You may be surprised to hear that North Korea has an active comics “scene”. But when you hear that it’s all state-run, it’s not so surprising. North Korean kids are pumped with carefully-constructed propaganda from birth, and comics are considerably easier to make than edutainment iApps, especially for a heavily-sanctioned regime. If only our own government would “nationalise”, then print at-cost paperbacks of, our greatest, copyright-hell-stuck, comic heroes, eh?
But how do people from the capitalist west (and east, for that matter) get hold of comics from this secretive, insulated regime? Well, there’s three options. The hardest is going to North Korea itself. Visits are possible, though they’re heavily stage-managed, a “guide” takes you everywhere, and the secret police are always breathing down your neck. Tourism is one of their major sources of income, too, so everything is overpriced. Well, what you can buy is! Apparently there’s department stores full of fancy stuff, but it’s all for show, and the staff merely acting.
Anyway, the next option is “West Korea” aka Yanbian, in China. In the old days, this was a propaganda-filled enclave for North Koreans visiting the People’s Republic. Just to make sure they would keep worshipping the correct cult of personality! China is a lot more open these days, and “West Korea” is swarming with southerners, as well as Chinese, faintly amused at a living “theme park” version of their own country, a generation or two ago.
The easiest way to get these anti-Japanese-propaganda laced books, then, is to… get them in Japan! (That’s what true freedom of speech does for you – when will Britain see a true anti-censorship party?). Yes, Thanks to a “quirk of history”, Japan has a large community of people who align themselves with North Korea (though do not seem in a great hurry to go back – their children and grandchildren becoming naturalised Japanese citizens in ever greater numbers). Japan directly ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945, and many Koreans moved / were moved (depending on who you ask, and the historical period in question) to Japan. After World War 2, they found themselves in a sort of limbo, many either didn’t know where their ancestors came from in Korea, or else they’d come from the north, but now couldn’t go back from American Japan to Soviet Korea. When the country offically seperated into two, they became effectively stateless, in any case. They became known as Zaichini, and, a bit later, many became part of a community called Chongryon, which is aligned with North Korea. For a while, after the war, the political ideology was equally repressive in both the north and south, but the north had a better economy, thanks to Russia (and, to begin with, China) pumping in loads of money. Kind of like how the west made a showpiece of West Germany by funneling in money to “prove capitalism works”.
Anyway, the Chonggryon have continued to exist in Japan, running “North Korean” schools, teaching the language and producing propaganda (they run several of “North Korea’s” websites). As there’s no official relationship between Japan and North Korea, the Chongryon HQ is actually a de-facto “embassy”.
But, more to the point of this blog, the Chongryon also run a book shop, called コリアブックセンター, or “Korea Book Centre”. Students of Japanese will note that, for some weird reason, the name is neither Japanese or Korean, but “English”, written with Japanese letters! This is where you can buy the comics, there’s also various other books (including a load of heavy, brown leather-bound volumes on who-knows-what), CD’s, DVD’s and even some videos. All in Korean, though.
Anyway, the shop is in central Tokyo (that is, inside the Yamanote line, tokyo doesn’t “work” like most other cities, so it’s actually in quite a quiet, deserted area). The nearest station is Hakusan, come out, bear round to the left, and go down a small pedestrianised street (with a number of comic-heavy Japanese bookshops. One has thousands upstairs! But they’re all run by the same 2-3 people, so aren’t always open). At the end, there’s an unnesescarily-huge zebra crossing. Cross that, and “double back”, a little to the right. Then discover the Korea Book Centre is closed, because it has bizarre opening times. It took me 3 visits to finally catch it! (Edit that is not an edit: I kept going in the morning, but have since found out it opens at 1 in the afternoon!).
EVEN BIGGER EDIT THAT IS NOT AN EDIT: Apparently the shop has closed down for good. Close Skyscanner now!
(“manually” shopping around airlines’ own websites, but on somebody else’s computer, is usually better, anyway).
The shop is at the base of a big office / flat building, but is pretty small inside. When I went in a few regulars were popping in and out, all talking to the woman behind the counter in perfect, Tokyo-accented Japanese.
There’s not much to distinguish the comics from various other thin propaganda books, and I nearly left disappointed (or grew a pair and attempted to ask where the “manga” was). But then I finally found them on the leftmost shelf, about halfway down the shop. Though that doesn’t mean there might not be others scattered around!
