original post (there’s a YouTube clip showing Chen Mou doodling Sima Yi)
(interview by GNN reporter RU, 2013-05-14)
(the interview is done with indirect answering from Chen Mou, so there might be slight misquoting if you’re cynical, hehe; I’ll translate only parts of the whole article)
Injecting Heart & Soul into the Characters of Three Kingdoms
Chen Mou discovered very early in his childhood that he likes to draw, and that he has a talent for it. At that age he mostly drew robots. Only until middle school did he start to draw people. Shyly, he said he drew people then because middle school girls like that subject matter better. This is a common experience for comic artists.
(right before middle school merc was still drawing Doraemon for classmates, hehe)
Compared to advertising designs, making comics was much more relaxing for Chen Mou. He said advertising work was a nightmare. He had insanely long hours with hardly any vacation time. After he became a comicer he enjoyed the comfort of drawing comics at home. But it also created a “crisis”: he kept wanting to pull out video games when he’s home. So he requested an office space at Tong Li to work. He was “afraid to draw at home.”
When he first began to draw Three Kingdoms, he felt Hong Kong’s mainstream comic style cannot express the feel of his ideas. As in, “how weird would it be if suddenly the lead starts to fly (laugh).” He said he started his comic career using a more realistic style, but nowadays he leans more toward the commercialized style.
Currently Chen Mou draws Ravages from Monday to Friday. He comes to his Tong Li office to work; leaves at night. After the kid goes to sleep, he then works on his Mac for a few more hours, then play some game or watch a movie to relax. He uses Saturday to plot his story, plus working on illustrations outside of the comic. Sunday is his day to rest.
Chen Mou chuckles, saying he has shorter time to work than the average comic artist because his son will kick him out of bed to play. Therefore he sleeps early since he has to get up early. But because he has a good handle on time management, he’s not too worried about falling behind schedule.
When he’s creating Ravages, Chen Mou drinks a little (beer? wine?) to help his mind get into “the zone” quicker. He’s used to “not being creative enough when sober/refreshed;” more creative if he’s a bit sleepy. And he’ll listen to music while he’s working. It used to be mainly heavy metal, but now he’s “older and accepts all type of music” (pop music, older classics, etc.).
When we talked about how Ravages is so full of interactive mind games, Chen Mou said when he was working for advertising, clients’ needs would be met with ideas from a group of people to see what works. “I imagined that we were all military advertiser,” discussing how to fight each battle, each with different view points. “It’s interesting that sometimes you get it right, and sometimes I do.” It’s different every time. I’ve always felt that everyone has an insight, but one might not be successful each time. Military meetings should work the same way. So I just imagine what such a character would want to say.
Chen Mou said, sometimes he’ll be reminded of a poem as he’s about to write a chapter. Then “I’ll make this chapter feel like the poem,” because the result will be atmospheric. When he read related books in the past, he felt that the ancients’ wisdom often manage to express a scene so clearly and with so few words. An average person might have to say a lot more to describe the same scene. So Chen Mou tries to create this way whenever appropriate.
When asked what he would do during a bottleneck, Chen Mou said, since Tong Li granted him creative freedom, at the time of utter writer’s block “he’ll go crazy with the story. (laugh)” He admitted that all the ideas are in his brain and not on paper. Once in a while he’ll think of a plot development and then forgot it later – painful when that happens, because he’ll have to make up for it. “Fortunately this kind of situation is rare.”
Chen Mou expressed that Unhuman has been developing in his mind for a long time. At the time the average person still had a very conventional view of Three Kingdoms, such as immortalizing Liu, Guan and Zhang. But he wanted to humanize these characters. He did not expect his idea to be well received. He felt that Three Kingdoms fans all had an unresolved issue with the story, which Unhuman resolved. The older generation did criticize the work, but his peers liked it. He felt that once the characters of Three Kingdoms become people, their flaws showed up; they become more real. That’s what he wanted to express.
(Unhuman differed from Chen Mou’s original script… Especially the arc for “Wei Yan”, which grew from 50~60 pages to 180 pages.)
When Chen Mou starts his work, he doesn’t need his layouts to be approved by editors like Japanese mangakas do. “It’s like I’m drawing fan-comics, any amount, and any funky way I want. (laugh)” Sometimes editors don’t even know what the chapter is about until Chen mou is done, so the editor might ask, “just tell me what the next chapter’s title will be.” Sometimes Chen Mou might hint at what the next chapter will be at the end of a chapter (turns out it’s for the editor’s benefit as well), but sometimes “I couldn’t be bothered, and just kill kill kill! Haha!”
He wanted to create some “weird stuff” in Ravages, so he made Handicapped Warriors, assassins, etc. Back then when he was designing the Handicapped Warriors he felt he “might as well be more commercialized.” So he made the designs strange looking. This has become unnecessary now that the story has progressed to a later stage. Hence the Handicapped Warriors in Ravages has merged into history. The story has become a normal Three Kingdoms tale, even if readers still liked the Handicapped Warriors. He does feel that Ravages, compared to other Three Kingdoms comics, lacks in the fighting department.
