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Sung-hee Kim:

Seeking Truths in Korean Manhwa

Budding South Korean writer and artist Sung-hee Kim began by majoring in international economics to please her parents, until one day the wind wafted a copy of the student newspaper across her path. “I took this as the answer,” she recalls. “I joined the newsroom and became the paper’s editorial cartoonist.” Her true calling had begun.

Kim was drawn to the genre of autobiographical comics which her emerging peers Subak Kim, Yongdeuk Kwon and Ancco were establishing in Korea at the time. “I was intrigued that they were drawing stories showing their discoveries about themselves. Through lots of conversations, we supported and competed with each other to find a deeper ‘me-ness’.”

Good-for-nothing Girl (2010), her candid graphic novel debut, presented a 30-something daughter’s perspectives on her place in society. “The family I grew up in was very patriarchial, but at least they gave boys and girls equal educational opportunities. Still they had expectations for me to become financially independent, which I had failed to meet.” Gradually, her comics career would take off.

Kim followed up with her stories in Yongsan, Where I Lived (Vol. 1, 2010 & Vol. 2, 2012 (above)), named after her own neighbourhood of Seoul and a ‘New Town’ redevelopment district. On January 20th 2009, residents had protested against being forcibly evicted from their homes without notifications or negotiations. In their escalating clashes with 1,500 police and private security officers hired by the construction companies, five tenants and one policeman were killed. Brought to court, nine protestors were jailed for the cop’s death, but all fifteen policemen accused of committing an illegal crackdown were acquitted.

Kim was critical of Korean media coverage which “makes people see conflicts only through capitalistic lenses. I tried to explain the tragedy of real-estate development through the people being expelled who have the right to live and make a living. I also focussed on the violence by the state and capitalism. Making more money was the sole reason they hurried those property developments, even using illegal measures. Despite that, many thought this was simply ‘the have-nots’ being greedy, or that they should put up with this sort of injustice.”

Pursuing non-fiction reportage in her comics, Kim in Dustfree Room (2012) (above) thoroughly researched how workers were unwittingly exposed to toxic materials while making semiconductors in Samsung’s factories, linked to several deaths from leukemia, while the powerful ‘chaebol’ or global conglomerate refused to admit responsibility. “Ordinary citizens take great pride in Samsung semiconductors, so they didn’t believe the story. Even the workers doubted it. That was my starting point. I met the victims’ families, learned all about the manufacturing process and researched working conditions through retired engineers.” The result is a startlingly clear graphic indictment of corporate denial.

Speaking of cover-ups, Kim’s new comic for ArtReview Asia magazine (below), ‘The Tale of a Sad and Funny Country’, looks back to the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster and its ongoing fallout. As for where this scandal will lead, Kim feels, “We are likely to witness lies being covered up with bigger lies. But civil society won’t simply leave the truth buried.”

Now in her forties, the impact of social situations on her own life and family is reflected in Life Energy at 4 o’clock (two sample panels, above), her return to autobiography and her first foray into regular webtoons, a booming phenomenon in Korea thanks to ubiquitous wifi and free downloads.

Politically and socially committed, Kim might be seen as taking risks using her comics for citizen journalism. She admits, “At first, I was afraid as an individual. But what I felt was just the social pressure to remain silent, instead of any direct threat to me. I believe that with support for social exposé growing one reader at a time, I won’t be alone or afraid.”

‘The Tale of a Sad and Funny Country’ for ArtReview Asia Magazine
Click images to enlarge.

And here’s the full uncut interview which Sung-hee Kim conducted with me via email:

Paul Gravett:
Can you describe the room where you create your comics - and what a perfect day is for you?

Sung-hee Kim:
I don’t have a personal studio. I work in public libraries when I feel stable, or at a quiet local cafe when not. In the libraries, the old masters on the shelves give me support. In the cafe, the coffee smell gives me comfort. Well, there is no ‘perfect day’ for me - I don’t think about perfection, and the smaller gaps of imperfection make me comfortable.

How was your childhood and your experience and interests at school?

I was not good with words, and had no friends. There were other kids with the same name as me in the Kindergarten, elementary school and the church. Each time my name was called and I looked back, it never was me. Because of that, I waited anxiously to be called. I didn’t name myself, but even that name mostly wasn’t about me. So how can I be me? Those kinds of thoughts developed in my young mind.

Did your parents encourage you in pursuing your career in comics?

Now, they do. They think there’s nothing that can be done about it at this point. Before that, there was a lot of opposition and worries. Especially on financial matters. And I was a international trade economy major!

Please tell me how you began making comics.

Thinking about how I can become independent from my parents, I majored in international trade in college. But when the chance came for me to join a school club, I dearly wanted to be able to write a letter without typos. I wanted to write well, but when I wrote hand-written letters to my friends, the typos were so hilarious, they didn’t atually read the content. When I first entered the campus, a student newspaper came to me flying in the wind, and I thought this was the answer I sought and joined the newsroom. There I became better at writing, but my typos stayed the same. But then again, I also became the editorial cartoonist for the paper.

