When substance transcends style

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When substance transcends style

Practically every mother has thrown a fit after seeing her kids sprawled on the floor reading stacks of comic books for hours. “Comic books are no good for you,” moms wail. “Reading that junk will rot your brain.”
Of course, comic books probably would rot your brain if they still were about superheroes wearing underpants outside their tights.
Those days are long gone. Comic books have evolved. Today you can find comics about sports, Chinese cooking or making sushi. The most popular ones here are drawn by Japanese cartoonists with the text translated into Korean.
Like their American predecessors, Japanese comics are essentially a means of escapism for adolescents. Most of the characters are ordinary school kids ― usually in high school or middle school ― who have a certain talent for sports or a hobby. Flipping through the pages, young readers identify with the characters, who share their struggles, fears and triumphs.
But unlike Spiderman, Batman or Superman comics, these tales rarely have a cut-and-dried ending. All the better to keep readers slouched on the floor and craving for more.


Pitching a fast ball for fans

“H2,” by Mitsuru Adachi
“H2” concerns four high-school students who are nuts about baseball.
The story revolves around Hideo and Hiro, whose names are so similar to the word “hero” that readers instantly know they’re the good guys. Hiro and Hideo went to the same middle school and were the best pitcher and batter in their neighborhood.
But they became rivals ― not only in baseball, but also in love ― battling to win the hearts of the attractive Haruka and Hikari, who also rival one another.
It’s clear that the artist, Mr. Adachi, is an ardent baseball fan, and his enthusiasm fills his works. Even readers with a fleeting interest in baseball will learn about the game and enjoy the action on the diamond, thanks to the astute commentary delivered by Haruka.


A judo master who’s too talented

“Yawara,” by Urasawa Naoki
Inokuma Yawara is a natural at judo. She was 5 when she flipped her father into mid-air, and ever since he has been training her in the mountains. Inokuma’s grandfather, Jigoro, is a judo master, and he has only one wish: for Inokuma to win a gold medal in her weight class at the Olympics.
Our heroine, however, has no love for judo, which she has studied since childhood. Inokuma just wants to go to the mall, chat with her friends and go on a date. But that’s unlikely. A reporter from a sports daily has spied her in action and won’t stop pursuing her. Like Haruka in “H2,” Jigoro acts as the judo commentator, providing readers with insight into the sport.


“Hip Hop” is where it’s at

“Hip Hop,” by Kim Su-yong
This is one of the few Korean comics that has really been a hit. Appearing when hip hop fever first hit the peninsula, around 1998, “Hip Hop” instantly took off. It’s about a neophyte dancer named Seong-tae, a talented dancer named Bobby and a dancer from Busan named Cha Hae-il who all discover the world of hip hop. The comic depicts their lives, as well as a crew of back-up dancers, who are generally shunned by the public.
This comic can be a great aid for those interested in learning about hip hop culture and mastering hip hop techniques. Although sometimes criticized for not keeping up with the latest dance trends, “Hip Hop” can help dancers learn the basic steps for old-school hip hop. The illustrations are so detailed that readers can try some of the fancy moves at home.


Hoops and dreams in Tokyo

“Slam Dunk,” by Takehiko Inoue
This comic book was a huge hit when it premiered in the early 1990s, and it still attracts a large and loyal readership. Coming out just as the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan were in the midst of their rampage, the comic capitalized on teenage boys’ sports fantasies.
Interestingly, “Slam Dunk” works because the main character, Sakuragi Hanamichi, has no idea how to shoot a lay-up when the story begins. He’s a true rookie when he joins the Shohoku basketball team, which is generally considered the weakest squad in the neighborhood. Sakuragi didn’t sign up because he wanted to be like Jordan; he simply wanted to impress a girl. Of course, he grows to love the game. He and four other quirky characters eventually turn the Shohoku team into one of Tokyo’s best.
The comic occasionally reads like a manual for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of basketball. Since Sakuragi is a rookie, the cartoonist appears in the comic as Dr. T (a nod to basketball’s Julius Irving, better known as Dr. J) to dispense basketball advice.
In places like Korea and Japan, where students are issued textbooks for physical education class, it wouldn’t be surprising if more than a few adolescents actually learned to play hoops by reading “Slam Dunk.”


A rivalry that never stops as combatants play go

“Hikaru no Go,” story by Umi Hotta, drawn by Ken Obata
This comic book has caused a stir in Japan, reigniting the country’s interest in the game of go. Although this comic has selected a topic that can be difficult to grasp, it has a well-established story that makes many readers want to actually sit down and play the game of go.
The main character, Hikaru, is an elementary school student with no interest in go. He finds a blood-stained goban, the board the game is played on, in his grandfather’s attic and plans to sell it for a few quick yen. Instead, a ghost appears and enters Hikaru’s mind.
The ghost is no other than Fujiwarano Sai, a master go player, who was framed for cheating 1,000 years ago by another devious go master. Sai’s only wish is to play go through Hikaru.
Hikaru is reluctant at first, but then becomes deeply involved in the game after meeting his rival, Touya Akira, the son of a go title holder.
Although this comic doesn’t go into great detail, it does teach readers the game’s basic rules and moves. And it has a classic rivalry between the the two young players that keeps the story in motion.


Drawing on old comics to create a gallery that’s relevant today

Not all parents find comics abhorrent. Enough adults embrace them to have founded the Seoul Cartoon Museum, part of the Seoul Animation Center.
Climb the road up Mont Namsam and you’ll find the museum, which opened in May 2002.
Step into its darkened interior and you’ll discover rows of comic books with faded covers and pages that have yellowed with age.
The drawing styles are outdated and a tad corny when compared with the clean lines of today’s comics.
On the wall is a sign in Korean: “Comics published in the early period.” Most of these comics were published in the 1960s, but some are old enough to have been read by people who are in their 80s when they were kids.
Handmade plastic models of famous Korean comic book characters occupy one side of the room.
Although visitors aren’t allowed to read the old editions of the comic books, they can see how the styles have changed over time. One Cold War-era comic has a cover featuring three cartoon heroes battling North Korean soldiers.
In the far corner is an exhibition hall where the Korean Women Cartoonists Exhibition is being held through Sunday. All the works ― everything from clay sculptures of cartoon characters to animation panels ― have been created by female artists.
“When we hold an exhibition we have 60 to 70 guests every day,” says Yoo Tak-geun, 29, who works at the museum. “But most of the time, we have about 30 guests, mostly middle and high school students.”
The museum even has a Hall of Fame, which houses copper busts of famous Korean cartoonists.
The animation center has a lot more than just the museum. On the first floor is a comic book library. All of the comic books are written in Korean.
The center also has classes for people interested in learning how to draw cartoons by hand or with the help of a computer. There also is an animation class.
In addition, the center has facilities for post-production animation work that is open to the public. A computer-graphics room, image-editing room and recording studio are also open to the public.

by Lee Seon-jae/Lee Ho-jeong
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