Anyway, the big handful I bought (altogether coming in at around the ¥5000 mark. I doubt a sen of that got back to the concentration campin’ regime, though. In fact, maintaining both their HQ, and this shop, in central Tokyo, probably costs them hundreds of thousands of yen a month.) includes a large number of what may be called the “old series”, and a couple of what may be called the “new series” of comics. Though the oldest one is still only from 2000. The old series encompasses the 2000’s:
While the two new series ones are from the 2010’s. However the new series ones also have a Tokyo address in their copyright section. The older ones are pure Korean:
The newer ones are on thick, glossy paper (which many non-me people would consider “better”). But they’re also drawn in a cod-“Japanese” style. In fact, they remind me of British small-press “manga”! Here’s a comparison:
There’s actually some Brit ones that look even closer than this. But It’s the first one I grabbed from my box-o-small-press.
The old series ones are on thinner, matte paper, with lurid-looking covers and starkly black and white “Boys’ Own” type artwork in them (nb: except for some ones for young children, but I’ll get to that). If such an impoverished regime can still produce comics like that, why can’t we, eh? why can’t-
Oh, alright then. To continue… I’m sure I read somewhere that North Korea “recently” (well, around 2010) bought some new printing machines, so it’s possible that the “new series” books are down to that. But then again, the Tokyo address, and Japanese-ish art style, makes me think they might even have been made in Japan by the Chongryon. I did briefly wonder if they were South Korean (they’re on historical themes, both sides of the border would teach their children about national mythology), but they have a 주체 (Juche) date, which is counted up from 1912, when Kim Il Sung was born (apparently on a mountain that borders China… but actually in Russia). The south wouldn’t put that on their books!
I should state that several of the books (actually, the majority of the ones I have) are not true comics, but heavily-illustrated text stories. Some examples of both kinds have 그림책 (Geulimchaeg) written in the top right-hand corner of the cover. It means “Picture-Book”, and is Perhaps the North Korean word for comic. In South Korea, comics are called “Manhwa”, which is the Korean way of pronouncing the characters which say “Manga” in Japan. If the non-comic ones were aimed at very young children, I’d have called them “Picture books”, like the ones we have in Britain, but they seem to be aimed at an older / teen audience. Well, most of them.
They all appear to be one-off “graphic novels”, rather than ongoing publications, though one comic does appear to be part of a series. North Korea definitely has at least two regular story papers, though. Maybe some of these text-heavy stories originally appeared in one of those, as a serial, and is now available as a book. Or maybe they were all just written as books. We need a Korean-speaking comics enthusiast (with deep pockets – they overcharge tourists something rotten, I hear) to get over there and start asking their “guides” a few probing questions.
Oh, and as a quick warning: my Korean is about as good as my Welsh (oh, there’s another biiiig article incoming!), so I’ve just GUESSED what’s going on in all of these stories. Luckily, there’s plenty of pictures!
Anyway, let’s begin with the oldest book – dating all the way back to Juche (주체, the online translator says it’s “subject”, but it’s obviously “Self-Reliance”) 89, or 2000 to you and me. It’s one of the thickest ones too, weighing in at a “whopping” 124 pages (not including the covers).
The title is 신기한 술법 (those scribbly covers are hard to read, fortunately the title is usually in clearer type on the “copyright” section), pronounced “Singihan Sulbeob”, and apparently meaning “Novelties Sulbeob”. There’s a few words that I couldn’t persuade Google to translate. North Korea uses a slightly different writing system to South Korea. The south uses Hangul, an indigenous Korean writing system, which is apparently the most logically-organised and easy to learn in the world. Mainly because it was actually created over just a few months, on the order of a liberalising ruler (does Korea have Kings or Emperors?), rather than evolving over centuries. Later rulers, either Korean monarchs, or the Japanese, realised that a literate populace could mean “dangerous” ideas being spread, and banned it in favour of Chinese-made-to-fit-Korean, or just Japanese. Modern South Korea uses mostly Hangul, with a FEW Chinese characters, though they are nowhere near as common as they are in Japan. North Korea uses pure Hangul, and the two countries also have a few different ways of spelling things (see the translation for Juche, above!). But, by and large, they can read each other’s writings without too much effort – though it’s illegal in both countries!
Anyway, this is possibly part of a series, being labelled “백두산녀장수절그림책 (5)” , which is apparently “Paektu lady longevity clause picture book 5”. I don’t think it translated properly. It’s published by “Literary Arts Publisher” (문학예술종합출판사). There seems to be several comic / childrens storybook publishing companies in North Korea, I’ve also seen “Venus Youth Publisher” and “Gold Star Children’s Press”. Though the identical art styles, paper, sizes and bindings hint at there really being only one publisher. The multiple names are just a blind, to give a faint illusion of a “free press”.
To carry on with the review… this book contains multiple stories, some of them longer than others. One of them is even broken up into three chapters! Heres’s a quick translation of the contents page, though the names may not be particularly enlightening.
