Meet South Korean man­hwa mas­ter Hur Young-man.

A house­hold name and best-sell­ing leg­end in South Ko­rea, Hur Young-man de­serves global ac­claim as a re­mark­able mae­stro of mul­ti­ple gen­res of man­hwa, says Paul Gravett

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

In South Ko­rea comics are called man­hwa, a term de­rived from the same two Chi­nese char­ac­ters that gave us “manga” in Ja­panese. Man­hwa have be­come among the most di­verse and dy­namic comics in Asia. What be­gan as a pa­per phe­nom­e­non, se­ri­alised in mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers or 100-page book­lets avail­able from a net­work of man­hwa­bangs or rental li­braries, has trans­formed in the 21st cen­tury into an ex­plo­sion of ad­dic­tive dig­i­tal webtoons, down­loaded in their mil­lions ev­ery day. These changes par­al­lel Hur Young-man’s ca­reer so far of nearly 50 years, dur­ing which he has au­thored more than 150,000 pages for over 100 se­ries. Of these hits – span­ning science fic­tion, com­edy, box­ing, base­ball, gam­bling, po­lit­i­cal his­tory, teen ro­mance and Korean cui­sine – 20 or so have been adapted into tele­vi­sion shows, movies and games.

A youth­ful 70 this year, Mr. Hur re­mains in his prime, work­ing on his lat­est project, a graphic doc­u­men­tary ex­plor­ing our love af­fair with cof­fee. His orig­i­nal art draws crowds to gallery ex­hi­bi­tions in Seoul, Bu­san and Paris. It was af­ter the packed open­ing of his French show at the Korean Cul­tural Centre that he gave this in­ter­view, made pos­si­ble by Mat­tress Agency, Kim Junghee and Lau­rent Mé­likian. Go­ing from strength to strength, Mr. Hur’s un­re­lent­ing ded­i­ca­tion is proof that comics re­ally are “a Young-man’s game”.

Comic He­roes: What prompted you to take up comics?

Hur Young-Man: I was born in 1947 in Yeosu on the south coast of Ko­rea. I grew up in a family of eight chil­dren with an el­der brother and sis­ter who read a chil­dren’s monthly con­tain­ing comics. I nat­u­rally read them with them. My par­ents were busy traders who were very tol­er­ant and let us read comics, even though they had a bad rep­u­ta­tion. I have al­ways drawn. In 1966, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, I left for Seoul, where I was ap­pren­ticed to man­hwa authors for seven years. In 1974 I par­tic­i­pated in a pub­lisher’s tal­ent con­test un­der my own name. Since then I have been work­ing as a comics cre­ator. I have the chance to do what I love. If there is a God, I thank him for it.

The cen­sors could say no for any un­pre­dictable de­tail

CH: You say that comics had a bad rep­u­ta­tion when you were grow­ing up?

HY: In­deed. In the late 1960s un­til the mid-1970s, on Na­tional Chil­dren’s Day on May 5th, po­lice of­fi­cers would col­lect comics and adult films and burn them in pub­lic. I lived through this very hard pe­riod. We comics authors were in a con­stant strug­gle with the gov­ern­ment to let us work in peace. In ad­di­tion, we were looked down on; even the pro­duc­tion qual­ity of our books was poor. When we had suc­cesses, they tried to keep us down...

CH: Isn’t cen­sor­ship a prob­lem you faced with your first hit, the masked hero Gak­si­tal in 1974?

HY: Yes. Gak­si­tal was de­signed for the rental li­braries. Within three months, it was such a big suc­cess, it en­cour­aged oth­ers to pro­duce sim­i­lar comics with masked he­roes. And these led to the state cen­sors ask­ing me to stop my se­ries. I asked why I had to stop pro­duc­ing Gak­si­tal, and not the other de­sign­ers. I was told that if I stopped, the oth­ers would do the same... Since the 1960s, there has been a lot of cen­sor­ship in Ko­rea. For ex­am­ple, you couldn’t show a brother and a sis­ter in the same bed due to moral is­sues re­lated to Con­fu­cian­ism. Comics about sport were very suc­cess­ful, but it was dif­fi­cult to pro­pose a se­ries on box­ing be­cause it was con­sid­ered too vi­o­lent. So we pro­duced mainly base­ball sto­ries. To­day cen­sor­ship does not ex­ist any more, but I com­pare it to a water­melon: if you grow a water­melon in­side a square box, it will take the form of a cube. If you re­move the box, the water­melon will stay like a cube for a long time. I think that Ja­panese manga have been so im­pres­sive be­cause there was re­ally no cen­sor­ship there.

prob­lem in Korean comics now?

HY: Some­times sex is a prob­lem. It has hap­pened that an in­ex­pe­ri­enced at­tor­ney uses this pre­text to pros­e­cute a man­hwa au­thor and even­tu­ally aban­dons the case. Some still speak of a limit on free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Per­son­ally I do not feel it. CH: Gak­si­tal is a sort of Korean Zorro, fight­ing in­jus­tices un­der the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion of Ko­rea in the ’30s. Might this be seen as pro­mot­ing re­sis­tance to all au­thor­i­tar­ian pow­ers, and hence the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment in power at that time?