Chen Mou said he has always liked Sima Yi, because Sima Yi is a real politician. He hides behind the scene until the time is right, or else he’ll keep holding his breath. Sima Yi calmly observes history; he knows what should be done. Modern day personages are similar, like the U.S. presidents. Behind the scene they all know what’s happening, but they’ll put on a show. A mighty fine actor who plays the leader of a country. Hence whenever Chen Mou watches the U.S. presidents give their campaign speeches, he would feel “floored.”
As for the massacre of the Sima clan and Sima Yi’s rare display of emotion, Chen Mou expressed that he did change that part of history for the need of his story. He wanted to add interest to the plot, describing Sima Yi as someone “whose family was wiped out by his employer.” It’s an interesting feeling, and it displays Sima Yi’s levelheadedness in prominence. Sima Yi knew that an open rebellion is doomed; his only chance is to work from within. This development brings forward Sima Yi’s personality.
The other lead, Liaoyuan Huo, first appeared as a typical hot blooded character. But Chen Mou brought him into a darker state, giving him character growth. Chen Mou said he has been laying the groundwork for Liaoyuan Huo to become Zhao Yun, because he had a strange status in Liu Bei’s camp – he had high achievements, but less major assignments than his peers, and stayed by Liu Bei’s side til the end. So Chen Mou came up with Liaoyuan Huo. In the comic “this feeling of never being able to win someone’s trust is very fascinating.” Liu Bei’s trust in Liaoyuan Huo will only begin at the Changban Slope.
Sima Yi and Liaoyuan Huo had a strong friendship, but it’s affected after the death of the Handicapped Warriors member Xiao Meng. Chen Mou said now they have truly split. Except that Liaoyuan Huo still believes by helping Liu Bei he is helping Sima Yi, and with Sima Yi’s abilities he’ll be able to repay his debt to Sima Yi in a way. But actually Sima Yi hasn’t “ever benefited [Liaoyuan Huo] to deserve a payback, ” since in the past Liaoyuan Huo carried out all those dangerous missions for Sima Yi. To Liaoyuan Huo, it’s his bizarre sense of loyalty. Now that he has truly revolted, the story harkens back to the scene in chapter 1. Liaoyuan Huo’s relationship to the Handicapped Warriors planted the seed of hatred for Sima Yi. “He will never speak of it; it’s buried deep in him.” As the story continues, Chen Mou will bring it out gradually. But what Sima Yi is feeling now is “merely the feeling one gets when a really good friend leaves,” because Sima Yi is too levelheaded.
About Lü Bu, one of the famous Three Kingdoms generals, Chen Mou once mentioned that (in a Ravages Afterword) he cried twice over Lü Bu’s death when he drew Unhuman and Ravages. Chen Mou said he liked the character Lü Bu, because Lü Bu is not a hypocrite. Many people in China’s history did what Lü Bu had done, but they always covered it up. Chen Mou likes Lü Bu’s personality, because Lü Bu is honest – if he doesn’t like his job he gets another job somewhere else; unlike the traditional hypocrisy of the Chinese people.
Chen Mou recounts the time he was drawing Lü Bu’s execution. He said, “I was super excited,” because he had been thinking about how to depict Lü Bu’s end for a long time. Lü Bu couldn’t care less for all the people he killed in battle, so why would he demean himself and beg for mercy? Because “the more you desire out of life, the more you want to live.” This bravery to beg for mercy is like how the ancient Han Xin endured the humiliation of crawling under another man’s crutch. Lü Bu knew that once he passes this obstacle, he’ll be able to continue his journey. That’s really interesting. As Chen Mou was creating the scene where the onlookers all realize what’s happening, and that they see this big shot of a glorious past demeans himself to beg for mercy, we can see how the crowd becomes silent and desperate for the execution to be over with. This manner of depiction stung many readers’ hearts. “I will keep adding this kind of humanity into Ravages.”
(…Zhang Fei is from a rich family, good at art. A smart man like Liu Bei would not entrust an army to someone who’s dumb.)
(Chen Mou depicts mutual admiration between warriors of opposing camps, such as Zhang Fei and Zhang Liao.)
Chen Mou said it might not be mere hatred that exist between generals of different camps. There must be a kind of mutual admiration/respect, like between competitors. It’s also easier to be objective when not clouded by antagonism. “Someone worth his salt will know that we’re merely fighting because of orders from our superiors.” This is a very subtle feeling. “People in the same line of work might talk about how they feel about things in their line of work.” A fascinating kind of communication.
