Expanding the realms of fantasyWhen Lee Tae-haeng made his debut in the Korean comic book market as a cartoonist at the age of 23, publishers warned him that his characters were too “Western looking” to succeed in the domestic industry.
Now, 13 years later, he goes by the name of Mark Lee and is glad that he maintained his artistic stubbornness because this very style of drawing has led him to work as the illustrator of the comic book series MU, which is being published in the United States.
“Because my characters looked more Caucasian than Asian, publishers always changed their names to Western names. Now, I don’t have to worry about trying to make my characters look Asian,” Mr. Lee said.
MU is one of the top three online role-playing games in Korea, with services in other countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and the United States. The monthly comic book that Mr. Lee is working on is based on the main story of the game but has been adapted to a comic book form. The first issue was released in November.
The story of MU is something of a “traditional” fantasy story of a hero battling against evil. It takes place on the continent of MU, where a young man takes on the task of seeking eight stones that are scattered across the land to reseal Kundun, the devil of darkness, who has been revived by evil sorcerers.
Mr. Lee was selected to illustrate MU mainly because of his experience in drawing science fiction and fantasy cartoons. His debut in the Korean mainstream comic book market came in the cartoon series “Heavy Metal 6.” It was published in Champ, a monthly comic book magazine that runs about 10 cartoons per issue.
In most cases, Korean artists choose to publish their work in progress in these kinds of magazines, and then later release the complete story in an independent volume.
Other titles done by Mr. Lee also show his affinity for science fiction ― Alien Killer, Bio Soldier Guy and Time Seekers are some of them.
“As a boy, I loved drawing robots. I was part of the robot generation since a lot of robot-related comic books and animation films were coming in from Japan,” Mr. Lee recalled.
His interest in robots led him to work at an animation firm after high school, but soon after, he had to serve his compulsory military duty and discovered in his spare time in the army that he really liked drawing cartoons.
“I never really had a chance to learn how to draw at a professional institute. I guess you could say that I started from scratch,” he said.
“When I started drawing cartoons, my family was like, ‘Gee, art is the last thing we’d think you’d do.’ I was never considered to be creative ― as you can see, I don’t even have that Bohemian artist look,” he added.
Although Mr. Lee’s work was published in a popular magazine, it didn’t earn him much money, which forced him to take on other jobs, such as designing characters for small game companies.
“Thirteen years ago, when I received my first payment, I clearly remember the happy ride home on the subway after receiving 35,000 won per page. At that time, the subway fare was 200 won. But today I paid 1,000 won on the subway to get here and new artists still receive 35,000 won per page,” he said.
Moreover, he added, the active circulation of images on the Internet and the decline of the cartoon industry in general has reduced circulation of comic book magazines, which further lowers his income since illustrators are given royalties of 10 percent of sales.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee hopes that MU will expand his opportunities and perhaps help him become a sought-after cartoonist in the United States. He has been drawing for the North American market for four years through Studio Ice, a management agency that is an affiliate of the large Korean publishing company Sigongsa.
Currently, the U.S. company Devil’s Due Publishing, which also publishes such comic books as “G.I. Joe” and “Voltron,” has signed a one-year contract with Mr. Lee for the MU series.
Priced at $2.95, the book is printed in full color on glossy paper. It isn’t very thick, but Mr. Lee still has to spend hours drawing and coloring every frame.
“I guess I work about 10 hours a day. I sometimes feel like I’m living alone on an island, since I have to spend most of my time alone and have few opportunities to meet new people,” he said.
Only a limited number of copies are printed for collectors’ purposes; MU’s first edition now sells for about $10 on eBay.
Mr. Lee also has high hopes for another cartoon that he is working on ― Megacity 909 ― which may be made into a Hollywood film. The scenario for Megacity 909 is currently under provisional contract with the producers of the film “Minority Report.”
“I’ve received a lot of praise from famous American cartoonists, who say that my style is very different from Western or Asian cartoons. I hope this drawing style works out as my niche,” he said.
by Wohn Dong-hee