'Toons of the times take on adult ideas
The term manhwa covers all types of comics, from newspaper funnies to high-end animated features.
Like most comic strips, Korean manhwa took off in the early 1900s and was mainly relegated to children, adults being too sophisticated for that sort of stuff. Once Japanese manga, the comic style famous for its massive eyes and spiky hair, become better known in Korea in the 1950s, however, that perception quickly changed.
Given the lack of cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan in that era, it’s understandable that most Koreans didn’t know that some of their favorite comic strips, such as “Astro Boy” by Osamu Tezuka and “Mazinger Z” by Go Nagai, were made in Japan. Japanese pop culture was banned here, and illegal copies of the manga circulated among artists and fans.
But it took the highly successful career of Lee Hyun-se, 49, a leading figure in the contemporary Korean comic scene, to bring attention to domestic comics. Since his debut in 1979 with “Kkachi Hair” [roughly translated as “Spiky Hair”] Mr. Lee produced comics that were based on Korean sentimentalities and culture. Comics like “The Mercenary Team of Fear” (1982) and “Nambul: War Stories” (1993), were best-sellers and nowadays considered masterpieces by both children and adults. His comics, now available in English, have given Korean manhwa a worldwide audience.
Despite having worked for three decades in the business, Mr. Lee was recently chosen as the comic artist in Korea most favored by college students. His life has come a long way; things were not always so easy for cartoonists.
When Mr. Lee was growing up in the early post-war era in the town of Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province, dynamic and eye-grabbing comic strips were the first kind of visual art people encountered.
“From the moment I saw comics in magazines, I couldn’t think about anything else,” he said. That moment came at the tender age of 6, he recalled.
But however well one drew on a page, being a cartoonist was not so easy in the 1970s and ’80s, when the field wasn’t taken seriously and society was far more conservative. Mr. Lee kept his hobby a secret from his family and doubted he could ever make money drawing.
The cartoon bug had bit hard, though. He dropped out of college to be an apprentice for comic artists only to be ruthlessly exploited. At one point, he was drawing for nearly 20 hours a day while being constantly monitored by the wife of te artist. He was never paid. When he managed to quit two years later, Mr. Lee’s 176-centimeter (5-foot-9) frame weighed only 54 kilograms (119 pounds).
It all paid off, though, when his debut work, “Kkachi Hair,” became a runaway hit. Pay yes, but freedom, no: the government ruled that comics were only for children and hence strictly censored any political messages.
“If I wanted to include any shooting scenes in my comics, it had to be against the Japanese military or communists,” Mr. Lee said.
In the last two decades, however, the status of Korean comics and cartoonists has risen immeasurably. Earlier this year, Mr. Lee and another established artist, Goh Woo-young, received awards from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for their contribution to Korean culture and arts.
“It’s so great that they finally recognized comics as part of our culture, but the funny thing is that even until 2003, I had been under indictment by the government on charges of drawing sexually provocative images in ‘Mythology of the Heavens’ [published in the Korean daily Sports Seoul] for six years,” he said.
Mr. Lee received another honor this year: he was elected president of the Korean Cartoonists Association. The organization includes over 670 comic artists and since its foundation in 1968 has pressed the government to allow greater freedom of expression in comics and to support the Korean comics industry.
The organization’s effort for freedom of expression in comics culminated in 1996, when the Korean government intensely repressed comic artists, including Mr. Lee, under the Adolescent Protection Act, which was introduced to protect Korean teenagers from images of sex and violence.
In 2001, with government recognition, the organization launched the annual Manhwa Day, Nov. 3. It was on that date in 1996 that comic artists held a massive rally against government censorship, which subsequently was greatly reduced.
These days, Manhwa Day is used by comic artists as an opportunity to simply promote comics. It was for that reason that the organization held an exhibition of emerging artists and a series of seminars on manhwa from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2.
On the day of his interview with the IHT-JoongAng Daily, Mr. Lee, who was an organizer for Manhwa Day at the Korea Press Center, was busy exchanging greetings with political and cultural figures as well as fellow artists while making arrangements for the ceremony.
