A tiny friend turns 20It’s hard to be a kid in Korea and not know Dooly, the baby dinosaur. He’s the peninsula’s Barney, only he’s not purple.
Like many Koreans, I grew up adoring Dooly, even when I wasn’t living in Korea. I was 6 and residing in Seoul when I first saw Dooly in Bomulseom, or Treasure Island, a monthly cartoon magazine with a series of comic stories that came out in 1983. In those pages, Dooly had just made his debut -- a cute, little prehistoric creature with a protruding belly and chubby cheeks.
What I really loved was his tongue. He got to stick it out permanently, it seemed.
Each month I saved money to buy Bomulseom, then spent hours giggling over the adventures of Dooly. Imagine raising a baby dinosaur as a pet and teaching him to speak Korean! I thought.
Dooly’s tale struck me as a touching one, for here was a baby dinosaur who had drifted from the South Pole (or was it the North?) to the Han River in Korea and was adopted by a young girl, Yeong-hui, who found him. He was separated from his mother (depicted as a pleasant looking Loch Ness monster) and forced to live in a tradition-bound Korean society where children must be ultra-obedient toward adults.
But Dooly was (and still is) a cheeky, outspoken dinosaur, a rambunctious reptile who constantly got into scrapes. It’s no wonder that Yeong-hui’s father, Gil-dong, was always chasing after Dooly with a fly swatter.
When we moved to the United States a year after Dooly appeared, I didn’t think it would mean a long separation between my favorite cartoon character and me. But alas, Korean comics in rural Massachusetts were nonexistent, and so until 1986 I had to live without Dooly. In the interim, I tried to make do with Cabbage Patch Kids, cuddly dolls that were then the big craze in the United States.
Deep down, though, I missed my funny green friend.
In 1986, we moved to Africa, to Kenya, and an odd thing happened. My uncle, who did not want me to forget the Korean language, started sending me Bomulseom magazines each month. The magazines reunited me with Dooly and soon I was catching up with his new friends and following his adventures.
Dooly’s antics are, I like to think today, what keeps kids coming back to him. Dooly is always getting into trouble with his foster father Gil-dong and in that sense, Dooly and I were kindred spirits: Dooly spoke my language. He was forever muttering about how adults did not understand him and how unfair they were to him. When Gil-dong wouldn’t allow Dooly to have a little fun, that’s when Dooly always turned the house upside down.
I loved it! That was me.
Sadly, when my uncle got married in the fall of 1987, the Dooly cartoons stopped coming in the mail. I never forgave my uncle for that and still good-naturedly rag him about it.
Upon returning to Korea the following year, I was astonished to find Dooly snack foods, Dooly ornaments and Dooly clothes sold everywhere. Dooly had become a hot merchandise item for children. But as a soon-to-be middle schooler, I figured it might be uncool to be seen with Dooly paraphernalia.
To make up for the lost years, however, I sneaked into comic rooms in my neighborhoods, reading Dooly cartoons dating back to ‘83. Rereading passages of Dooly’s goofy escapades made me a kid again.
There were times I felt indignant toward Gil-dong for pulling Dooly’s leg, punishing him by not giving him food (Dooly loves to eat. Everything.)
In my eyes, Gil-dong was mean and I used to pray that one day Dooly might be reunited with his real mother.
Now, as a grown-up, I can sympathize with Gil-dong. Having to feed his family and rear a frisky baby dinosaur, as well as an alien, a runaway circus ostrich and a baby nephew is a tall order for a father whose wife is rarely around.
This week, as Dooly celebrates his 20th birthday, Korea celebrates it, too. On Saturday, the city of Bucheon, west of Seoul, made Dooly an honorary citizen. He was even given a citizen’s registration card by city fathers. Three years ago, a Bucheon street was named in his honor.
Over two decades, Dooly has evolved from a cartoon character who appears monthly into a marketing gold mine, pictured on all manner of products and symbolizing all sorts of events. In Korea, where he is as visible as rice cakes, Dooly endorses UNICEF greeting cards and appears on Christmas seals. He now shows up in Germany and China.
A confession: My affection for Dooly comes in one sense because many people have told me that I look like him. OK, I do have Dooly’s sleepy eyes and his puffy cheeks. On occasion, my friends used to urge me to stick out my tongue, to make the resemblance even more striking.
Even though I no longer read Dooly comics or collect Dooly souvenirs, I’m still a Dooly fan. He is, after all, a little part of me.
The man behind Dooly: 1, 2 and a creature is born
What are your thoughts on Dooly at 20?
Indescribably proud. I hope he lives for 50, 100 more years.
How did you come up with the idea?
When Dooly first appeared in 1983, there were a lot of restrictions in what cartoonists could draw. Cartoons of a male and female together in a room were forbidden. There were language restrictions as well. Civic groups openly burned comic books, calling them a bad influence. In order to create a fun cartoon and not be restricted, I decided to create an animal. There were many dogs, bears, so I chose a dinosaur.
Where did the name come from?
Dooly has an older sister named “Hana,” or “One.” Then I thought it might be good to have a name based on the number two, “Dul.” Hence, the name “Dooly.”
How has “Dooly” changed your life?
After my cartoon ran in the monthly comic book “Treasure Island,” I was interviewed several times and got recognized a lot in the streets. I wanted to give autographs, but there were times I had to refuse.
How did your children helped you?
“Ttochi” (Dooly’s ostrich friend) was the gurgling sound that my daughter made when she was a baby. Of course, seeing my kids at play or at school provided ample material for my stories.
Did you anticipate Dooly’s success?
After the Dooly series started, the response was immediate. There were postcards and fan mail from readers. During the decade that Dooly ran as a comic series, elementary schoolers became college students, and high schoolers became parents. Kids who related to Dooly became adults who related to Gil-dong (Dooly’s human foster father). I think Dooly was able to form a common bond among a large group.
Do you have any regrets, such as depicting Gil-dong in a negative way?
Kids will realize, once they become adults, how pitiful Gil-dong is. For him to take care of such a large family is a challenge. I don’t think kids see Gil-dong as a bad guy.
Dooly evolved from a cartoon character to logo for merchandise, a personality in commercials, in a musical and on postage stamps. Did you plan all this?
Before Doolynara [Kim’s company] was established in 1995, there was no systematic way to market Dooly. When Dooly was granted animation and cartoon licensing, I received many offers to market Dooly.
Dooly has been exported to China. What other plans are there for him?
As soon as the new Dooly TV series is produced, I plan to export the animation/character business.
Why do you perm your hair?
It’s comfortable. My hairstyle has become something of a trademark and I am loathe to change it now.
Will Dooly eventually reunite with his mother?
Well, we’ll have to see from the new TV series, won’t we?
by Choi Jie-ho