HY: I don’t think the Korean au­thor­i­ties who con­trolled us then were smart enough to see that. To get our comics pub­lished, we had to get them a synopsis of a few pages be­fore start­ing pro­duc­tion. For Gak­si­tal, I ex­plained that my story would show Kore­ans in a re­sis­tance movement against the Ja­panese and that the bour­geois and the peo­ple were united, an al­liance I don’t think the au­thor­i­ties liked. The cen­sors could say no for any un­pre­dictable de­tail. We de­vised strate­gies to avoid this. In box­ing sto­ries, for ex­am­ple, we couldn’t show the im­pact of the hero’s punch hit­ting his op­po­nent. So to get around

that, I split the one draw­ing into two pan­els, sep­a­rat­ing the two fight­ers, and it was passed. CH: To cre­ate so many pages, you work with as­sis­tants?

HY: Yes, with ap­pren­tices. At one time I worked with 27 of them! It was too many. I think I have the largest num­ber of ap­pren­tices who have be­come pro­fes­sion­als them­selves. Some­times they’re re­ferred to as the “Hur-man’s gang”. Nor­mally I don’t keep them too long. If they have tal­ent and are orig­i­nal, they must seize their in­de­pen­dence, even if I’d pre­fer them to keep help­ing me. One of my for­mer ap­pren­tices is

Yoon Tae-ho, who be­came the very pop­u­lar cre­ator of the webtoons

Moss and Mosaeng. I of­ten ask him for tech­ni­cal ad­vice about draw­ing on the com­puter. CH: You be­gan as an ap­pren­tice. What tasks did you have to do?

HY: I wanted to go to univer­sity to study West­ern paint­ing but my family had fi­nan­cial prob­lems and couldn’t af­ford to send me. I wrote to many prospec­tive comics teach­ers and I was hired first by Park Moon-yun, who is not that fa­mous in the his­tory of man­hwa. My first task was to di­lute the sticks of black Chi­nese ink, very time-con­sum­ing – get­ting

a small con­tainer of ink was a whole day’s work. The sec­ond job con­sisted of fill­ing in the flat ar­eas of his art­work in black. Then there were the sets to draw and work­ing on the sce­nario, and only then could we be­came pro­fes­sional. So there are four stages, but I was lucky, my teach­ers saw that I was tal­ented and I skipped the first two. I was an ex­cep­tional case. The older ap­pren­tices hated me. CH: Once you be­came a pro­fes­sional, could the cost of ap­pren­tices be prob­lem­atic?

HY: Yes, the pub­lish­ers pro­vided us with ad­vance pay­ments to pro­duce a dozen books, but in re­al­ity these cov­ered only two books. We were of­ten in dif­fi­culty. Also, be­tween com­mis­sions my ap­pren­tices could rest, but they had to al­ways be avail­able. Here in Paris, I met graphic nov­el­ist Jac­ques Fer­ran­dez, who told me to work alone. I dream about it. But to pro­duce my four pages each day, I need a min­i­mum of four ap­pren­tices...

CH: What were your in­flu­ences? HY: In high school I liked the ad­ven­ture and science fic­tion man­hwa of Kim San-ho. [ Born 1939, he con­tin­ued his ca­reer from the late 1960s in the USA

at Charl­ton Comics.] I didn’t like science fic­tion, but I greatly ad­mire Ja­pan’s Osamu Tezuka and As­tro

Boy. In 1968 I was ap­pren­ticed to an­other artist, Lee Han-wan. In his stu­dio, I saw my first Ja­panese comics and I re­alised that some Korean se­ries were traced and re­versed from manga. This ex­plains the large num­ber of left‑handed char­ac­ters in our pub­li­ca­tions. To­day, Ja­panese in­flu­ence re­mains im­por­tant in Ko­rea, and around the world. Ba­si­cally, copy­ing be­fore un­der­tak­ing your own creations is a nat­u­ral process. CH: Af­ter suf­fer­ing un­der the au­thor­i­ties, how did you come to be com­mis­sioned by them in 1988 for Oh, Gang Han (“Oh, Han River”) about the

con­fronta­tion be­tween North and South Ko­rea?

HY: This pe­riod cor­re­sponds to the end­ing of South Ko­rea’s mil­i­tary regime, when stu­dents were of­ten demon­strat­ing. One day my edi­tor in­tro­duced me to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. Their idea was to en­cour­age peo­ple not to demon­strate any more by telling the story of a North Korean. I is­sued my con­di­tions. I told them that un­til now their pro­pa­ganda de­picted the Com­mu­nists crudely as blood­thirsty. No in­tel­lec­tual could be­lieve in such pro­pa­ganda. I asked them to trust me and not to in­ter­fere in my cre­ation. They wanted to use me and I wanted to use them. I didn’t de­vise a story to pre­vent demon­stra­tions. I wanted to in­tro­duce stu­dents to the deeper con­text of the post-war pe­riod and ex­plain the ex­pec­ta­tions of the Com­mu­nists. My hero is a serf work­ing for a rich family be­fore in­de­pen­dence. When war broke out, he joined the North be­fore be­ing taken pris­oner by the South.

