[FOUNTAIN]Cartoonists finally get some respect

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[FOUNTAIN]Cartoonists finally get some respect

When Park Je-dong was a child, his father owned a manhwabang, a shop where neighborhood kids could rent comic books. Mr. Park, who today is a cartoonist and an animator, remembers that his parents were not particularly welcome in their town because of the nature of their business.
If a kid got bad grades, his parents would blame the manhwabang. If kids got into a fight at the manwhabang, it was the business’s fault. Comics were considered low-class and harmful. In those days, when a manhwabang was seen as a hotbed of misdemeanors, comics were dismissed as “the ninth art.”
If comics were really so tawdry, they should have died out by now. Just the opposite is true. The Korean comics boom has swept men and women, children and the elderly. Any subject, from mythology to mathematics to Chinese classics, becomes an easy read in comics form. Art Spiegelman, the American cartoonist who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” his comic book about the Holocaust, says comics are more flexible than plays and more profound than movies.
Behind comics’ higher status in Korea lies the increase in freedom of expression here. When the censorship that long smothered Korean comics was loosened, they became fun again, as comic book writers explored a variety of subjects. Comics spent the 1970s and 1980s hobbled and distorted by censorship. Their comeback almost moves one to tears.
The cartoonist Go U-yeong, who died Monday, spent much of his 50-year career fighting censorship. He poignantly recalled seeing his creations torn apart and blanked out with white ink.
In 1979, more than 100 pages were omitted from his “Three Kingdoms” because of violence and nudity. He later wrote of the experience, “I was hit by a vehicle that looked like a military truck, and my limbs were torn from my body.” By the truck, he meant the military regime.
Mr. Go’s comics weren’t licentious; they were balms for the soul. His fans still laugh to remember Mudae, the rice cake seller with the big front teeth, getting suffocated under his beautiful wife Bangeumryeon. In his “Three Kingdoms,” when Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are solemnly swearing their loyalty to the state, Zhang Fei notices that a goat offered for sacrifice on the altar is tied with its legs spread wide. “Hey!” he shouts. “Keep your legs together!”
I hope that this genius, who made us laugh in harsh times, hasn’t lost his sense of humor in heaven.

by Chung Jae-suk

The writer is a deputy culture news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.
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