Depth that comics can achieve

By Lee Woo-young

Cartoonist Park Heung-yong’s socially conscious comics on exhibit in Seoul

  • Published : Jun 1, 2014 - 20:10
  • Updated : Jun 1, 2014 - 20:10
In the age of digital content available at your fingertips, comics have fallen as mere entertainment for killing time during commuting hours. But cartoonist Park Heung-yong’s works have been more than a flip-through. In fact, they have been highlighted with unconventional subjects and depth usually found in novels.

Park has created works that are grounded in Korean sentiment and the lives of average people and the underprivileged. Instead of conforming to publishers’ tastes, he has set his own painting style and built tightly woven storylines that have attracted a strong fan base since his debut in 1981.

His lifetime of works are now on exhibit in Seoul, offering a glimpse of the artist whose works have not been under the commercial spotlight.

The exhibition features his debut work “The Swirl,” earlier short cartoons and major works such as “Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds,” which made him popular after it was made into a movie in 2010. Translated versions of his works are also on exhibit including “Cinderella,” which was translated into French in 2006 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and France. 
A cut from “Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds” (1995) by Park Heung-yong. (Arts Council Korea)

On exhibit are strips from Park’s comic books that provide an idea of his painting style, development of storyline and sentiments that run through his works.

Park focused on short stories in the beginning. A lot of his earlier works dealt with the underprivileged and turbulent modern history of Korea. “The Sky” was based on his personal experience with the May 18 democratic uprising in Gwangju. “The Bicycle” reflects on the labor abuse that prevailed during the country’s intensive economic development drive. The harsh reality was portrayed by a child who owns a bicycle not for fun, but for transport to take him to work.

“Some people label me ‘left-wing’ simply looking at some of the subjects I deal with, but what I’ve been telling are the stories happening around me,” he said. 
Park Heung-yong (Arts Council Korea)

His long stories are more focused on the growth and enlightenment protagonists go through. In “Like the Moon Escaping the Clouds,” set in the Joseon era, the protagonist, a child of a concubine, grows into an independent, confident swordsman with help and inspiration from people he met on his personal journey. The period was used to intensify the struggles the protagonist experienced.

“There are more stories that comics can handle. The stories I tell are just the tip of the huge ‘story’ iceberg,” he said.

Park compares creating a storyline to placing utility poles. He said the story becomes alive when placing characters and background in balance just like placing utility poles on a street keeping a proper distance.

Metaphors and symbolic images are prevalent in Park’s comics. In one scene in the “Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds,” protagonist Gyeon-ja and his teacher, a blind sword master, sit under the moon talking about life as the moon starts to look like the Korean traditional hahoe mask. The satirical hahoe mask performance is popular for narrating the lives of commoners in the Joseon era.

He took on some unconventional subjects such as visualizing sound in the 2008 “Sseusseu don don sseu don don don sseu don don sseu,” based in a 1960 rural town in Korea, featuring an old man’s communication with his second wife using MOS signals.

The exhibition “Park Heung-yong Comics: Rhythmic Narratives” continues through Aug. 3 at Arko Art Center in Daehangno, Seoul. For more information, visit www.arkoartcenter.or.kr.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)