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Hur Young-man:

My Brilliant Korea

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, the South Korean name for comics, 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 fifty years, during which he has authored more than 150,000 pages for over one hundred series. Of these hits, spanning science fiction, comedy, boxing, baseball, gambling, political history, teen romance and Korean cuisine, twenty or so have been adapted into television shows, movies and games.

A youthful seventy this year, Mr. Hur remains in his prime, working on his latest project, a graphic documentary exploring our love affair with coffee, while his original artworks draw crowds to gallery exhibitions in Seoul (in 2015 at the Seoul Arts Center, poster and photos below), Busan and Paris. It was after the packed opening of his show at the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris in December 20176 that I had the chance to interview him in person. This interview was 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’. And you can see several pages of his original artwork in the Barbican Centre’s touring exhibition MANGASIA: WONDERLANDS OF ASIAN COMICS.

Paul Gravett: 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, they 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 other manhwa authors for seven years. In 1974, I participated in a publisher’s talent contest working under my own name: Hur Young-man. 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.

You say that comics had a bad reputation?

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…

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

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 mainly produced baseball stories. Today censorship does not exist any more, but I compare it to the phenomenon of 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.

Is there really no censorship problem in Korean comics today?

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.

To return to Gaksital, your hero is a sort of Korean Zorro, who fought in the Thirties against injustices under the Japanese occupation of Korea. Might his example be interpreted as promoting resistance to all authoritarian powers and therefore to that of the military government in power at that time?

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.

To create so many pages, you work with assistants?

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.

You began as an apprentice yourself. What tasks did you have to do?

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 fanous 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.

Once you became a professional, could the cost of apprentices be problematic?

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 novelists 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…

What were your influences?

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.

After suffering under the authorities, how were you commissioned by them in 1988 for Oh! Gang Han (‘Oh! Han River’) about the confrontation between North and South Korea?

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.

What response did you get from the intelligence services about Oh! Gang Han?

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.

You choose a wide variety of topics. With Sik Gaek (‘The Gournet’, 2002-08) you seem to have found a powerful subject in Korean gastronomy…

When I started thinking about a series on food, I was thinking only about kimchi (NB 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.

Did you go to North Korea?

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.

Today you are working on a series about coffee. Why this topic?

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 that 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.

Posted: March 4, 2018

This profile and interview was first published in Comic Heroes Magazine, 2017.
Photo of Hur Young-man © & courtesy of Yu Jeongmi, IU Books, 2017.
With thanks to Kang Dong-hoon from Plaincomm.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett