June 13th, 2009 by Bad Jew
Our mandate here at Sleep is for the Weak can be generously summarized as “hilariously review the comics and cartoons of the exotic East.” This primarily means that we look at anime and manga coming out of Japan, and maybe the odd Korean manhwa or cartoon that was produced in China.
But there’s one country whose comics (or as they’re called there, gruim-chaek) have pretty much gone unnoticed by everyone. There’s a reason for that. Generally, that’s because the country that they’re from – North Korea – is the most isolated and hidden country in the world.
Comics from North Korea are very interesting. For those readers who pretty much haven’t picked up a newspaper, flipped past a news show, or have been too stoned to retain much information from the Daily Show, North Korea is a repressive, totalitarian socialist state based on a philosophy of juche, or radical self-reliance. The most trenchant factor about North Korea is the personality cult surrounding its current leader Kim Jung-Il and his father, the dead President-for-life King-Sung-Il. This personality cult is based on a strong foundation of propaganda that constantly hits on several points: the constant threat of the Japanese, South Korean, and American invasion; the importance of directing individual hard work toward the good of the whole; and the ever-present danger of traitors and spies.
But after reading a few North Korean comics (quick reviews below), I think it would be a mistake to think of these as just simple pieces of propaganda. To be honest, they’re no worse than the stupid, cheap kids’ comics I got at the dentist (Dr. Shapiro, DDS vs. Plaqueula) or my synagogue (Dr. Shapiro, MD vs. The Underperforming Mutual Fund), and are far better than those McGruff the Crime Fighting Dog comics that you’d get in class, where every one of the multi-racial kids including the one in a wheelchair tells the local drug “pusher” that they don’t need drugs because they’re already high on their mothers’ love.
Which of these is more propagandish?
But, that being said, these are – without a doubt – works of propaganda. One of the comics, “Great General Mighty Wing” has patriotic sayings like “You must endure hardship and suffering to win happiness” or “An old enemy is still an enemy” written in the margins of every page. These comics are produced for a reason: to instill a specific message in the mind of the reader. But, within these bounds, there is still an opportunity for creative artists to make something of merit. Sometimes you get that, like in “The Crystal Key,” which is actually a pretty good fantasy in the spirit of Tezuka. On the other hand, you also get stuff like “The Youngest Raccoon Dog on Flowery Hill”
According to Heinz Insu Fenkl, the leading English-language expert on North Korean comics and a professor at SUNY-New Paltz, “The Crystal Key” is probably one of the best examples of a North Korean comic. After reading a chapter that Fenkl scanlated, I think I’d agree. If you didn’t know it coming in, you wouldn’t have a clue that it’s North Korean – it looks like any other late 80s, early 90s manga.
The artwork is obviously influenced by Ozama Tezuka, drawing heavily on his character designs. This is actually very surprising, considering that North Korea is almost completely cut off from international media, especially from Japan, which North Korea is still a bit miffed at for that whole rape and pillage during World War II thing. Not knowing anything about the author(s) or how the comic was made, I really can’t explain this. I can’t imagine that much manga is let into the country, and it’s very rare for North Koreans to travel abroad. But, Tezuka is a truly global force – maybe he slipped into the hermit kingdom somehow.
As for the story, it’s hard to make any claims from reading just one chapter, but it seems very good. For a work of propaganda, it’s very subtle. The message it gets across is filial piety, and the threat of spies and foreigners, but it doesn’t knock you over the head with it. It’s set up with a pretty standard and well-written fantasy storyline about a family that protects the…wait for it…crystal key, which in turn unlocks the Cave of Healing Waters. The hero is attacked by threats in his own village and beyond.
“The Great General Wing” is more traditional propaganda, though with a twist. It’s a pretty straightforward story about a civilization of bees trying to cultivate its land while simultaneously fighting off attacks from the ant and spider armies (who, if I might try to penetrate the dense metaphors of the comic, might just be stand-ins for the South Koreans and Americans).
What’s interesting about this story is that the hive is obviously controlled by a queen bee. North Korea is a virulently patriarchal society; having a woman ruler is actually a fairly subversive plot point. By the way, that’s not just my idea, it’s from Dr. Fenkl’s presentation as part of a Korea Foundation traveling exhibit on both South Korean manwa and North Korean gruim-chaek.
Now, the story is pretty formulaic (but again, no worse than any D.A.R.E comic or public service comic printed in the back of G.I. JOE), but I find the art amazing. Sure, the actual line drawings themselves are fairly weak, but the coloring is beautiful. Almost water-color-like.
This might be a result of the cheep newsprint and poor quality ink used, but the colors have an amazing flow that I’ve never seen before in either manga or American comics. Of course, not every page is great (see below), but this is a style that is uniquely North-Korean, even if it’s just a result of poor production quality
You do see a similar style in several different titles, such as this cover for a comic descriptively called “General Loser.”
So, at the end of the day, should we care about North Korean comics? They’re an interesting window into a country we hear about in the news, but don’t know much about. We don’t only need comics from North Korea for that; Guy Delisle’s comic Pyongyang details the author’s time spent in the North Korean capitol, supervising animators for a French production. That comic gives an amazing view of an outsider’s perspective on an almost alien city. Compared to that, the comics by North Koreans are inscrutable in terms of getting a perspective on the country or its people. The quality of the comics doesn’t make it seem like we’re missing anything of great quality, nor does it seem very likely that these comics will ever be made available on any kind of scale. Even getting scanlations requires someone getting a tourist visa to North Korea, finding a store that will sell you a comic, and getting it out and translated.
But they’re still an interesting curiosity in the world of comics, and hopefully we’ll see more of them appearing on the margins of the comic part of the internet.