Who were the cartoonists who inspired you, and how and where did you first ge published?

My inspirations were my colleagues, Subak Kim, Yongdeuk Kwon, Ancco… I was intrigued that my peers were drawing stories about their discoveries about themselves. With a lot of conversations, we supported and competed with each other to find deeper “me-ness.” I debuted in 2010 with both Bad Girl and Yongsan, Where I Lived.

Several of your comics concern social and political injustice - what motivates you to deal with such controversial topics?

Bad Girl was autobiographical, about how a daughter is living here and now. After I looked into myself with that work, other people and society as a whole came into my sights. Problems of the social system were being wrongly delegated to the individuals. I came to understand that a better society enables us to become better, and I can live better as an individual.


What effect do you hope your work, such as your project around disabilities entitled Different in the Same Way (video above), can have on your readers and on society?

The best effect would be to make us value ourselves more. I’d be happy to help people reflect on their own lives and understand that social situations are closely connected with the individual.

Tell me about how your comic dealt with the Yongsan tragedy, which remains unsolved to this day.

Too often, the Korean press makes people see conflicts through capitalistic lenses. Ownership and business relations become the only centres of interest. I tried to explain the tragedy of real-estate development through the people about to be expelled who have rights to live and make a living. It was still in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy when I was working on that, so I also focused on the violence by the state and capitalism, which the families had to endure. Making more money was the sole reason why they hurried the property developments, even using illegal measures, without the consent of those people. Despite that, many thought of this issue as “the have-nots” simply being greedy. Or at least that they should still endure that kind of injustice. 

How did you investigate the Samsung semiconductor factory worker affected by leukaemia in Dustfree Room (above)?

In Korea, Samsung is above the state. The publishing editor suggested to me that to move forward into a better society, we must talk about aspects of Samsung which neither the press nor politics can properly criticise. When I looked into the Samsung leukemia story, it was only being covered by some progressive Internet newssite despite its seriousness. I thought this case was at the very root of where the problems of the “chaebol” are. Ordinary citizens take great pride in Samsung semiconductors, so they did not believe the story. Even the workers at those semiconductor factories doubted it. That was my starting point for the investigations. I met the families of the victims through the semiconductor worker’s health solidarity organisation named ‘Banollim’, and learned about the manufacturing process through a university lab. I researched the workflows and situations through retired engineers.

Please tell me about your graphic novels, like Good-for-Nothing Girl - and your latest Life Energy at 4 o’clock.

Good-for-Nothing Girl is an autobiographical work, as a daughter. Korea has been a very patriarchial society, and went through enormous changes in the last 30-40 years. The family I grew up in was also patriarchial, but at least wanted to give boys and girls equal educational opportunities - but then again, there was expectations for me to become financially capable. Good-for-Nothing Girl is the story of a 30-something woman, about those expectations and the failure to meet them. On the other hand, 4 o’clock is about a 40-something woman. Meanwhile, some changes have taken place, such as the greater impact of social situations on the protagonist’s life.

Where do you comics appear? In magazines or newspapers? As webtoons online?

Shorter pieces run in magazines, and I make direct-to-book works as well. 4 o’clock is my first foray into webtoons. It’s impossible to ignore that mix of diverse age groups and interests. If possible, I’d like to venture deeper into webtoons.
What has been the aftermath of the Sewol sea ferry disaster? Is any more of the truth coming to light?

As for now, we are likely to witness lies being covered up with bigger lies. But the civil society won’t simply leave the truth buried. Surviving families and citizens are currently on the move.

How do you respond to any criticism, pressures or even censorship when your comics expose state or corporate corruption?

At first, I was afraid as an individual. But the pressure I felt was just the social push to remain silent, instead of any direct threat to me. I believed that with the support for social exposé growing one reader at a time, I won’t be alone or afraid.

How are the public’s perceptions of comics changing in Korea? How important have webtoons been in engaging with an adult readership?

I believe that with these new comics, readers are responding and changing. In the past, comic books were derided in Korea as for just for children, and people drifted away when reaching adulthood. Adult comics, on the other hand, were limited to exploitation and eros. However, webtoons have grown in quantity with newer and diverse stories to appeal to diverse groups. I find it a positive sign for getting adult readers into comics, a significant step in Korean comics. The only concern is that many are reading webtoons to kill time. Then again, that’s simply what popular culture does. But if new and serious webtoons come along, like Mi-saeng by Tae-ho Yoon, Song-got and more great examples, readers will respond accordingly.

Posted: July 20, 2015

This Article originally appeared in Art Review Asia magazine. With many thanks to Nak-ho Kim for his invaluable liaison, translation and assistance.


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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

Featured Books

Good-for-nothing Girl

Different in the Same Way

Yongsan, Where I Lived, Vol. 1

Yongsan, Where I Lived, Vol. 2

Dustfree Rom