Professor Explores Korea’s Comic Stigma

Heinz Insu Fenkl

Korean comics were on display in Scudder Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 19 in a discussion geared toward their history and use in the country’s culture.

Heinz Fenkl, associate professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, led the presentation with photos and a vast array of background knowledge on Korean comics, describing to the audience the subtle meanings behind the North and South Korean artform.

“Every semester, RAs are required to organize a program with a Community Associate, usually a professor or college administrator,” Scudder Hall Assistant Resident Advisor Dean Engle said. “I asked Professor Fenkl to come to Scudder and lecture about a topic of his choice.”

Engle said he took Fenkl’s Great Books of Asia class and knew he would choose “something really interesting.”

According to Fenkl, South Korea despised comic books until recently.

“Comics were classified as a social evil,” Fenkl said of the state of comic book culture during his childhood. “Comics were considered a lowly form of art.”

Fenkl said the quality of comics used to be very poor, and over the course of a few days the ink would change colors and the paper would break because of the low grade materials used.

During the presentation, Fenkl described the way Korean comics were eventually able to break through the stigma and come into the public spotlight in the 1980s. It was around this time that comics in Korea became culturally acceptable. Lee Hyun-se led this revolution with the 1982 comic “A Frightening Baseball Team.”

Fenkl showed North Korean comics created for children, which he had translated into English. From a very young age, children were exposed to comics that had indirect messages. In almost every comic presented, American, Japanese and/or South Korean characters were portrayed as enemies or villains.

In most cases, Fenkl said the enemies were demonized.

“You can tell if a character is supposed to be an American because they will usually have long hair and a large nose,” he said.

There were small messages that reinforced certain nationalistic beliefs held by the country. On the side of each page, words were written that paralleled what was going on in the story and gave readers the impression to have faith in their country.

At the close of the presentation, audience members walked away with more than a  fresh understanding of the use of comics in history.

“Our campus culture would certainly benefit from more lectures and presentations in which professors share their personal interests. It helps humanize the person in front of the chalkboard for a lot of students,” Engle said. “I think the attendees learned about modern Korean culture, not just their comics.”