In this one, I was doing a lot of reading and learning about Chinese myths and legends and putting the story together.

Jia 1

When did you first discover this myth, and what elements of the story compelled you to adapt it into a graphic novel?

What led me to it was just getting online and reading about Chinese legends. It’s that simple. I wanted to find some things I hadn’t heard about. The story of the Nian Monster is standard fare over in China. It's about the origin of the Chinese New Year and how it’s celebrated the way it is. I came across this myth about the monster that would come down once a year and was ultimately scared away by fireworks and the wearing of the color red and the special costuming. I thought it was interesting. Some of the things I ran across I also incorporated into the story, like the jade garden and those types of things.

Have you ever been to China, and did it influence your writing and visuals for this project?

I’ve been to China a number of times, and Dark Horse has a partnership with a company over there. Just the idea that we were in business there inspired me to find something of that culture to bring back over here. I’ve been a big fan of Japanese culture and literature, and it’s reflected in what we’ve done over the years here at Dark Horse. We were early on into manga, and I used to collect Japanese children’s books because of some of the beautiful art. It just seems like one thing leads to another.

We’ve published books from Korea, and we actually have a label for manhwa, which is what Korean comics are called. This is a natural extension of things that are different from diverse cultures. There are comics from all over the world, and discovering them is one of the fun things you get to do when you’re deciding what to publish.

Jia 2

What are the challenges of writing for a young adult readership versus an adult audience?

I tried to write it so it would be interesting to everyone but definitely wanted it to be accessible to kids. The challenges are to keep the story moving and intriguing for a wide variety of readers. I’ve written a lot of stuff not intended for kids, but this is definitely an all-ages read.

How would you describe your narrative to someone wanting to pick up the book?

It’s a story that you don’t know, but are aware of the customs surrounding it. We all know about the Chinese New Year, and I think its legend is something not generally known over here in America. If you talk to people from China and mention the New Year’s monster, they are all instantly aware of what it is. Admittedly, the story has been somewhat Westernized for a Western audience. There was not a lot of information about who and what and why, so filling it out was a lot of fun.  

The monster has a broken heart, and it gave it a reason for why he was doing what he was doing. I wanted him to be sympathetic and not just an evil creature coming down to the village from the mountain killing people. Even though his motives result in horrible loss for people in the village, I still wanted him to have a reason for why he did it. Revenge is a strong motivator in any story.

Jia 3

Megan’s evocative art truly captures the tone and style of your tale. How did you choose her, and what were your reactions when you first saw her artwork?

I was looking for the right artist to do it with the right feel. Randy Stradley showed me her work — and by the way, this was her very first graphic novel. Now everybody wants her, of course! I saw the work and fell in love with what she was doing right away. I couldn’t wait to see each and every page.

Writing a comic book is always a collaboration. A lot of times it’s hard to get on the same page. The artist has their interpretation of the material, and you have your own as a writer.  She just nailed it, and I was so excited. The character of Jia was truly fun, and I can picture her perfectly in my head. I tried to put as much personality in Jia as I could, and Megan shows it in the way she draws the character.