1 – 오산의 전설 = Miscalculation of the Legend
27 – 신기한 술법 = Novelties Sulbeop. In three chapters:
1) 류치장에 생게난 이야기 = Kenan (cainan) life on the type of story stucco (embellishment)
2) 공사장에서 구원된 칠성이 = Chilsung has been saved from the construction site
3) 상동마을의 “수호신” = “Guardian Deity” of the same village
63 – 사각장에 나타난 녀장수 = Ladies longevity appears in chapter square
87 – 마천령의 이상한 샘물 = Ma Chun-Ryung the court medic unusual spring water
107 – 다시 울린 종 = Bell Rang Again
I can’t tell anything at all about the first story. It appears to involve some sort of wise man, going around and talking about kings and things. There’s some nice scribbly-looking artwork of temples and houses. There’s also a turtle carrying a big slab on it’s back.
He is possibly some sort of communist agitator. The story appears to be set in the past, maybe in 1917. As this was during the Japanese occupation, he’s probably talking about how great Korea used to be, and keeping their heritage alive.
The next story is, erm, well…
Officially, North Korea has freedom of religion. Also officially, many people in North Korea willingly choose not to follow a religion, as they see it as a primitive superstition used to oppress the working class. Actually, the North Korean government have created their own religion, centered around worship of the “eternal president”, Kim Il Sung, who will one day return to life and lead the country to glory. Not that I’d object to a mass revival of Northern European Paganism in the UK, but with elements of Shinto ancestor worship bolted on, and even a deification of King Arthur. But anyway, when Christian missionaries first arrived in Korea, Pyongyang became a very Christian city, and this has not entirely gone away. The government of North Korea have neatly “snatched” Christian beliefs by, for instance, celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung’s mother on the 24th of December. As everybody will be “too busy” celebrating that, they’ll “forget all about” Christmas. Which is why you don’t see Christmas celebrations in the DPRK… it’s nothing to do with repression, honest!
Anyway. “Novelties Sulbeop” seems to borrow more than a little from the Book of Exodus, and parts of the Gospels, too! It starts off fairly ordinarily, though. A damn dirty jap is torturing an innocent Korean…
“fairly ordinarily” for a North Korean comic, anyway…
He’s also seen intimidating people on the streets (apparently accusing an old man of being an arsonist, just because he happened to be carrying some matches). He then hears a voice ordering him to stand to attention, even though there’s nobody there. He doesn’t look too chuffed, but goes about his business of torture and intimidation regardless. Later he calls his officer to come and interrogate the old man, captured earlier. But when the opens the cell, it’s full of some sort of madness-inducing “gas”. Though that may just be representative of something that is invisible.
The officer treats him in the usual manner of Japanese officers of the time. At least according to “more moderated” accounts of allied POW camps I’ve read.
But the guy continues to go crazy, and wanders through the town, becoming a laughing stock.
In the next chapter, a bunch of Korean prisoners are being forced to work on some big project (and you thought “construction site” was a mistranslation!). Their Japanese overseers stay in the huts, partying and drinking. One of the prisoners is looking up at the moon, when a magic bridge appears, leading over the fence, and to freedom! The prisoners all rush over it. The Japanese follow, but it vanishes when they’re halfway over.
The escaped prisoners meet up with Kim-Il-Sung’s liberation army, having apparently been guided there by a myriad of sparkling stars. They see an apparently divine vision of a free, united Korea, covered in blooming flowers.
They then meet a wise old man, who preaches to them under a tree. They are also given a lot of food – bread, and “something else”. They’re also next to a river at the time… hmm.
After that, they go about carving messages (apparently also “divinely inspired”) on trees and rocks (people who have toured North Korea and Cuba have remarked on the natural scenery being blighted by carved slogans). These messages eventually being about the end of Japanese tyranny.
There’s not much to the other three stories. “Ladies longevity appears in chapter square” is apparently about an oldish man standing around near some Japanese cavalry regiment. One of the horses escapes, and I think he volunteers to track it down, but doesn’t. Also one of the officers can’t sleep (or is maybe being haunted?). Apparently the horse running away inspired the guy to think of freedom. Or something.
The next story is possibly an extension of the “biblical” one. The camping communist rebels have no water, but some “smoke” and sparkling “stars” lead a girl to a hidden well. She digs a little, then tells an old man about it. They go and dig further, finding a spring, so the rebels have their own, abundant, water supply.
The last story is perhaps a ripoff of the American legend of the “liberty bell”, though not quite the same. It appears that a temple bell in a village must not be rung, the Japanese take a guy away for merely cleaning it. The man’s son and father are left there, but it rings on it’s own, for some reason, and everybody celebrates. Perhaps the spontaneous ringing was to symbolise the defeat of Japan?
They appear to be ringing it with hammers, rather than a log on ropes, as in Japan. But maybe that’s the Korean way.
