Fostering Understanding Through Comics [Sangsaeng Spring/11]

!@#… UNESCO 아태교육원의 계간지 Sangsaeng의 이번 호 특집 “만화로 더 나은 세상을 그려내기“에 참여한 꼭지. 내용 축약 없이 잘 해주신만큼 편집부가 문장 다듬어주신 버전을 올릴까 했으나, 전용 문서 열람기에서 잘 긁어오기가 난망해서 그냥 원래 기고한 것으로 올린다. 그런데 영어라서 죄송합니다(…) 애초에 영어로 써서, 영어 버전밖에 없어요.

…여담이지만, 원래 처음 탈고한 버전은 초반에 더 날선 내용들(‘위안부리포트’라든지 ‘고마니즘선언’이라든지…)이 다소 있었으나, 지면성격을 고려하여 편집진과 상의후 좀 더 희망찬 내용만 남겼음.

 

Understanding Others Through Comics

Needless to say, there are few things more desirable and harder to achieve than having people understand other cultures and find ways to coexist. Which in turn means that anything and everything available should be utilized if it helps to attain that goal. It would be all the better if those tools are popular and accessible, without having to sacrifice depth. Fortunately, there is one art form which is more than suitable for that task: comics.

The strength of comics is its ability to translate abstract concepts into exciting episodes by employing a visual narrative. It is also well-known for its frequent use of simplification, which on one hand contributes to easier communication but on the other hand can be blamed for stereotyping. As such, there have been cases when the effectiveness of comics for explaining concepts were misused by those who don’t want coexistence to prevail. Japanese comics that denounce Korean society and culture as being fake, as well as Korean comics depicting the Japanese as evil are far from being rare in both fiction and non-fiction. Using crude caricatures of each other’s cultures is an easy way to devise antagonists, from historical accounts, fictional super villains or as political conspiracies.

But in the hands of the appropriate people, comics can be a bliss. One of the most prominent efforts to use comics for fostering international understanding of each other was a joint effort by Korean, Chinese and Japanese history scholars, which resulted in a school textbook and the 3-volume comic series A History to Open The Children’s Future (어린이의 미래를 여는 역사). It is an international project to overcome the rather nationalistic history education curriculum prevalent in each of those countries, and explore the long history of those Far East Asian countries in terms of their active interactions and exchanges. Instead of parting the line between national borders, this work focuses on how the people of those nations have influenced one another, worked together to overcome oppressive regimes and ultimately drawing from past lessons to suggest ways to build a better common future. The comics version is especially tailored for the younger readers, elegantly mixing cute comic book protagonists and actual historical images.

Another obvious way to use comics for understanding each other’s cultures is to publish a collaborative anthology with international artists. L’amitie (아미띠에. French title: Coree) is a collection of short stories by several Korean and French comic artists, and was published simultaneously in the two countries to commemorate 120 years of diplomacy. The stories tell either stories about the crossing between traditional and modern, either of the artist’s own culture or what they have discovered about each other’s. It was the second book in a series by the French publisher Casterman, preceded by a similarly organized French-Japanese anthology Japon and followed by French-Chinese effort Chine. The themes of reflecting on one’s own and discovering other’s culture is a pleasant departure from the convenient hostility-driven plots.

Works about the present can also be interesting. The web comic Gumi’s Foreign Student Comic (노란구미의 유학생만화) was done by a Korean-Japanese author, who came to Korea as an exchange college student and keenly observed the subtle differences and similarities of everyday life in both countries. In a sitcom-like style, this work describes how both cultures are similar and different, but ultimately what matters most is to embrace and coexist with each other.

To carry a real message, it doesn’t necessarily take a non-fictional approach. The long-running hit series Oishinbo (美味しんぼ) is a comic about people competing to discover the ultimate gourmet food. In the process of pursuing the most healthy, delicious and culturally meaningful food, the characters have to deal with many social issues present and past. It includes a lot of discoveries on how international influences have affected even the most seemingly traditional cultures. Also the characters are always prone to criticize the widespread ignorance on the past and intolerance toward other cultures. More often than not, the most shining gourmet recipes introduced in this work are when tradition coexists with influence.

As seen from the works cited above, a general approach of well-made comics about understanding other cultures is to actively redefine boundaries. Instead of clinging to national borders and the nationalistic feelings attached to them, those works try to draw a common ground with lots of interaction. The antagonists are not ‘the other side of the national border’, but those who oppress a more harmonious life of the people from various nations. With this message at heart, comics can take any form ranging from fiction, documentary to semi-biographical essay to convey them. Some are more explanation-heavy, while others include them more subtly in their dramatic story. Some are drawn with cute characters, and some others are more seriously detailed in its graphic depictions. Some are humorous, while others just convey the messages dryly. But all of them are never shy to strongly support understanding and coexistence, while fighting against anything that hinders that effort.

 

– Nakho Kim

PS. 그런데 게재본을 보니 Comics researcher가 아니라, 청강국제만화교류연구소장으로 직함이 올라갔더라는… 이거 참 가히 오랜만에 들어보는 명칭이다;;;(원래 2003년경 박인하 교수가 소장, c모가 수석연구원으로 자처하여 만든 곳으로, 실상은 외부 펀딩 끌고온 국제세미나를 기획/진행하기 위해서는 깔쌈한 기관명 및 c모의 그럴듯한 호칭이 필요하기에 만든 2인 태그팀)

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