Zhang & Johnson Explore Chinese Horror with "Daomu"

Americans have "Twilight," the British, "Harry Potter." But for China, when it comes to best selling, insanely popular book series, look no further than "Dao Mu Bi Ji" by Kennedy Xu -- a title already having sold over 2.5 million copies, though relatively unknown to worldwide audiences. Until now, that is, thanks to Image Comics and the digital arts developer known as Concept Art House.

Roughly translating as "The Grave Robber's Journal," the novels in the "Dao Mu Bi Ji" series brought about a massive resurgence of horror fiction in the Chinese literary market. As a fan of the books and friend of the author, Concept Art House Art Director Ken Chou approached CAH's James Zhang with a proposal, suggesting the company produce a graphic novel series based on the title drawn by Chou and written by author Xu.

"At this point in 2008, we were already a recognized art service provider for games, movies, etc. We were contributing art to companies like Blizzard, Disney, EA, Sony, but we did not own any [intellectual properties]," Zhang told CBR News. "When this opportunity came to us, I read the story and my imagination started running. I saw this as a great story not only for the Chinese audience, but potentially for a western audience as well."

Already a bonafide hit in China, CAH joined with Image Comics to bring the graphic novels to English-speaking audience with writer Colin Johnson coming on board to adapt the graphic novels into a comic book series format. Using the original art, Johnson rewrote much of the dialogue, added a few more pieces of exposition and tweaked minor plot points in order to make the series more accessible to Western readers. However, by the large, the title remains the same when one compares the Chinese and upcoming American versions.

CBR News spoke with "Daomu" executive producer Zhang and writer Johnson about the series, the delicate process of adapting the Chinese tale of horror for a vry different cultural audience and what readers can expect to see in the pages of the "Daomu."

CBR News: To start things off, can you clarify some of the details of this project? "Daomu" was a series of novels by author Kennedy Xu and you've adapted it into a Chinese-language graphic novel. But the American version isn't simply a direct translation of the pre-existing comic that you are bringing over to the states, correct?

James Zhang: "Daomu," the graphic novel is an adaptation of the original novel series "Dao mu bi ji" by Kennedy Xu. It is not a translation of a pre-existing graphic novel. The graphic novel is an original creation of Concept Art House based on existing content of the popular book series. The difference between the novel and the graphic novel series is substantial. The novel is distinctly a Chinese horror fiction. We took the core product and made it more action-packed, more international rather than Asia specific. Same key characters. Same mythology. The differences in the Chinese graphic novel version, which Kennedy wrote and CAH drew, versus the U.S. graphic novel, which Colin wrote still using our art, is minimal.

"Daomu" comes to Image Comics courtesy of James Zhang and Colin Johnson

Colin Johnson: The story itself was pretty culture-specific as it was. There is a lot of Chinese mythology and Chinese folklore. What I did, coming on board and bringing it over to the states, was kind of find those more Westernized elements within the story and amplify those up. It was making it more America-friendly in terms of story. The Chinese version was very much kind of based in phenomenon. It was going back to the source material and finding that compelling story for American audiences and bringing that out a little bit more.

What about the series do you find personally appealing?

Zhang: The characters. The story. The way Kennedy filled in the holes in real Chinese history with the mystical world of "Daomu." The fact that millions of people already loved the stories and fans dressed up in the "Daomu" costumes that Ken [Chou] designed. Ken had already designed the characters by the time CAH took on the project. The characters are deep, meaningful and interesting. Lyn is gorgeous, commanding, bad ass and you're not sure whose side she's on. Pan is a trigger-happy smart-mouth. Kylin is the strong and silent type and the bane of existence of every unholy bad-guy. The "Daomu" adventures themselves were actually very dark and horrific more along the line of "The Ring" or "The Grudge." Horror as a genre works well for cinema where you see what is frightening and for novels where your imagination fills in the terror. In the comics, we wanted more "Blade" style action and less pure horror.

Johnson: What I'm really excited about is bringing out Chinese history because there's so much stuff in there that people look at now and they're like, "That could never have happened. That's magic and ridiculous." But this stuff is documented. For instance, the art of Feng Shui. People look at that down and they're like, "That's redesigning a room," you know? But back in the day, Feng Shui was all about finding points of energy all over China. People who were able to master a design had so much power. They could build a city and tear it down if it wasn't to their specifications. That was integral in the unification of China. There's also the mystery and holes in Chinese history that is always exciting to explore. Documented historical figures who disappeared. There's all these rumors about where they were buried and what they were buried with, which permeates the culture. Everybody really likes historical fiction to a point, as far as those holes in history and filling them in with fiction and presupposing what happened. From there, we bring in the awesome monsters that everybody loves and classical story arcs -- the birth of the warrior, the revenge, stuff like that.

