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Korea's leading comic artist Lee Hyeon-se

2009/04/21 | 1400 views | Permalink | Source

Lee Hyeon-se is undoubtedly Korea's leading comic ("manhwa") artist. His works have advocated different times of our days and embraced public frustrations. The public applauded the heroes of his books, who range from macho men with grieving hearts to heroes who nonetheless are weak. All his characters are internally injured in some way, which in turn gives them the strength to push ahead to the end. The characters mirror ordinary people as well as the author's own torturous life.

Korea's comic boom first began in the 1980s. The boom of feature length dramatic comics which began with the hit 1983 series "The fearless baseball team" revived the then-defunct comic houses (manhwa-bang), and molded the '80s youth culture. The children's comic magazine "Treasure Island" and the adult magazine "Manhwa Plaza" ushered in the popular era of comic magazines. And Lee was the man who birthed the boom.

Works reflect historical woes

Lee's family saga is a painful one, which he has melded into his literature. His grandfather was shot to death by the Japanese during the colonial era in Manchuria; his grandmother lived in the woods to hide her children from Manchurian bandits; her second son who went off to earn money returned as a communist North Korean general during the Korean War, due to which the first son was kidnapped by South Korean authorities and killed; and Lee, who was the first son of her third son, took on the name of the dead first son (his uncle).

Lee was born in Uljin, North Gyeongsang province in 1954. After studying literary writing at Seorabeol Art University, he stepped into the comic world. His official debut piece is often believed to be "The stick-up hair boy of Shimonoseki", but it was actually "Raven at the Border", the fateful life story of an innocent Korean man who turns his life around, which put Lee's name on the map. "The fearless baseball team", inspired by the 1982 launch of the professional Korean baseball league, stars the rebellious "Oh Hye-seong" who became the star of all Korean people. "Fearless" catapulted Lee overnight to the position of top comic artist. Oh, a marginalized character in mainstream society, crystallized his energy through his passion for baseball and his dogged love for "Eom-ji". Korean readers hailed the new style of "shady hero", which had never existed in previous comic stories. Lee's interesting characters, epic devices, craftsmanship and attractive illustrations lured numerous people to "manhwa rooms" and began the comic boom. He was the number one author people read at manhwa houses, and the most sought-after for contributions to the inaugural issues of new comic magazines. The popular "Fearless" was made into a film by director Lee Jang-ho. Actor Choi Jae-sung, the top star of the time, took on the lead role of "Kkachi" and actress Lee Bo-hee, then only regarded a sexy vixen, played his love interest "Eomji". One of the many popular lines cited by Kkachi in the comic series--"I can do whatever makes you happy"--was made into a hit song by Jeong Sura.

Comic heavyweight who weathered tough trials

Lee firmly built his world of comics, covering various genres including war, history and science fiction. He was successful every step of the way, but he also had his share of trials. As movies based on his comics and original soundtracks increased in popularity, he also rose to star status. He appeared on TV several times, and commercial endorsements also boosted his public profile. Three beer advertisements in which Lee appeared produced a significant public response. People began to recognize him on the street. Coupled with Kkachi's image, Lee built up his own public image of a manly man.

A perk of being a famous comic artist is the many opportunities that come to one's doorstep. Some would choose not-so-challenging opportunities while others make bold choices. As his fame grew, Lee grew arrogant. He no longer gave his best at work. His first failure was the production of the animated film version of "Armageddon". Many believed the production should rely solely on Korean technology and capital. But the initial commitment tapered off as time passed and investments diminished, and it eventually led to the belief that Korea was not yet ready for creative animated films. Lee said that he does not regret the experience, but he has been considered guilty of failing a highly-anticipated projected participated in by many people.

"The Myth of Heaven" was another major flop. He announced he would write a 100-series comic on ancient Korean history, but when the sixth episode came out, prosecutors accused him of circulating obscene materials. In those days, primitive nature was considered lewd. In Lee's view, he was just expressing the primitive life of ancient times, but it was considered in a different light by his accusers. But Lee believed this issue went beyond an individual incident. If it had only involved himself, he would have compromised and backed off. But he thought that if he backed down, creative and expressive freedom in general would be damaged. So he stood up against the authorities. A legal battle lasted for six years, the outcome of which was a one-line verdict on the court's website clearing his guilt. But the court battle drained him financially and mentally. Most of all, he lost his creative vigor and enthusiasm. He barely completed the history series--which he had begun in his 40s--in his 50s, and only on a small scale comprising just 50 books.

Stride of the tiger continues on

But Lee embraces challenge. He always tries new things, at which he does not necessarily succeed. The arrow has been way off the mark oftentimes, so to speak. But each of his attempts has expanded the arena of Korean comics. No doubt his works shook up the Korean comic field over the past 15 years. In recent years, Lee has focused more on his work at the Korea Cartoonist Association than writing. He continuously produced comics ever since his debut, and he may have thought that he neglected his surroundings and people around him. He has now turned to fostering talent at his university and serving as chairman of the association. He now has more channels to voice his opinion. He now speaks to the public more directly through newspaper columns and comic book prefaces than indirectly through his comic characters.

Lee's eyes are as fierce as a beast when he talks about comics. His daring ambition continues to shine through his long career experience.

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