This one is in a slightly smaller format to most of the others, and is called 살인자의 정체 (Sal-injuai Jeongche), or “The Identity of the Killer”. It’s published by “Literature and Arts Publisher” (문학예술출판사), a very similar name to the publisher of the previous book. The story is a thrilling, all-action tale of military… paperwork. It’s another of the “illustrated story” style books, and we catch all the action as our heroine bravely collates, files and, yes, indexes!
Oh, and the illustrations are done with green ink
Well, okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. A one-eyed woman comes to the army / police, as she’s been attacked by somebody who looks like a ninja. He also kills another guy in a forest. It appears there’s been multiple murders, and we see some first rate pondering-over-ring-binders action.
Our Lieutenant (an inconclusive Google image search shows that to apparently be her rank) wonders about the connection between various dead people (or at least, I assume that’s who they are). Then there’s a flashback to the Japanese occupation (oh yeah, this story is set in 1959). The one-eyed woman was then a servant to a cruel Korean couple, who were collaborating with the Japanese. Anyway, she didn’t serve them fast enough, so the husband poked out her eye with a big skewer (even the Japanese soldiers are shocked).
The girl’s mum vows revenge, and it appears that the unseemly display scares the Japanese (and their money) off. The couple blame the mum and daughter, and they leave. It appears that the cruel wife is later beaten to death by other Japanese soldiers, or maybe the girl’s mother killed her, and the soldiers just found the body.
Anyway, the girl grows up with one eye, and I think she falls in love with a guy, but the evil man has tracked them down, and pushes the guy off a cliff. Also a rioting mob attack his home, but somebody else gets him away in the bottom of a farm cart. I can’t even tell if this scene is set during the Japanese occupation, or the “present day”.
The guy is still in hiding. The cop/soldier/both(?) returns to her office and selflessly goes through ledger after ledger. She also collaborates with a guy who specialises in box files, in the true spirit of socialist cooperation.
I think I took too many pictures of this one
They somehow turn up a photo of the evil guy, and show the one-eyed woman. He is now running a collective farm, and pretending to be a good socialist leader, a mere advisor to his workers, with whom he is on equal terms, otherwise.
Then… well, actually, he is rather undramatically arrested. The one-eyed woman finds a big knife, used by the “ninja” who attacked her before. Clearly the guy was trying to do away with all the witnesses to his previous collaboration. The cops also arrest some other guy (the one who helped him escape the mob?).
The guy then tells his own tale, under interrogation. As I only have the pictures to go on, I can’t make this one out too well. I think he got another guy to help him with threats (the big knife is a bayonet off a Japanese army rifle), then hoarded loads of money, without the other guy knowing (but he found out, by spying though the not-quite-closed door).
Then the glorious army of the DPRK, under the wise guidance of Kim Il Sung, single-handedly hurled the Japanese out and set up a socialist paradise, in which money has no purpose. The guy then started running a farm, and “doing in” everybody who knew about his past life. Beats me why he didn’t escape to the south during the Korean war, but I guess North Korea is so incredibly wonderful that he couldn’t drag himself away, even with multiple murder charges hanging over him.
Yet more Japan-hate. I remind you which country I bought these in!
The next book is one of many that I have from “Venus Youth Publisher” (금성청년출펀사). It’s name is 성난 메아리섬, or “Angry Echo Isles”. It’s also the thickest one, at almost 200 pages! There’s actually two stories. “Angry Echo Isles” is “half and half” illustrated text and pictures (IE – Half of a page is text, and half is a picture). Part of it is printed in reddish-brown ink, and part in green ink. The change just occurs abruptly, in the middle of chapter 6 (though, as will be seen on my Things Japanese blog, North Korea isn’t the only country to do such things!). The other half of the book is taken up by a true comic strip, called 해돌소년, or “Haedol Boy”. They are possibly both about the same characters, though.
Anyway, the text story appears to be set around 1598, when Japan briefly occupied Korea “on the way” to attack China. The king of Korea fled to China, and rallied an army, which counterattacked through Korea, all the way to Seoul, where the Japanese made a stand (Seoul is not far from the current border between North and South Korea, coincidentally). Then the Shogun of Japan died, and the council of five rulers, who temporarily replaced him, decided to give up.
But that’s got nothing to do with the story, which appears to be about Korean traitors collaborating with the Japanese, and a boy and girl going on adventures. The boy seems to be a young teen, and the girl is still little. They live in a village, and out hunting one day, meanwhile Japanese warriors apparently sack the village (or just kill the headman, who may be their dad).