Despite the recent surge in recognition of comics, the Korean comic publishing industry has downsized, as young readers have lost interest in the format. Nearly 70 percent of comic magazines have shut down in the last few years.
“I think it’s because nowadays, young people have more entertainment options, such as the Internet, video games and movies. When I was a kid, comic books were the only thing we had to enjoy,” said Park In-kwon, a veteran artist.
Big-name comic artists, such as Mr. Park and Lee Chul, made their names in leading Korean sports and entertainment newspapers, which target adult readers.
Mr. Park’s works, “Daemul” and “Jjeon’s War” deal with adult subjects. “Daemul,” in Sports Chosun, is about a gigolo, and the title has a dual meaning, referring to both a politically important person and to the male genitalia. “Jjeon’s War” is about a college-educated woman whose life is doomed due to the credit problems of a family member.
Younger comic artists, like Lee Chul, 29, have also found ways to pave their careers. He is aware of his young readers’ proclivities. “People are busier and don’t have patience; they don’t really try to read a long series of comic books,” said Mr. Lee, who has been running a four-frame comic strip, “Four Minute Recipe,” in Sports Today.
Mr. Lee’s short and witty strips, which poke fun at commercial films or dramas, have rapidly gained popularity since their first appearance in September.
For now, nearly all comic artists agree that newspapers are the last and the only medium to show their works and to reach thousands of readers. “At first, I wasn’t interested in doing comics for newspapers, but now that the comic market is not doing well, it’s become the only option for me to reach a wide range of readers,” Mr. Park said.
And for the newspaper, comics, which usually take up three out of 20-something pages, are an important feature for drawing back readers.
“Comics are very important part of our newspaper,” said Kim Cheong-jung, in charge of comics at Sports Chosun. “Some readers regularly subscribe to it just for the comics.”
Having to churn out multiple comic strips every day can be a demanding job, which is why most of the entertainment-oriented papers prefer to hire veteran cartoonists rather than fresh faces. To do his three comics, Mr. Park must get up everyday at 5 a.m. and work until 7 at night.
Comics require research just like novels and films: To do his comic “Fugitive Shin Chang-won,” for example, Mr. Park visited the house of the notorious prison escapee with the same name. Mr. Shin was something of a modern-day Robin Hood, grabbing headlines in 1997 for his exploits. Even still, some readers were not impressed.
“Readers said that I was justifying a formidable criminal,” Mr. Park said. “What he did might be wrong, but I thought there must be a reason for doing that. He wasn’t like other criminals who crippled or killed people after committing a crime. I wanted to present him as a sensible person, with my imagination based on thorough research.”
The field of manhwa is constantly changing, though finally in the positive direction, and so is its readership, who have become increasingly tolerant to sex and violence. For “Daemul,” Mr. Park still pulls punches with his sexual depictions (he has received a number of warnings from the Korean Publication Ethics Commission), but readers complained that “something” is missing in the story. With the exception of a few feminist groups, there have been no complaints over his provocative images of female bodies.
Maybe the solution to the dwindling readership is for artists to take on overseas markets.
The recently published English editions of Mr. Lee’s greatest hits, such as “Nambul: War Stories” and “Mythology of the Heavens,” have offered foreign readers an inside look at Korean culture. “Foreigners like to learn about Korea through my works, because they aren’t familiar with Korea yet,” Mr. Lee said when introducing his works at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year. “Surpringingly, the strong emotions found in ‘Nambul’ have a certain appeal to them because it is rare in other European comics.”
Mr. Lee’s work has also caught the eyes of Japanese producers: the Japanese broadcaster TBS has signed a deal with Korea’s MBC to produce a television drama based on Mr. Lee’s “Ring of Hell,” starring Won Bin and Gyoko Fukuda.
The Internet, in the meantime, has allowed talented young artists to launch their careers. The cartoonist Kang Full, who built his reputation online, plans to publish his compilation of works, “Love Story” in Japan soon.
“That means Korean artists can now work in the big wide world,” said Lee Chul.
by Ines Cho, Kong Jun-wan