Fighting evil, one panel at a timeIn the world known as the Basketball Universe, a Chosen One has come to settle the chaos brought about by the Heaven Crushers.
To combat these evil martial arts experts, who have magic powers and unimaginable strength, the Chosen One dribbles, jumps and shoots three-pointers.
The Chosen One is LeBron James, the U.S. National Basketball Association’s 2004 Rookie of the Year. The one chosen to depict him in “Chamber of Fear,” a promotional comic book produced by James’s corporate sponsor Nike, is Kim Young-heon, one of Korea’s better-known martial-arts comic book artists.
Kim was tapped by Nike (or, rather, by its advertising agency) based on the success of his martial-arts comic “Pacheonilgeom” (“The One Sword That Breaks Heaven”). There have been about 14 issues of “Pacheonilgeom,” each selling about 18,000 or so copies ―strong sales figures in the Korean comics industry.
“A first, the assimilation of basketball themes into a martial arts comic seemed difficult, but when I saw advertising plans with LeBron James in a Chinese-martial-art-film-like poster, I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Kim said.
“Chamber of Fear” was used as a promotional giveaway in Nike stores. There were three issues, released in October, November and December, and a total of 120,000 copies were given away in Korea, according to the company. Translated versions were also distributed in Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and the United States.
For Kim, 39, who’s worked in the Korean comics industry for 20 years, such opportunities are a fairly recent development. For his first 17 years in the business, he toiled anonymously as an apprentice for a better-known artist. And even after he’d made a name for himself, it didn’t mean he had it made. Comic books are a tough business in Korea.
The first Korean comic book, according to the Korea Comics Museum, was published in 1946, by Kim Yong-hwan; it was called “The Rabbit and the Turtle.” No copies of it are known to exist. The industry grew in the ensuing decades, but its audience was mostly young children.
The biggest hit in the early 1980s was “Baseball Team,” drawn by the artist Lee Hyun-sae, which was about baseball and romance. Its success led many Korean artists to copy his style, which is still imitated by some Korean artists, though mostly in comics about gangsters and the underworld. (School life, sports, fantasy, martial arts and romance are the most popular subjects for comics in Korea, says Park Seong-sik of the Korea Culture and Content Agency.)
In the late ’80s, among younger readers, pirated Japanese comics like “Dragon Ball” and “Fist of the North Star” dominated the market. Korean comics continued to be published, but they couldn’t compete with those from Japan, which is probably the most comics-saturated country in the world.
That remains true today. According to Shin Jin-gyu of the Korea Comics Museum, there are as many as 800 publishers of comic books in Korea, six of which could be considered major players in the industry.
But about 65 percent of the new comics titles sold here are Japanese imports, according to Park of the Korea Culture and Content Agency.
The way comic books are traditionally enjoyed in Korea also works against the industry. Kids and teenagers, who make up most of the comics audience, don’t usually buy comics directly. Instead, they go to a manwhabang, or comic book room, where they either rent them and take them home or pay to read them there.
Only about 30 percent of comics sales are directly to the customer, according to Park of the Culture and Content Agency. The Internet has also hurt the industry in recent years, with fans scanning the pages of their comics and uploading them.
One effect of Japan’s domination of this limited market, says Kim, is that there are fewer opportunities for young Korean artists.
“Nowadays, comic book publishers are reluctant to release comic books by new artists, because it is cheaper to license and publish Japanese comics than to pay royalties to comic book artists and writers,” Kim said. “Many of the artists have left the industry.”
Like many comic book artists, Kim fell in love with comics in middle school. After graduating from high school, he began studying under Lee Jae-hak, a well-known artist specializing in martial arts comics. (Today, comics illustration is taught in colleges and private institutions, but these courses didn’t exist at the time.)
For the next 17 years, Kim toiled in the profession without readers ever knowing his name. Most of the artists who work on comics aren’t credited.
“The master-apprentice system continues to exist because the Korean comic book industry tries to exploit the success of a small number of star writers by only letting them publish new books,” Kim said.
Young artists usually start out by working on panel backgrounds, and finishing pencil sketches in ink. The primary, credited artist is the one who does the pencil sketches; Kim says that was the hardest thing to learn.
After enough time in the business, though, Kim was able to get “Pacheonilgeom” published ―his first comic book to bear his name. Its success has led to other opportunities, notably the chance to draw LeBron James for a multinational corporation. Kim has also illustrated comic strips for Korean sports newspapers, in both cases without getting credit; one was “Gamble,” for Sports Today, the other “Crazy Sword,” for the Goodday sports paper.
“His comic book characters have cute looks, appealing to young adolescents,” said Park Jung-gyu of Daewon C.I., the company that publishes “Pacheonilgeom.”
Tough business or not, Kim says he’ll still be drawing comics when he’s an old man. After 20 years in the industry, he says, he’s still developing as an artist. “I am still trying to learn new styles,” he said.
by Limb Jae-un
Reporter Lee Ho-jeong contributed to this report.