Webtoon readers implore cartoonist to tell them another creepy story
In Korea, before webtoons started dominating the screens of smartphones, children were obsessed with comic books. Some of the most popular comic book series also served educational purposes, like teaching hanja (the Korean name for Chinese characters), or even survival tips for the outdoors.
Kids would stack up entire series on their bookshelves, for instance the children’s comic book series on Greek and Roman mythology, which were bestsellers in the early 2000s. Readers found the stories so entertaining as children that they were inspired to take mythology-related classes later at university.
At the time, they filled up the majority of bestseller shelves at the children's books section at Kyobo Bookstore branches, and at school, the stories were the talk of the town.
The series is no longer available to purchase as it stopped being printed years ago. However, in August last year, “Tell Me a Creepy Story!” returned to Naver Webtoon. Fans of the series, who were in elementary school at the comic books’ peak, are once again rooting for its revival, now as adults.
Lee sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at his studio in Jung District, central Seoul, on Feb. 14.
Lee debuted in 1987 after winning a local contest for rookie cartoonists, but he said that even to this day he has to tell everyone that he is the creator of “Tell Me a Creepy Story!” for people to recognize him.
“If I introduce myself as cartoonist Lee Dong-kyu, no one knows who I am,” Lee joked.
Lee drew over a hundred scary short stories that kept children up at night. With a new book of about 200 pages being published almost every month, one wonders where he got his inspiration.
“[In the early 2000s] there were a lot of horror specials on television, where celebrities would light candles and tell each other scary stories,” Lee explained. “At the time, copyright issues weren’t really taken seriously so I got a lot of ideas from these shows, and also from online posts on blogs. If I thought a specific motif would work I would build something from it, and maybe even mix some together.”
After Lee finished writing the 12th book of the series, he took an extended break from creating new comics and mostly taught at universities. Lee says that it was thanks to his fans that he was able to bring the series back.
“I’ve been updating stuff on my blog [on Naver] for at least 10 years,” Lee said. “More than 90,000 people visited my blog, and then the JoongAng Ilbo posted an article [on its Naver channel] titled ‘5 Comic Books that Bring Back Memories for Those Born in the 90s.’ ‘Tell Me a Creepy Story!’ was listed as No. 1.”
After the JoongAng Ilbo post was published in March 2019, fans started swarming to Lee’s blog and contacted him to ask him to bring back the series as a webtoon, since the books were no longer in print. Lee was amazed at how even after all these years, people still remembered his comics.
Lee’s blog has had nearly 220,000 visits as of Feb. 21.
“A fan told me that they were unable to read my comic books when they were little because their mother refused to buy them,” Lee said. “So they begged me to serialize it into a webtoon so that they could finally read them since they’re an adult now.”
The original plan was to upload just five chosen episodes “to see how the readers would react,” but the comic book-turned-webtoon blew up instantly.
After unveiling its first episode on Aug. 24 last year, the series shot to No. 1 on Naver Webtoon’s list of trending webtoons. All of the current episodes have ratings in the nine-point range.
One of the top comments on the first episode, with over 62,000 likes, reads “Wow I feel like I’ve just seen my best friend at a reunion.” Another, with over 15,000 likes, says “I’m 28 and still so scared [to read this] that I had to scroll down slowly.”
With the webtoon grabbing attention, Naver Webtoon announced in the third episode that 10 more episodes will be published.
In each episode, fans are eager to point out in the comments what has changed in the new version, with some comparing the differences in the illustrations or plot.
“I had a very tight schedule when I was writing the books, and there were limits on how much I could fit on the pages. So I’ve always felt that the books could’ve been better quality if I had more time,” Lee said. “The webtoon versions have gotten much longer because I added more details in the stories.”
For example, the protagonists in the original comic books were children, but in the webtoon, recurring characters Kyung-hee and Seong-hye are portrayed as adults. They were named after two of Lee’s close friends from university.
One episode, titled “Elevator,” is about two doctors who work the night shift at a hospital and end up riding a haunted elevator filled with vindictive spirits. In the original story that was pretty much all there was to the story, but Lee added more details to the webtoon, like a conversation between the doctors about the difficulties of working in the medical field. The webtoon story also takes place on Ghost Day, the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, which Chinese culture says is when ghosts visit the living.
Lee said that he has mostly received positive feedback from fans for his longer, more descriptive stories. However, in some parts that Lee has edited, like changing the illustrations of flip phones to smartphones in order to fit the present day setting, some fans have expressed disapproval.
“I never thought it would become a problem, but some readers apparently want the flip phones to stay exactly the way they were in the early 2000s,” Lee said. “Since the books are a memory from their elementary school years, I guess they don’t want the story to ‘grow up’ too, rather just stay as it is. So now I try to maintain the setting in 2005,” Lee laughed.
The beauty of “Tell Me a Creepy Story!” was how the illustrations and plot were suitable for children, yet still elicited an eeriness, as intended. The drawings aren’t as graphic as one would expect for the horror genre and deemed appropriate for children.
“The thing about these stories is that there are no explicit scenes,” Lee explained. “It’s all about the atmosphere, and the fear that a ghost might appear. There aren’t scenes where someone gets attacked by a ghost and dies from being shredded to pieces.”
One of the most famous stories in Lee’s books “The Red Mask” is an adaptation of the Japanese urban legend “Kuchisake-onna,” which translates to “slit-mouthed woman.” It tells the story of a woman who covers her face with a red mask to hide her mouth, which is slit from ear to ear. When encountering the woman, she will ask if she is pretty but will kill you whatever you answer. Some of the ways to get rid of her is to give her cinnamon-flavored candy, or write the hanja for ‘dog’ on the palm of your hand.
“In my stories ghosts are practically everywhere, including the bathroom and the elevator. That’s what caused children to become afraid of going to these places alone,” Lee said. “Like in ‘The Red Mask,’ the main character meets the ghost [the slit-mouthed woman] in the fork of a road, so children were actually scared to pass these locations by themselves.”
“I was scared to walk past alleys at night when I was little,” 24-year-old Choi Min-seong, who lives in Songpa District, southern Seoul, said. Choi was an avid reader of the series when he was younger. “I remember frequently writing the hanja for ‘dog’ on my hand.”
“I’ve heard many cases of kids being terrified of flipping to the next page, or even having to sleep next to their parents at night which made their parents throw out the comic books,” Lee said.
Lee has plans to release more episodes from the original comic books, in addition to some new never-before-seen ones.
“I’ve been thinking about my plans after ‘Tell Me a Creepy Story!,’ and I want to try to release new episodes,” Lee said. “But I’m going to have to run it by Naver first. Nothing has been decided yet.”
Throughout the interview, Lee’s eyes glistened with a certain sense of thrill and anticipation. His once-ended series is now seeing a new breath of life.
“I never expected that this would suddenly see so much recognition again after all these years,” Lee said. “I was satisfied with it remaining as a cherished memory among my readers. Now it’s set an example for aspiring cartoonists; that something like this is possible and that it can happen.”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]