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Telling stories of ‘incomplete lives’

Popular webtoon author Yoon Tae-ho shares his life and work

Webtoon writer Yoon Tae-ho says he barely enjoys his work. But it is his everything.

“I never really got to do anything for pure enjoyment or for myself,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald in his office in Seoul. “I’ve never played StarCraft. I’ve never played billiards. I don’t enjoy work, either. What I want to do is to do it well, do better.”

The 44-year-old is best known for his webtoon “Misaeng,” which means “an incomplete life.” The iconic series, which ran from 2012 to 2013 online and drew some 1 billion hits, tells the story of a young former go player who takes a job as an intern at a Korean corporation. The compelling narrative deals with the fierce competition for survival, claustrophobic work relationships and office politics. The characters are all flawed and layered, and all reach for what they think is better. But as the series’ title suggests, Yoon never lets any of them “have it all.” There is no such thing as a “complete” life.

“People tell me that I must be happy because I am living my dreams,” he said. “But compared to the kind of person that I wanted to be when I was a child ― I mean of course I wanted to be a cartoonist ― the person I am now is pretty much a monster. I’ve made too many mistakes and inconvenienced others too many times to be the person that I initially wanted to be: a just, healthy individual who overcomes his struggles rather gracefully. And no one achieves everything that they want. You can only strive. You can never be fully complete.”
Webtoon writer Yoon Tae-ho poses in his office prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on March 7. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Webtoon writer Yoon Tae-ho poses in his office prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on March 7. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Yoon grew up in a rural area of Gwangju, South Jeolla Province, with an abusive, strict father. The family did not have many things, and Yoon suffered from a skin disease which severely affected his self-esteem as a child. “It was in the country, so kids would become friends by bathing in a river together,” he said. “I could not join them because I didn’t want to undress and show them my skin. That’s why I became obsessed with drawing cartoons. You have to be good at at least one thing in order for other kids to talk to you.”

One of his strongest childhood memories involves his father. Yoon’s father worked in Jordan for three years as a laborer, and while working in the foreign country, he never visited his family as he could not afford plane tickets. The day his father returned to his town, Yoon was sitting on the ground alone, playing with grass and a small piece of glass. He saw the cab, which carried his father, arriving, but could not run to his father to greet him.

“I always felt like I was an incomplete child for him, and that I was not good enough for him because of my skin,” he said. “And there my father was, arriving after three years, and I still could not approach him. I felt like he wouldn’t be happy to see me. I remember being stuck on the ground, just watching the cab coming in. I remember being ashamed of myself. This is one of the things that I remember the most from my childhood.”

After being rejected by a university, Yoon became an assistant to renowned manga artist Huh Young-man and later to artist Jo Woon-hak. Yoon said he was an angry man during his 20s. He would get into fights a lot with strangers.

“I would get into fights at a food stall, because I thought this person next to me was looking down on me because I was small in physique.” Meanwhile, he spent all of his free time trying to create his own work, practicing drawing night after night. He made his debut in 1993 with “Emergency Landing.”

Yoon is inarguably a great storyteller and researcher, as well as a top cartoonist. “Misaeng,” for one, is a result of countless interviews with real-life people who work for corporations. The seven professionals who agreed to be interviewed were in fact fans of Yoon’s previous work, “Moss.” One of Yoon’s ways to get the best answers was to be brave enough to ask the very “rudimentary” questions.

“I think at first they didn’t want to be rude and wanted to treat me as someone who is knowledgeable,” he said. “So I told them, ‘Explain it to me as if you were explaining it to a middle school student.’ If you really want to know about something, you have to have the courage to look like an idiot, the courage to say you don’t know anything about what they know. And you start with very simple and basic questions, such as ‘How does your superior address you at work?’ People assume that you would know, but honestly, you don’t.”

Yoon credits his wife, whom he describes as a “fair and gracious” person, and their children for healing his childhood trauma. He said he’s a better and more positive person thanks to them. The name of the webtoon’s protagonist, Gu-rae, in fact means “Yes.”

“When I was thinking about what to name the protagonist, I was smoking a cigarette,” he said. “And I happened to see my reflection in the window, and realized I was wearing a T-shirt with a giant ‘YES.’ And I instantly thought of the name Gu-rae. So I called my wife and asked her what she thought. She liked it, too. I wanted him to have that positive attitude regardless of how depressing the reality is. And I want the same for my children.”

“Misaeng” was also published in book form, and has sold some 600,000 copies. Yoon is starting season two of the series in October, this time featuring the lives of people who work for a smaller corporation.

“The reason why a particular sentence is moving is not necessarily because that sentence was simply well-written, but mostly because the context that surrounds it in the narrative was persuasive,” he said, when asked for tips on writing. “A good sentence is not written, but discovered. Don’t try to just ‘write’ well. Try to get into the essence of the situation that you are trying to tell, and search for the words that are most needed there.”

By Claire Lee (