They also know Tae-Kwon-Do, and meet some guy who seems to be a high-ranking Korean (they had “cowboy” hats in those days, apparently). The boy is taught swordsmanship and, being hunters, they’re both handy with a bow. They then go on a long adventure, over hills, through swamps, and so on. Also they get a lift on a carriage, and later meet a “merchant”. The girl realises he’s the guy who attacked the village. They capture him, take him to another village and smear something sweet on his face, so wasps swarm around him and sting his face into a swollen mass.
He is then beaten with poles by the villagers, and put in prison. The headman of the village (another guy with a “cowboy hat”, or maybe the same one) makes friends with the girl, but then is apparently turned, or maybe imprisoned, by some Korean traitors, or just Japanese guys in disguise. They let the prisoner out, and he becomes the new headman of the village. He’s also opened the village treasure chest, and is throwing the money in the air XD.
But the girl has got away, takes a raft out to a ship, where the boy is fishing, and tells the crew. There may be a long-haired young guy, or another girl, on the crew. From this point, it’s kinda hard to tell how many Koreans are involved XD. Anyway, the village is occupied by samurai, but the crew start throwing rocks and arrows down on them, from a cliff. One of the boys / crew fights them with a sword, while the others sneak round behind, and stick them up with bows.
Then the Jap-no, wait, it appears that, actually, it’s the village full of Koreans who get into boats and sail into the sunset. Dunno what’s going on there.
The next story, Haedol Boy, may be about the same characters, though they are younger. Or it may be different, as the boy seems to be the same age as the girl. Anyway, they have an idyllic village existence, when the Japanese invade and kill most of the adult men. Some old woman also hates the boy, she might be Japanese, or maybe just a Korean collaborator. There’s also a man who is a collaborator.
The boy swears to get revenge, and there’s some various scenes of adventure around the countryside, gathering men and weapons. Somebody else (his mother?) is caught in, or near, a Japanese guy’s house, and is attacked. Samurai chase her, and the only way to escape is to jump off a cliff. She is badly injured, and dies. He gets an axe from a nearby farm, planning to kill the Japanese official, but is talked out of it by a wise old man. He goes into some longwinded explanation (no doubt a propaganda-heavy overview of the occupation).
Later, the boy and girl head into a seaside cave, and find a skeleton, scary daubings, and creepy echoes.
They get out, and the boy, “through” the Korean collaborator, tricks the Japanese official, the collaborator, and some other people, into the cave. The scary daubings and echoes terrify them, the boy apparently keeps them talking about something, until the tide comes in, and they all drown. The Samurai outside spot the floating bodies, and run away.
The sister is sad, but the old man gives her some speech, apparently about how this shows the Japanese can be “beaten” (even if somebody had to commit suicide to do it). Then there’s a montage of battle scenes, and a load of text over a peaceful countryside scene – no doubt showing how the sacrifice inspired the Koreans (with Chinese help… in real life, anyway) to fight back, and drive the Japanese out.
This is one of the books which IS a young childrens’ picture book. But I may as well review all of the ones I have! It’s called 보약먹은 그림자 (boyagmeog-eun geulimja), which is apparently, erm, “Restorative Ate Shadow”. I think there’s probably words in there that are “supposed” to be Chinese characters, in South Korean! The book is part 5 of the far-more-clearly-translating “Korean Folk Tale Picture Book” (조선민화그림책) series, so these stories may also be available in South Korean versions. Bet the art isn’t as good, though. The illustrations in this book are a mixture of grey and red washes, and the text beneath is usually only 3-5 lines.
It begins with some sort of introduction, dunno what that’s about. Then we have the nice-looking contents page. It contains four stories, of variable length, which are:
개구리바위 = Frog on a rock
보약먹은 그림자 = About eating shadow
은혜갚은 호랑이 = Grace Paid off Tiger
들쥐가 고른 사위 = Son-in-law Picked Vole
Well it would be “nice looking” if I’d not cropped most of it, oops.
The first story, “Frog on a Rock”, is kind of hard to follow. It’s about a frog, who is a teacher, and a bird. The bird carries the frog around, while the frog pupils give advice to the bird (who appears to be trying to fish). The bird also gives the frogs a talking-to. The bird later carries the frog teacher up a mountain, where she can see a waterfall (perhaps the source of the river she lives in). Then she appears to sing / teach a ladybird, and, erm, the bird leaves her there.
The next story is super short, only 7 pages (and a title). I think a man has lost something, and accuses a boy of stealing it. But actually the boy had found it, and was giving it back, so then man gives him money for food.
The next story, “Grace Paid off Tiger” is about a boy who finds a man in the snow, when he’s out hunting. He carries the man to safety, and gets a coin as a reward. His mum is happy, and sends him out to buy something (I assume). On the way, a tiger leaps down in front of him, but it has a thorn in it’s paw. He takes it out, and the tiger runs away.