But in the story there are also trusted characters who suddenly change sides and turn the tide. We feel like we can’t trust anyone around us. Chen Mou said, “this really is what goes on in the past; too many spies to shake a stick at.” Plus there’s that group dynamic, with each person thinking for himself, trying to climb higher by scoring big. “Like how Lü Bu simply chops heads to climb over them.” Fortunately the three kingdoms still had a group of long-time pillars who fully trusted each other.
During the development of Ravages, Chen Mou realized that human nature is complex. And he believes it more as he ages, as if there are more things he can’t understand. He said there will only be more questions/problems. “More wisdom cannot clarify your understanding; it only gives you more questions.” That’s life. It depends on how each person sees it.
Chen Mou said there is no single best Genius among the Eight. Each one has their strength in warfare, such as Zhou Yu’s dominance over the water, or Zhuge Liang’s management of internal affairs. Any Genius may win one battle then lose the next. “That’s human; it’s impossible to have a perfect person.”
As for who the Eighth Genius is? Chen Mou said he has already decided on one or two candidates, but it’s still not the right time to show them. Maybe “the Eighth Genius isn’t all that amazing; could just be an average character.” In his mind each Genius doesn’t have to trump another. The Eighth will show up when it’s time, but definitely not now (laugh).
Chen Mou said he purposely withholds the Eighth’s identity to observe readers’ opinion. It seemed that many readers felt the Eighth Genius must be one who unites/conquers the world. Chen Mou wants to see whether this view will change – whether some readers would think the Eighth Genius is merely an average person. Chen Mou talked about why he created Water Mirror’s Eight Geniuses. He believed it’s true that some fortunate people receive very good education, but there are definitely many smarter people who only lacked the opportunity and environment to receive such good education. So it’s good to be smart, but it doesn’t guarantee the person will be the most skilled.
Favorite character? Chen Mou said, maybe in the past, but the more he draws and researches, the more respect he has for each character. “Often times I’d think that I wouldn’t be able to do what they did if I lived in that era.” He’ll just be “another literati making things up when no one’s looking. (laugh)”
As for one of the characters he was pained to lose, Sun Ce, Chen Mou said he was satisfied with the chapter of Sun Ce’s death. He didn’t want to end Sun Ce for good, but that’s history. He felt he wrapped it up very well. He also didn’t want to let go of Lü Bu and Xiao Meng. As for the brutal murder of Xiao Meng after being exposed as an eunuch, Chen Mou said that ending was needed by the story, for it is juxtaposed with Cao Cao ending his tie to his eunuch past (Cao Cao’s foster father was an eunuch). It’s a metaphor.
Will Ravages end like it was depicted in Sima Yi’s dream? Chen Mou said it will head towards it, but “only the death part.” Sima Yi’s dream is what psychology called a response to one’s inner desire. It might not be what one want, but another view on the subject (desire). Therefore the ending of the comic will not look like chapter 1. That leaves a lot of room for the imagination. It’ll take us “a long long time to see it.”
Opinions on related products?
Chen Mou said he purposely want the light novels to present a different view point – why does it need to repeat his own thoughts again? …
(Chen Mou likes the 2D presentation of Ravages online game. He felt that 3D-fied Ravages will be full of sexy characters who look like each other)
To provide game assets for Ravages Online, Chen Mou had begun to draw massive amounts of character portraits three years ago. By now the number has passed 150. Chen Mou said he’ll draw whenever he has a spare moment. “150 is really frightening.” Still fifty more to go.
(the game company helps with the coloring?)
(according to this article that I’m too tired to translate, there are now at least 200 character portraits drawn by Chen Mou for game assets; if anyone’s wondering, there’s also going to be an App version game later this May? no other info right now)
Chen Mou expressed that there had been a few interested parties, but the scope and length are enormous. It’s still in the talks. Movies need script and funding; complicated stuff. We asked if Chen Mou has any actors in mind for Sima Yi or Liaoyuan Huo, he said anyone is fine, but he would request that the movie must at least not turn out to be a movie with people flying around. It must be true to the feel of Three Kingdoms.
Advice for beginners interested in the comics industry?
Chen Mou said his original advice might be to read a lot, but nowadays he feels that one should just do what one likes and dive in. Try it while young. After two to three years it’ll be clear whether the path is right or not. Even failing it might not be such a bad thing, because sometimes there’s that pride inside of such a person: “I’m good at drawing comics. No one appreciates it, that’s all.” But society is realistic. Everybody should try it, find out what it’s like when you fail, or prove yourself right when you succeed. If you can do it just keep trying, ignore other people. “Those who love to make comics can’t be dissuaded, like me. (laugh)”
(damn this is so true, merc failed for the most part, grows humbler)
(Chen Mou really loved Zheng Wen and Ma Rong Cheng‘s storytelling and artistic abilities…
Among the new generation of comic artists he really admires Feng Zhan Peng, who made 密殺戰群. [general sample art] But now Feng works in animation instead of comics. Chen Mou felt Feng is the most talented artist he has ever seen, a “godly artist” with really powerful techniques.)