Contemporary Young Korean Comics
by Kim NakHo
Comics are forms of expression filled with diversity and youthful energy. Since the beginning, comics broke away from the rigidity of the standard art to freely express its messages and become an integral part of the popular culture.
If freedom to overcome the existing limits is indeed one of its virtues, such freedom is bound to be most ardently embodied by the young artists. The younger generation tries to communicate their diverse inner sensitivity and thoughts by using this effective new method rather than being confined to the old frame. In particular, young artists in Korea hold the added responsibility to create greater comics and thus overcome the trap of being tied to the mainstream genre that could easily become standardized under the industrial interests of capitalism. In addition to creating a new awareness and narrative style within the frameworks of the traditional comics style, their weapons are new visual styles, new comics grammar, up-to-date sensibility and message as well as the capacity to exterminate the borderline between various forms of media. With these progresses being made, it would be ideal to expand the world of comics by joining hands with many other youthful progresses around the world.
Trends Among Korean Comics Artists
With the dawning of the 1990s, many young artists began to openly express their various desires to open a new era in comics. YANG Young-Soonï¿½s [Noodle Nude] and LEE Yoo-Jungï¿½s [Hair], which depict male sexual fantasies, and YOON Tae-Hoï¿½s [Outrageous Life], which satirically portrays the desire for a ï¿½stronger malenessï¿½ in Korea through the local baseball team, as well as KWON Ga-Yaï¿½s [The Sun and the Moon] and PARK Heung-Yongï¿½s [Like the Moon Out of the Clouds], which show philosophical and compositional desires using the framework of heroic historical drama, are all good examples of such attempts.
The mainstream genres in comics are usually those that maximize on certain factors that are easily approachable and enjoyable for public. Hence it is essential to understand and reinterpret this principle without being absorbed into the mainstream genre. Successful examples of such reinterpretation include YOON Tae-Ho’s [YAHOO], which inherited the pulp ‘Manhwabang comics’ of the 80s, and KWON Ga-Ya’s [Men’s Story], which philosophically reinvented traditional heroic comics. Also, BYUN Byung-Joon’s [Princess Anna] undertook the intensely descriptive realism of the 80s to successfully describe the characters filled with empty hatred in their eyes.
The Myungrangmanhwa(‘jolly comics’) genre that was almost extinct by the early 90s, have been reinterpreted and resuscitated in a new style. A critical analysis of the current affairs and realistic portrayal of everyday lives was added to what was previously mostly relying on sitcoms that focused on slapstick comedy and episodes revolving around the characters. Some fine works in this field include HONG Seung-Woo’s [Bibimtoon], which is currently being published in daily newspaper section, KIM Jin-Tae’s [The Glorious Citizen], and JUNG Yeon-Sik’s [Ddodi]. CHOI Ho-Chul’s [Euljiro Subway Line] or KO Kyung-Il’s serial portrayals of an alley are great examples of reinterpretation of the standard cartoons that provoke warm emotion by capturing truthful and ordinary facets of our everyday lives.
More radical experimentation with comics occur among those who completely deny all aspects of the mainstream comics. COMIX, one such underground comics group, use rough and unrefined drawings that are typical of such underground groups to express their defiance of the reality or their transcendental capacity to overcome such reality. KWAK Sang-Won’s [Still Romance Prevails] and other works depict warm romantic stories using unexpectedly rough, graffiti sketching.
However, the expansion of the young comics in the truest sense was achieved by women. Some of their representative works include PARK Hee-Jung’s [Hotel Africa], which captured the intricate sensibility in daily life through explorative graphic and comics metaphors and LEE Kang-Joo’s [For the Kangaroo]. Feminists’ forthright messages are well captured in LEE Jin-Kyung’s [Four Springs] and HAN Hye-Yeon’s [Prohibited Love], both of which are filled with serious contemplation on what it is like to live as a woman in the patriarchal Korean society and what should be done about it. Women comic artists are also in the front line of shifting away from the existing framework to expand on the aesthetic expressions in the world of comics. LEE Ae-Rim, who made quite a sensation in her debut using a unique visual effect, is still boldly experimenting with different styles such as the psychedelic style in [Aurora]. CHOI In-Sun who has incorporated traditional subjects of Korean culture and realistic awareness into the realm of overly exaggerated cartoon metaphor, has created a unique artistic world with a number of short works such as [Father]. IWAN, an artist with a different tendency, freely expresses a unique monotonous bizarre architectural world in the space of a geometrical partition on paper or of online interaction in [Jumping].
Another distinctive trait among these young artists is their approach on their work as an ‘objet’, to be exhibited to public in art galleries. KANG Sung-Soo’s installation art using comics or HongIk University’s comics club Nemorami’s experimental installation of comics are good examples of such tendency which began in the mid 90s, LEE Hyang-Woo culminates such tendency in a more organized comics installation shown at [Fantasy Exhibition] when she uses diverse objects to express the city and fairytale-like sentiments. LEE Woo-Il, the author of [Woo-Il’s Fable] also heads for the same goal.
Another important tendency among the young artists in Korea is the active use of information technology such as the internet. Mo Hae-Kyu, who is also the chief editor of [Hottoon] is one of the pioneers in the field of flash comics and mobile comic strips which can be downloaded through the mobile phone. Kwon Yoon-Joo, created the [Snowcat] homepage, in which all factors in the homepage, including its Snowcat character and homepage design are an integral part of her art work.
The traditional school of art are increasingly becoming aware of the comics. More and more young fine art artists are beginning to accept the unique attraction of the comics language that is capable of embracing creative concepts. As result, contacts with the artistic genres other than comics are also becoming more frequent.
Young Korean comics, evolving into various directions, have several common factors. Among them, one is the combination of autobiographical factor and comics-specific metaphor as a means to emphasize ordinary things. The more serious young artists have begun to reveal stories close to their real experiences in order to convey a more honest sensibility and awareness.
Another factor is the ambiguity in the borderline between the media. Many young artists are currently expanding their scope of work from what was previously a mere cross-over between comics and animations into other areas such as installation arts with comics as the objet, internet, music and even games. In particular, the various experimentations with the internet are on the high-rise due to Korea’s high-speed internet environment.
Independent publication, self-financed publication and such are also the latest common tendencies. Perhaps it is obvious that budding artists, who want to voice out their opinions more freely, do not wish to give their work or be dependent upon the major publishing companies that are still dwelling in the traditional and outdated production method and genres.
However, the most distinguishing tendency of the young animators not only in Korea but also around the world is their open-mindedness. They are ready to exchange with any form of comics in any cultural region, in any country and to influence each other. Through their accomplishments, comics will take a further step into actively creating a new variation of styles contributing to their evolution.
[From: official guidebook for the exhibition “La dynamique de la bandee dessinnee coreene”(The Dynamics of Korean Comics), held at Angouleme International Comics Festival, 2003.1.]