A manhwa artist at war

by Philip Gowman on 28 June, 2009

in 1945-1960, Historical, Kim Seong-hwan (Gobau), Manhwa

Kim Seong-hwan

Kim Seong-hwan

The Manhwa exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre finished this week, in preparation for the new Living Heritage exhibition. It was an interesting exhibition, giving some of the history of manhwa from its beginnings in early twentieth century newspapers, to the graphic novels which are avidly consumed today and which form a major part of the Korean content industry.

Exhibitions with such a broad remit can never hope to do more than scratch the surface of the work of individual manhwa artists, but, by chance, in the last couple of days writer Andrew Salmon has introduced us to the work of Kim Seong-hwan (김성환), one of Korea’s best known cartoonists. Born in 1932 in what is now North Korea, he was living near Seoul when Kim Il-sung’s troops swarmed across the 38th parallel on 25 June 1950, and recorded the war in watercolour.

Andrew Salmon, who has recently published To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951, and covers Korea for The Times, the Washington Times and the South China Morning Post, has published online a collection of Kim Seong-hwan’s remarkable wartime paintings, with informative commentary. The full collection can be viewed on his website, and the introductory text is reproduced below with his permission.

A Terrible Beauty: “Gobau” at War, 1950

The Fighting Draws Closer

The Fighting Draws Closer. Not everyone fled Seoul immediately. Near East Gate, curious onlookers (including Gobau, in foreground) watch as the NKPA approaches, while nervous Republic of Korea (ROK) troops take up firing positions overlooking the gate and its nearby market. 28 June 1950.

Kim Seong-hwan, 78, is Korea’s most famous living cartoonist. For years, his work graced the pages of Korea’s two most popular newspapers. Under the country’s authoritarian governments, he was twice interrogated and 200 of his strips expunged.

He has been lauded by fellow cartoonists worldwide, including Malaysia’s Lat and Britain’s Frank Finch: movies have been made of his work, and PhD dissertations on his output reside at Harvard and Kyoto Universities. Today retired, with his full collection residing at Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, this cheerul and sprightly little man can rest on his laurels.

Things were not always so comfortable.

His pen name “Gobau” (고바우 – “Strong Rock”) came to him in the summer of 1950 when he was hiding out from North Korea troops amid the chaos of the Korean War. A high-school student and part-time illustrator for magazines (”We had cameras in those days, but printing was not so good: Photos came out black on the page!”) he was living outside Seoul when Kim Il-sung struck south. He recorded the events of those days with that blend of delicate, Oriental watercolour and sensitive pen work that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s 1950 liberation, he was hired as a war artist by Korea’s Ministry of Defense, but it is his early works that capture what it was like to be a Korean civilian caught up amid total war.

Image courtesy of the artist; text by Andrew Salmon

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