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'Thần Đồng Đất Việt' Author Lê Linh: 'I Will Never Stop Working With History'

For Vietnamese comic fans of the past two decades, the names Lê Linh and Thần Đồng Đất Việt will most definitely ring a bell.

Image via Travel Mag.

The comic follows the ordinary adventures of Tí, Sửu, Dần, and Mẹo — four kids of primary school age in ancient Vietnam — while beautifully capturing the essence of Vietnamese history and folklore. For many people, Thần Đồng Đất Việt is inseparable from their childhood. The community's community's adoration is more evident than ever in the unwavering support for the "father" of the series in the face of the controversy over copyright that had taken place over the past 13 years.

The return of this beloved author after Thần Đồng Đất Việt has long been awaited by the fans. Recently, on his personal social media account, Lê Linh gave several hints on what seems like four new projects. Urbanist reached out to the author and had a chat with him about his writing inspiration as well as upcoming plans. 

Through your Facebook updates, it seems you have been working throughout the ongoing lockdown. How do you feel about your creative inspiration during this time?

Actually, whether there's a pandemic or not, my inspiration and work ethic remain unchanged. However, because of the immeasurable pain and loss of this time, I want to create and share more with the hope of spreading positivity and encouraging people to look toward a brighter future when we have overcome the pandemic. At the moment, I am working on multiple projects at the same time, including both comics and cartoons. The specific of of each project will soon be revealed according to their release agendas to surprise the audience. Please look forward to it!

History seems to be the common theme throughout your previous works. Have you ever considered pursuing a different subject?

Being frustrated with the growth of foreign historical work [in Vietnam], I have always been determined to pursue the subject of history. With our immense historical treasure, even if one tries to explore it for the rest of their life and many more generations to come, they will never reach the end. Hence, I will never stop working with history. Only when God forces me to stop, then I will have to accept my fate. Hopefully, the next generation will pick up where I left off. 

On your social media, you have given several hints on the upcoming Trần Triều comic project, inspired by the Trần Dynasty era. Can you reveal a bit more about the series and its current progress?

Trần Triều is a project that I’ve been working on for several years, but due to the preoccupation with other design projects, its progress has been quite slow. Fortunately, the project has received immense support from fans of Thần Đồng Đất Việt. This is a huge motivation for me to fully focus on this series. For every project, I always try to speed up the progress as much as possible, but with the lockdown I haven't been able to meet with different partners yet so I can't share any specific plans now. At the moment, we are only consulting readers to finalize the drafts. 

Is this an individual project or a collaboration with other artists?

For the work to be published the quickest way possible, most authors would need a team. However, at the beginning stages, it is largely up to the author to build the foundation, art style, and direction of the work so that others can understand and support. It is also worth mentioning that training collaborators so they can carry out your vision is also a very difficult and time-consuming task. 

The name Lê Linh is often attached to beloved characters Tí, Sửu, Dần, Mẹo. Will these characters be coming back in Trần Triều?

Each comic series has its unique elements and appeal. Tí, Sửu, Dần, and Mẹo are fictional characters, so I could craft them in any way that I wanted to. However, in Trần Triều, the characters are real, so it requires more formality to maintain respect for the historical figures. Nonetheless, creativity is boundless, nothing is impossible. 

It can be said that in your previous works, ordinary, folklore elements have helped history become more accessible to readers, what about in Trần Triều? How are you planning to deliver historical elements?

The appeal of a literary work lies in the author’s tactics; it’s difficult to define where the appeal in my work lies because a good comic series is a composition of so many elements. But for me, ever since Thần Đồng Đất Việt, I have always been focused on portraying the most honest and down-to-earth stories. Only then that the reader will be able to truly understand the messages that I want to deliver. 

Was there any characters or events in the history of the Trần Dynasty that were difficult to find information on?

There were many characters with substantial records of anecdotes and legends, however, there were definitely characters with little to no historical evidence at all. Our task is to link historical events to build the plot and characters. The biggest difficulty is not finding historical data but visual references. We only have a small amount of antiques to draw on. 

Compared to Thần Đồng Đất Việt, the drawings in Trần Triều seem more bold and sophisticated. Did this change happen because of the content requirement or because you just want to refresh your artistic style?

As previously mentioned, in Trần Triều, everything is more elaborately expressed to show respect for the valued historical figures, and thus adding more value to the comic series. That is also the standard I set for myself, aiming for a breakthrough from previous works. 

Recently, there have been several popular comic projects by independent studios that also explore historical topics such are Tứ Phủ Xét Giả, Long Thần Tướng, etc. What are your thoughts on the projects by these young artists?

Recently, young Vietnamese people have begun to pay more attention to the country’s culture and history, which is very exciting to see. I fully support projects that explore culture and history; I hope that they find success in moving forward, creating a counterbalance to all the foreign historical work. However, they must preserve the unique Vietnamese elements, instead of being influenced by extraneous styles. 

Sharing literary works online seems to be a double-edged sword; independent studios may attract the community’s interest but also various copyright issues. Do you have any tips on sharing works online?

Cyberspace, if we know how to take advantage of it, can be an incredible medium for promoting your work, but that comes with a copyright issue. Therefore, before making your work available to the readers, you should make sure to complete all legal procedures to protect your work. Also I hope that, as a community, we can develop a sense of honor and respect for each other's copyright, all for the common development of the country.

After the recent controversy, you did share about becoming more interested in social topics. Will this change the direction of your creative content?

Even if I begin exploring social topics, my style and approach will likely be the same: humorous, down to earth, honest, and more. The only difference will be a more modern setting for the plots. 

In the near future, will Vietnamese audience members be able to see the works of Lê Linh on screen?

Every author would want to see their work being adapted in various forms and last with time. But the future is unpredictable, right now I am just trying to do my best, and the outcome depends on whether or not we are able to meet the expectations of the audience. 

[Illustrations via Facebook user Linh Lê]