Later, the boy becomes a rebel / soldier, and fights against some army (maybe Japan, or maybe some other war, between different kingdoms in Korea). He gets captured, and put in a cangue, a punishment which used to be used in the Far East. It’s similar to the Stocks, only a big wooden board is locked around somebody’s neck, and he has to carry it about / sit in a cell with it on. It makes laying down, or sitting against a wall, very uncomfortable. In China, people had to wear it out and about on the streets, often with their offence written on it. But in this story, the boy is locked up. He’s allowed to write letters, though!
Anyway, it seems the leader of the bad guys intercepts his letter, and decides to execute him. He’s taken to the edge of a cliff, where it seems inept guards argue about who is going to prod him over. Then the tiger shows up and attacks them. The boy is set free, and spots the scar in the tiger’s foot, where the thorn used to be. The story ends with the boy once again going into battle… riding the tiger!
The next story is also pretty short. It appears to be about a vole in love. He talks to other animals to gain confidence, then gets the girl. Erm, hooray.
As this is book 5 in a series, the back cover contains something that is very daring for an official North Korean publication – advertising! Well, promoting other books in the series, anyway.
Surely a reproduction of the cover of one the reader doesn’t have would be better?
Following on, a year later, another book in the same series, this time number 10. This one only has 64 internal pages, as opposed to 128, in book 5. It’s also all one comic strip, printed with blue ink, rather than multiple text stories with wash illustrations. It’s called 해와달 (Haewadal), which is “The Sun and the Moon”.
Anyway, this one’s about a sometimes-fighting, sometimes-friendly cat and dog, who are following a wandering trader around. A magical old man descends from the heavens (like ya do) and gives him a marble, which he puts in a jar. Later some guy steals the marble, and puts it in a jar at his house. The cat and dog steal it back, the dog tries to eat it, but spits it out, into a river. Presumably that was an accident, as they then start fighting.
The magical old man later finds a boy, and lectures him on something. The boy, erm, goes for a long walk in the rain, and ends up very tired and muddy, then gets another lecture. Must be some sort of morality tale, probably with a heavily socialist tone about selfless work. The art style in this bit sometimes reminds me of early Tezuka!
The third chapter, taking up half the book, is about an evil tiger menacing a family. He can also talk, and use tools. He’s looking for something, which they have presumably hidden. The boy and girl escape, and climb up a tree. The tiger spots them, and tries to climb up, but can’t do it. He pours something on the tree (oil?), and slips off even more easily. After a failed attempt at chopping the tree down, a rope appears. He tries to climb the rope, but it snaps, and he falls into sharp, chopped-down stumps.
This book gives a subtle clue that all is not well in North Korea, the intensity of the ink varies through the pages, the middle pages are clear and dark, but those at each end are really faint – like they’re running the machine right down, before topping it up. You see that on some old British comics, too, but not quite as obvious (then again, most of the mass-printed ones were under 40 pages…. often well under), and not this side of 1960!
Also from 2006 is one of the cooler-looking ones. It has a really “gritty” art style, which reminds me of one of the also-ran “Commando-like” war comics of the 1960’s (or, should that be “War Picture Story-like”?). It’s set in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese war, which was used as an excuse by Japan to further occupy Korea (at the time, coming more under Japanese, rather than Chinese, influence, though there was other foreign powers at play too, mainly Russia). While most land battles of the war were fought in Russia (several of the battlefields are now in China, it seems that the border was not entirely clear in those days, and the whole region was remote from both countries’ centres of government), the first one was at the Yalu River, the traditional border between China and Korea (today a terrifying moat, helping to imprison would-be defectors).
The story is, again, about a boy and a girl, and, again, they’re Tae-Kwon-Do experts. At the start, they seem to be friendly with a Japanese naval officer, who takes them sailing, and talks about the war. The artist does not appear to have had much access to reference materials (which would probably have been published in Japan, so no wonder!). The naval officer’s uniform looks very ostentatious, with acres of gold braid – even Togo, admiral of the fleet, had a plainer one! Also, an image of the naval battles show a Japanese paddle steamer being hit. Paddle steamers were no doubt still in use, then, but every modern naval power would have long since dispensed with them as front-line vessels.
I didn’t spread out my picture taking particularly well
Interestingly, the Japanese captain’s own yacht looks like a Junk, with the slatted sails, and the anchor at the rear. I don’t think Japan ever had ships like that – they always either bought, or copied, European designs. Anyway, the comic shows various scenes of Japanese atrocities, like executing injured soldiers, dressing as “anonymous thugs” and beating people up, or brutally suppressing peasant uprisings. The children meet an old Korean man, who witnesses one of these atrocities with them, and shames them into becoming Korean patriots. They go to pray at a temple, but hear a commotion behind them, after leaving. They go back, and find all the monks massacred. One of the victims tells them the Japanese did it, and there’s a huge fight. One of the Japanese guys is armed with a huge morning star, but the boy throws a big rock at it, and tangles the chain up.
