Monday, May 17, 2010

Korean Comics: A Society Through Small Frames

Korean Comics: A Society Through Small Frames, curated by the Korea Society at the San Francisco Public Library (March 13-June 13, 2010)

This exhibition, hung in the library’s large Jewett Gallery (lower level), displayed 83 framed works by twenty-one Korean cartoonists (based in both North and South) to give library patrons insight into contemporary Korean culture. The works shown were all printed pages or reproductions published since the mid-1950’s (no original drawings). I didn’t view the lack of original artwork as any sort of handicap, and felt that seeing the printed pages lent a sense of immediacy to the show. The works explored a wide range of topics including social commentary, historical dramas, fantasies of personal empowerment, action stories, fairy tales, feminist characters and political propaganda. The example on the left is a panel from the newspaper strip Kobau by Kim Seong Hwan.There were many media represented such as newspaper comic strips, political cartoons, children’s magazines, comic books and compilation novels. Throughout the exhibition, reproductions of the panels with English translation were available (and greatly appreciated).

On entering the gallery, one immediately encounters a large cover drawing from Chumŏk Taejang (Fist Boss, published 1958-1994) created by Kim Won Bin (b. 1935, China), depicting a young girl energetically brandishing a huge Popeye-like fist, ponytail and school girl skirt swinging. Possessed of supernatural mental and physical abilities, Kim Won Bin’s young characters were iconic symbols of personal empowerment. Also on display were some panels from the epic serial Four Daughters of Armian (1986-1995) by Shin il-Sook (b. 1962, Korea) whose stories challenged the tradition of preferential treatment of sons and discrimination against daughters. I found it interesting that many of her key characters are drawn as Western style blondes, which she explains as “a way for female readers to indulge their voyeurism.” Also borrowing from the Western style was Park Bong Seong (b. 1949, Korea), whose action adventure works include such titles as Two Year Old Emperor (1983) and A Man Called God (1995-2000). In these stories average people become strong and influential though success in business or government and have James Bond-like adventures.

In contrast to these South Korean stories of personal exploration and power, The Great General Mighty Wing (1990’s), by Cho Pyŏng-Kwon (story) and Lim Wal-Yong (art) is a story of personal sacrifice for the greater good written and published with the encouragement and resources of the North Korean government. In this lavishly illustrated (cover illustration on the left), full color comic series an army of anthropomorphic Socialist bees protect “The Garden of One Thousand Flowers.” The title character became iconic within N. Korea in the 1990’s as a symbol of loyalty to the government and their brand of communism.

Also included in the exhibition were Park Ki Jeong, Kim Seong Huan, Kim Yong Hwan, Shin Mu Su, Kil Chang Deok, Yoon Sweng Un, Kim Soo Jung, Kim Tai-Kwon, Hwang Mina, Kim Hyeong Bae, Park Soo Kong, and others. I was please to see that the library had available a handout with an extensive bibliography highlighting the Korean graphic novels, manga, comic books and other comics reference works in their ever-growing collection. Concurrently, the library also had a comics themed film series Beyond Superheroes (screening Ghost World, Persepolis, Chasing Amy and Dick Tracy) and an exhibition entitled Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentator, curated by Kheven LaGrone, who recently produced SFPL’s well received Morrie Turner retrospective. This show featured original drawings by Darrin Bell, Stephen Bentley, Cory Thomas, Jerry Craft, Keith Knight, Morrie Turner, Nate Creekmore, Brumsic Brandon Jr., Barbara Brandon-Croft and Makeda Rashidi.

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting. I never even considered that North Korea might have anything along the lines of comics, although as with their more serious statements, these are unsophisticated and heavy handed. But at least there is a nod to levity. As for the Shin Il-sook's blondes, there is a precedent with Japanese manga. Many of those characters have Caucasian features--and yes, it's all about exoticism.