Later his son be­comes an ac­tivist.

Oh, Gang Han cov­ers a thou­sand pages. In col­leges, ev­ery­one read it. I couldn’t go to univer­sity but thanks to this se­ries I felt like a stu­dent. In the end, I don’t know if my story en­cour­aged them more or less to march down the street. But I reached my goal, to write a po­lit­i­cal his­tory. CH: What re­sponse did you get from the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices about Oh, Gang Han?

HY: Noth­ing. Ex­cept on one oc­ca­sion: I had drawn the hero on a full page in front of the North Korean flag. A po­lice­man called to see if it was me who had pro­duced that draw­ing. He said, “Be care­ful!” That warn­ing was the only time they in­ter­vened. CH: You choose a wide va­ri­ety of top­ics. With Sik­gaek (“The Gourmet”, 2002-08) you seem to have found a pow­er­ful sub­ject in Korean gas­tron­omy…

HY: When I started think­ing about a se­ries on food, I was think­ing only about kim­chi [ fer­mented veg­eta­bles used in Korean cui­sine]. Af­ter some re­search, I learned there are over 150 kinds of kim­chi and it is only a side dish. As a sub­ject it was too lim­ited, as I wanted to talk about food in gen­eral, al­co­holic bev­er­ages in­cluded. Food rep­re­sents his­tory and cul­ture. Three times a day, ev­ery­one won­ders, “What am I go­ing to eat?” And family ties are in­ti­mately linked to food. I con­cen­trated on this line while pre­sent­ing the va­ri­ety of re­gions of Ko­rea where I trav­elled. To deal with the max­i­mum top­ics, I tried to write short episodes to pub­lish two per month, at a rate of four pages a day in the Dong-A Ilbo news­pa­per. It was an ex­cit­ing job.

For me, the sad­dest dish from this coun­try comes from the West coast, where there is not much to eat in sum­mer. Small con­i­cal shells are used, which are crushed be­fore be­ing cooked. It didn’t taste great, but the peo­ple from the area had a lot of fun see­ing this story. CH: Did you go to North Ko­rea? HY: Yes, but I was pre­vented from meet­ing peo­ple. I was of­fered in­ter­views with chefs from the big

ho­tels, but it did not make sense, so I re­fused. I didn’t want to omit the North. So I went to China, close to the North Korean border. In one episode, I ap­proach the ques­tion by show­ing a char­ac­ter from the North who adds pork to his kim­chi. CH: You’re work­ing on a se­ries about cof­fee. Why this topic?

HY: A se­ries needs a topic that in­ter­ests a wide au­di­ence. I’m in­ter­ested in wine, but the Ja­panese manga The Drops of God by Shin Kibayashi has be­come the ref­er­ence on this sub­ject. If I’d also em­barked on wine, I’d have been ac­cused of pla­gia­rism. Fi­nally, my son gave me the idea of cof­fee, which young Kore­ans love. Then, while hik­ing, I met peo­ple who were car­ry­ing their own es­presso ma­chine, and won­dered why they made so much ef­fort to make cof­fee. I ended up learn­ing about the ba­sics of cof­fee, and to­day I un­der­stand them bet­ter and I do not drink in­stant cof­fee. With­out be­ing ad­dicted, I drink very weak cof­fee. My doc­tor for­bids me to drink it any stronger.

Above: Pages from Mr. Hur’s early suc­cess Gak­si­tal (lit­er­ally “Bridal Mask”) about a masked free­dom fighter.

Be­low: Hur Young-man is still ac­tive af­ter a ca­reer span­ning more than 50 years.

Right: 1990’s The Wall was Mr. Hur’s first se­ries aimed at an adult au­di­ence. Above: Mr. Hur at work in his stu­dio.

Above: Su­per­board is Mr. Hur’s take on Dragon

Ball, and has proved just as pop­u­lar in Ko­rea.

Above: Oh, Gang Han was com­mis­sioned by the South Korean au­thor­i­ties and cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with writer Kim Se-yeong.

Be­low: Sports are a hugely pop­u­lar topic for man­hwa, par­tic­u­larly base­ball, but vi­o­lence is con­tro­ver­sial, as Mr. Hur found when he chose to de­pict box­ing too.

Above: The re­mark­ably broad range of Korean man­hwa is re­flected in Mr. Hur’s work, from

Sik­gaek (“The Gourmet”, above left) to “To­day is Horse Day” (centre) to “Beat” (right).

Be­low: A story note from Mr. Hur’s note­book. Sev­eral of his works have been adapted into films and TV se­ries.

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