The boy and girl jump off a cliff, swim away, and intimidate somebody else, who spots them coming out of the water elsewhere. The scene then changes, apparently to several months later. Now the two are waging a successful guerrilla war against Japan, but the Japanese commanders have a description of them. They make and distribute “wanted” posters, and the story ends with two merchants in some town spotting the pair, and comparing them with the poster. Presumably it’s a to-be-continued… but I don’t have part 2!
The next comic is another small one. I can’t make much sense out of it, but it appears to be a comedy. One blog I once read, about somebody’s trip in North Korea, said that you almost never hear laughter there, and comedy acts seem to be rare to nonexistent, even though they theatre, musicals and synchronised dancing. Well, here is some North Korean comedy… or, at least, people laugh in it an awful lot. It’s called 성천량반의 망신, or “Last Cheonryang Half Disgrace”, and is yet another one from Venus Youth Publisher.
It has four chapters, or short stories… but I’ve been writing this post in bits and pieces for months now, so can’t be bothered to translate them (XD). Anyway, the chapters appear to be separate (and end with everybody laughing), but characters and locations carry over. The main character (who, I can’t help but think, looks like a Mexican bandit) appears to be some sort of wandering trader, going from place to place.
You quickly learn the Korean sound for laughing
Having only the images to go on, I can’t be sure, but there seems to be a bunch of moral instructions in the stories, like “don’t gossip” and “don’t overload pack animals”. But they don’t seem to be dwelled upon.
Towards the end, some other character shows up, but he has a bigger nose and more-slanted eyes. Three guesses as to his nationality. Anyway, he’s really arrogant, and eats loads of food… so they, erm, give him loads more, until he feels ill. Then laugh.
I believe an old Vice article about a North Korean-sponsored theme park, in China, said it was “what only a nation of prisoners could confuse with fun”.
Well, that’s the comedy over with. Time for more high adventure! This is yet another historical, called 명장의 장검 (myeongjang-ui jang-geom), or “Sword of the Masters”. Well, actually, Google translate called it “Sword of Scenes”, but 명장의, when on it’s own, becomes “The Masters”, and that seems like a far more likely title. Once again, it’s from Venus Youth Publisher, the blue box at the top of the cover says 조선력사인물이야기 그림책, which translates to “Korean history tale figures picture”. Perhaps about a real-life historical person? Unfortunately, I can’t see any obvious dates in the text, so I can’t go wiki-ing.
The boy, the girl, the other boy (a smuggler?), the wise old man, and the evil king.
The book opens with the usual contents page, this time with pictures giving the names of the cast. The story opens with the boy and girl practicing with swords, under the guidance of a bearded master. They leave, but spot some sneaking figures, who turn out to be ninjas! In the following fight, somebody stabs the girl in the back. The boy vows revenge, but he doesn’t know the evil “king” (I think, anyway, same facial hair!) was the one who stabbed her.
Anyway, the king/lord/whatever guy goes back to the palace, while the boy bothers the trainer (presumably for more training, so he can carry on fighting the Japanese). The trainer goes for a walk, and catches the king unloading treasure from a boat, with somebody else. Bribes from the Japanese, maybe? After some more mucking about, the trainer is injured at his day job (in a quarry), and laid up.
The lord’s palace
While he is in bed, his wife hears something, so he goes out and confronts two ninjas, stealing from the village treasure house. He fights them, but also gets stabbed in the back. The boy comes along, and the dying trainer gives him some advice. The boy then apparently moves away to hide, but keeps training, to become a great warrior. Also, one day, he meets a woman and saves her from a tiger.
Is there nothing Tae Kwon Do can’t solve?
The boy lives in some tiny village / farm, with an old lady, and some other guys, who seem to be archers. He’s later walking in the forest when he’s forced to fight another tiger. Some old hermit spots him, and takes him in, giving him even more training in the art of war.
Which apparently involves massacring most of Korea’s wildlife
The boy later becomes a knight. He’s at a jousting contest one day, and impresses the “queen” who has organised it. The woman he saved before is the princess of this kingdom, and he later marries her. The other evil king is apparently oppressing his people, or else has risen against the overall rulers of Korea. The boy is now a prince, and a commander of the army sent to fight him. Some of their soldiers bathe in a deep lake, but all tread water, so it looks shallow. The enemy soldiers charge them, fall into the deep water, and get stuck. Then the rest of the prince’s army sweeps down from the nearby hills, and an epic battle scene ensues.
This was North Korean culture’s Helm’s Deep.
Anyway, after the villain is vanquished, the hero (who now looks very similar to his old trainer), is celebrated, and no doubt lived happily ever after.
