Hyun Se Lee:
Manhwa's Modern Master
Step into the extraordinary, intense worlds of Hyun Se Lee and you will discover one of the most prolific creators in manhwa or Korean comics today. In his most controversial epic Mythology Of The Heavens, he takes us back to a legendary past of primordial humans, animals and deities.
There we meet the cruel, power-crazed tribal leader SoJeon, who will stop at nothing to become a king, going so far as to seek out the Earth goddess TaeMo SeoWangMo herself to grant his request. Her promise to him that he will rule a kingdom, however, carries a heavy price. In return she insists that he must take a snake for his queen and warns that his own son will cause his death. When the goddess forces SoJeon to make love to her, she transforms into an enormous snake, but finds, when he cuts her open, a newborn boy inside. Determined not to be killed by his son, he slays the baby, only to discover still more of his offspring all joined together inside the snake. After slaughtering them all he stides off, unaware that one last baby miraculously survives to achieve his murderous destiny.
Hyun Se Lee’s Mythology Of The Heavens is powerful, primal storytelling, tapping into centuries of fantastical myth-making. When the opening volume appeared in 1997, however, it proved much too powerful for the conservative government polocis gripping Korea at the time. Lee was summond before the state proscutor on the charge that his work was legally obscene.
That year the knives of censorship had been greatly sharpened by the 1997 Youth Protection Act applied to practically every medium - comics, film, plays, novels, even cyberspace itself. Its criteria for determining ‘harmfulness’ were so vague, that they could target anything that the court decided ‘might have a bad influence on youth’.
Comics are hugh in Korea, but compared to Japan, there’s much stricter censorship and a Christian-influenced morality in the media. So anything likely to offend in imported manga would frequently be redrawn or removed, while Korean creators had to censor themselves or risk getting into hot water. In 1979 Korea’s censorship laws were relaxed somewhat and the manhwa market expanded through the Nineties, more than doubling the number of titles to over 9,000 a year.
Comics, however, began to be blamed for contributing to a rise in violence and crime and a decline in sexual morals among teenagers. Many otherwise liberal Koreans did not object to the state reinforcing censorship in 1997, if it meant protecting their society from such ‘harmful’ influences. Hyun Se Lee’s imagery in Mythology, showing sex between man and snake, and babies born from a serpent’s tomach and their mass slaughter, were ruled as contravening the Youth Protection Act. In 1997 Lee was found guilty and fined 3 million won (over $2,700).
Rather than accept this judgement, he saw it as a matter of principle to appeal against his conviction, supported by colleagues in the profession. While arguing this test case through the courts, Lee was forbidden to continue the series. Eventually on June 15th 2001 he was acquitted. A few days later, as he resumed Mythology Of The Heavens, he commented, "Even though the court trial interruoted my passion for four years, I continue to have that desire today. The acquittal gave me hope to express my desire. I was happy with this verdict because it demonstrated that manhwa was classified as a legitimate form of mass media."
Understandably, Lee is keen to move on and leave this trial behind him, but he deserves full credit for his stand and his victory, and for advancing the adult potential of manhwa. Born in 1954, Lee has produced over two hundred different series during the past 25 years, many of them adapted into hit live action and animated films and TV shows.
Now his manhwa are spreading to America in no less than four titles in great value packages of up to 320 pages for $9.99 from Central Park Media. Of these, Armageddon is the oldest and most conventional, about a high-school nobody dreaming he is a mighty heo of the future defending the planet against alien invaders, only to find that the dream is real and that the beautiful new transfer student sitting next to him in class is actually a galactic warrior. Unravelling across 13 volumes, Armageddon is fun, undemanding SF, that was made into a passable animated movie.
Lee’s other two mature readers series in English pack more orginality and punch. Hard Boiled Angel is named after Korea’s first female detective, Jiran Ha, a ravishing, three-pack-a-day loner in long hair and shades working for Seoul’s Hard Crimes Unit. Jiran can act as tough as any of her feloow officers - one of them mervels "You must have bigger balls than I do!" - but she also brings an emotional depth that enables her to understand the traumas and urges that can push people over the edge. Through each intriguing case, Lee skillfully unveils her personality, particularly in the sixith and longest episode. This reveals that it was her helplessness escaping a sexual assult that left her boyfrind dead which drove her to become a policewoman. Lee serves up riveting crime drama as dark and unflinching as TV’s finest cop shows.
His Nambul War Stories hypnotise you like the frontline reports streaming out of the global news channels. Lee started this series in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War by imagining a second Middle Eastern war which cuts off Japans oil supplies and pressures the country into invading Indonesia to commandeer their valuable reserves. Futher outrages by the Japanese bring Korea and perhaps the rest of the world into direct conflict.
Amid this escalating crisis, Lee also explores the racial tensions in Tokyo, after the leader of a young Korean street gang assassinates a Japanese Yakuza boss. This hypothetical Asian war over oil is all too possible and eerily parallels the real current Iraq war. Nambul also explores the unresolved anger felt by many Koreans after Japan’s three invasions and 43 years of occupation.
From mythic fantasy and sleek science fiction to detective drama and geopolitical docudrama, Lee’s geaphic novels are waiting for you to discover and prove his versatility and daring as one of manhwa’s modern masters.
Posted: November 26, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.