How did the creative team on this book come together?

Zhang: Ken is one of the premier artists in the Chinese comics and video games industry. He worked on some huge game titles before coming to CAH in 2008, and his credentials has built since then. Although he's never stepped foot outside of China, he's more American than many of my friends here in California. For example, he was the drummer of a speed metal band in college. His lovely wife Cherry makes pizza and garlic bread from their house in Shanghai. My point is that to bring a story like "Daomu" to life from China to the U.S., you have to have the right people who understand both Eastern and Western cultures. Colin was a fantastic local talent introduced by a mutual friend of ours. He manages and directs plays and independent films around the San Francisco bay area. He's a huge fan of the occult, which suits the "Daomu" subject matter well. He showed me some scripts he did, which had great humor and flare, and I thought he was perfect for "Daomu."

James, as executive producer on the book, how involved are you in the creative process? I know a lot of people who, when it comes to movies, aren't sure what the producer does. Seeing that this is a comic, what can you say about your involvement as executive producer?

Zhang: "Executive producer" sounds like a fancy Hollywood business title, but I am actually very involved creatively. I have final say in the overall story arcs, the high-level art direction and the China/U.S. adaptation. My background was actually in art and digital entertainment. As an artist, I've contributed to Marvel and DC products on the game side in addition to Star Wars, Star Trek, Tron, etc. My day job now is CEO of CAH. With the "Daomu" project, I facilitate the communication between our Chinese and U.S. artists, make sure the adaptation doesn't drift too far from the source. I make sure the project is funded. I oversee the printing and success of the graphic novel series in Asia. I'm also the one talking with Hollywood when they start asking for movie rights. There are a number of inquiries, and the book isn't even out yet.

Colin, in writing the American version, how much would you say the story had to be changed from the original?

Johnson: It's pretty much the same. It boils down to the art, at the end of the day. The art was so amazing that we didn't want to change that much of it. We added some narrative text to give everything a backstory. All the readers in China already knew it because they read the books, [but we had to integrate] that really interesting backstory and bringing more modern issues and Westernized issues to our main character. The first two issues of the book that will be coming out in the States are the new backstory we created. Originally, the main character worked at an antique shop and sold things that were misappropriated from tombs. We made it where, instead of him as a Chinese shop keeper, he was raised in America. He mother pulled him away from the Daomu at a very young age and took him to America. We found that a really intense story element, his discovery and slow coming to terms with being a reluctant hero. When we really started to do the adaptation, we gave ourselves a 10 to 15 percent margin where we can alter the art. Some of that was single panels. We also added some things to give the story a grander scope. For instance, there's this corporation, which is a shady, American conglomerate that works for the military. You never really saw them in the Chinese version. You saw representatives, but they were completely shrouded in mystery. For this, we added some stuff of them watching things on monitors and things so we can figure out more about them. It gives that antagonist more of a defined line.

Have you encountered any difficulties or challenges specific to adapting the graphic novel for the Western audiences?

Johnson: The biggest challenge, really, was trying not to move too far from what has proven to be so successful in China. We still want the Chinese readers to be into the story and not upset that it changed. So, that's the trickiest thing. It's also tricky to take meetings with Chinese artists, because you're talking to people at 3:00 in the morning. [Laughs] It was more fun and a great learning experience as opposed to challenging.

Beyond what you've already told us, can you tease any more about readers can expect from the title?

Zhang: Asking me this is like asking J.J. Abrams what's going to happen in "Lost" after the first two episodes. We are really going to keep our readers guessing, but I promise we are going somewhere with the story. Some specifics, though -- one of the characters may not be entirely human. The heroes will be tested in every corner of the globe. Behind the action, the drama, the romance (yes, there will be romance) the adventure, we will seek the answers to what eluded countless Chinese emperors, Egyptian Pharaoh, Spanish conquistadors and even Hitler: what is the secret of life?

Johnson: You'll definitely be seeing, in terms of the horror, the things of nightmares. The type of things that you know if you saw it in real life, you'd probably just freeze and die. But also a lot of mankind's greatest quests -- the quest for the Holy Grail, the Quest for Eternal Life. Those type of things that are among secrets hidden underground. Those things will be brought to light.

Tags: image comics, concept art house, daomu, dao mu bi ji, james zhang, colin johnson, kennedy xu

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