Onto the shiny-covered new series now. The previous one was from 2006, but this one is a jump ahead, to 2010. It’s also the first of the ones with a Tokyo address in the copyright section.
Clinical computer colouring
The title is 성기, which apparently means “Genitalia”, though Google Translate also suggests “Consecrated Vessel” or “Wedding Day”. It also asks if I meant to say something else, with a very obscene translation! Anyway, none of the suggested translations seems to really correspond to what happens inside, so lets just carry on.
It begins with a messy photoshop, and an introduction which suggests it takes place in 108-109 BC. The Roman Empire was still a big power in Europe then! Though, in the east, China was in control, and Europe was all but irrelevant. Anyway, it seems to be another boy-and-girl-in-a-war story, though with fewer notable incidents I can really pick out. The first part, going purely on the pictures, is just a bunch of talking and battles. Without being able to read the text, it’s hard to tell which character is which!
Anyway, eventually some rhyme-and-reason emerges out of it. A bunch of soldiers are fighting bandits / another army in a forest, when they are saved by a hail of arrows fired by a load of “ninjas” (though they’re probably meant to be Korean; Japan-Korea rivalry was nonexistent in that remote era, and even North Korean propaganda can’t pretend it was!). The leader of the ninjas is a woman, and the main guy falls in love with her. There appears to be some recap, where she almost commits suicide, but he talks her out of it.
After that, there’s something about rebels laying siege to a castle, and political intrigue on the inside ending with the assassination of the king. This may be a flashback to explain why the girl is an exiled outlaw. Or it might be that her and the guy are in a rebel movement against the current king. Also, another woman gets killed in a battle, and apparently has a baby.
Anyway, the rebels apparently capture the castle, but the leaders of the government flee, and are defeated in a bunch of smaller battles. The queen, or princess, gets an arrow in the eye, but still tries to take on her spear-armed attackers with a knife. Another guy finds her body, and rallies the remaining soldiers in a last battle against the rebels. The rebels win, and the girl holds up her baby (or, maybe the baby of the other woman, who was killed earlier) to the sun, no doubt to symbolise the world of peace and hope he can grow up in.
Before the final battles. Note the Chinese character in the background.
Last one! This one is from 2012, and looks a little less “wannabe Japanese” than the previous one. The characters do all have big, shining eyes, though. Some of the background scenery – rocks, trees, grass etc, is very well drawn. It’s called 봉선화 (Bongseonhwa), which apparently means “Touch-me-not”. That name does kinda make sense, when you look at the story!
Anyway, the actual story is a bit Snow White-ish, only with some differences. The main character is this girl, who is being treated as a slave by some people. Maybe her parents, or maybe she’s adopted. Anyway, they keep punishing her for not working hard enough. She goes to a secluded place near a waterfall, and dreams about comforting a crying angel. Then wakes up, and finds a shining comb in the lake. She takes it to various people nearby, but it doesn’t belong to any of them.
Meanwhile, her-slave driving owners continue to beat her…
“And there’s no such thing as magic!”
She goes back to the cove, and meets the angel from her dreams. The comb belongs to the angel, but she tells her about her harsh life, and the angel lets her keep it. She combs her hair with it, and becomes beautiful. She goes about her work with a smile, which makes her mistress suspicious. Somehow she works out the girl has something valuable, and steals the comb while she sleeps – replacing it with a different one.
The next day, the woman accuses her of theft, using the other comb as “evidence”, she’s badly beaten, right in front of everybody, and left crying against some big pots. The woman then tries to use the golden comb, but it makes her more ugly, instead.
Later on, some guy is leading the girl away with a rope (to stand trial for theft, somewhere?). She decides to commit suicide instead, so breaks free, and jumps off a cliff. Another guy rescues her, but she dies from her injuries shortly afterwards. I also think her real mother finally discovers her, just as she’s dying.
Anyway, the people who saw her die make a big burial mound, and plant a flower in it, which grows tall and blooms. Then later an old man is telling some children the story, next to the flower. The book ends with a “moral of the story” summing-up page.
And that brings us to the end of my North Korean comic collection. This entry took ages to do, I’d better bung out some shorter ones, just to keep the blog going! As the Korea Book Centre has closed down, I don’t know if I’ll ever get any more, but I’ll have a scout around when I’m next around Hakusan, or Tokyo in general. Chongryon people are bound to have sold their books to second-hand shops at some point, right? (I did, also, ask the guy from whose blog I learned about the Korea Book Centre if he’d “rescued” any comics, when it closed down. But never got a reply. Annoyingly, it closed down on the day I was supposed to arrive in Japan, but my flight was delayed, so I was actually in Rome that day. Not that I went there on my first day!)