To Sanho Kim – My First Favorite
Like most people I remember my first date and my first car, but being a comics creator I also remember the first time a comic book peeled my eyes.
Yes, I’m speaking metaphorically.
What I mean is… over time a young person created to create comics will begin to notice the techniques and mechanisms that go into telling a comics story, such as the dovetailing of art and words, and then eventually he will begin practicing these techniques until a light (hopefully) turns on and he starts writing or drawing increasingly better comics stories. But before you can become a tyro creator you have to heed a comics story.
You have to pay attention to it!
You have to become consciously aware of its beauty and its clockworks.
This is what I mean by having a comic book peel your eyes.
Iron Fist #13 was the first comic book to peel my eyes. Specifically the splash page by penciller John Byrne and inker Dan Adkins. I can remember where I was when I first saw it (standing at the spinner rack at May’s Drug Store) and approximately when it happened (shortly after school on a cloudy early spring Thursday in 1977). There was something about the splash’s layout and composition and colors that lured me in like nothing I had seen before in a comic book and I commenced to grabbing every issue of Iron Fist and any other Byrne-drawn comic book on the rack. Then I went to every store I knew within reasonable driving distance that sold comic books and grabbed more Iron Fist comics and more Byrne-drawn comics plus any other comic books that caught my eye, the most memorable being Mike Grell’s lush artwork on Green Lantern/Green Arrow #91. A couple of hours later I arrived home with a six-inch stack of comic books that only cost thirty-five cents each and enjoyed some of the happiest hours of my life as I began to really discover and enjoy comics storytelling.
Good memories, but while Byrne was the first to peel my eyes, it was Korean writer/artist Sanho Kim who first got me to heed comics.
I am embarrassed to say I had forgotten this until a few weeks ago when I came across a spotlight about Kim in The Charlton Comics Companion from TwoMorrows Publishing. In the seventies I was a fan of Charlton’s Doomsday +1 (with stories drawn by Byrne) and its horror anthologies, in particular Ghost Manor and its awesome host Mr. Bones, which is where I discovered Kim’s work, although I cannot tell you exactly where or when this happened. And unfortunately the Companion’s bio spotlight was light on details, although to be fair not much biographical information exists on Kim. There is a brief bio in Eerie #35 (“New Staff Artist: Sanho Kim”), Kim’s introduction to his self-published 1973 graphic novel (or what he called a montage book) Sword’s Edge: The Sword and the Maiden, and an article by Kim Dong-Hwa, Chairman of the Korean Cartoonists Association, commemorating Sanho Kim receiving Korea’s Medal of Cultural Merits in 2008, and that’s about it. According to these sources Kim was born in 1939, raised in a refugee camp, and studied fine art at the Seorabeol Art College in Soeul. Prior to coming to the United States he spent eight years creating Korean comics or manhwa like his first full-length comic book The Brilliant Twilight Star in 1958 and the bestselling Lifi, Korea’s first science fiction comic, in 1959. In 1969 Kim immigrated to the United States where he became one of the first, if not the first, Asian-style artist published in American comic books, most notably for Charlton but also Skywald Publications, Warren Publishing and Marvel Comics.
Prior to discovering Kim in Ghost Manor I had taken no more notice of the art in a comic book than its newsprint. Kim changed that and in the process became my first favorite comic book artist, someone whose work I recognized the instant I saw it.
But what was it about Kim’s work that caught my eye?
If you had asked me then I would have told you it was because his horror stories looked creepier, his Westerns looked grittier, and his adventures looked more exciting than what other artist’s drew. Oh, and there was something neat about the way Kim drew people with square heads and emerald eyes! Yep, I could pick out a Kim-drawn character from a mile away, but it never occurred to me that the reason for this might have been because I drew people in a similar fashion (see sketch on the left), or that I might have thought Kim’s stories looked more effective than those of his peers because he was a master manhwaga (manhwa creator) proficient at marrying realistically drawn bodies with unrealistic faces and detailed clothing and intricate backgrounds with simplified dialogue, all of which struck a cord with me as a budding comic book writer.
Again, to be fair, I hadn’t learned yet that amateur creators are drawn to the works of professionals who have a similar style to their own. Heck, I wasn’t even aware what my nascent writing style was, so how could I have been aware of the similarities in my stories and the ones drawn and written by Kim? For example, Kim’s stories not only employ simple dialogue but frequently incorporate Korean history, and I write spare dialogue and often incorporate history in my stories. I can see all that now, but what I don’t understand is how I could have been such a fan of Kim’s art and stories but failed to notice when I stopped seeing his work and then forgot about Kim for so many years. I suppose it because I was young and susceptible to juvenile out-of-sight-out-of-mindness. It’s not much of an excuse but there you go.
There is something to be said for auld lang syne, though, and after rediscovering Kim it was heartening to find out that — besides our creative similarities — we share an admiration for the comics medium and a belief in its potential. Kim expressed his hopes for the medium — which parallel many of the ideas comics grandmaster Will Eisner was beginning to propound about the same time — in his Sword’s Edge introduction:
“I come from Korea where for eight years I wrote, illustrated and completely controlled the creation of my comic books. At the same time, I dreamed about the “great” American comic book. I expected its overall quality to be much higher than was I found in the small number I read in Korea. “However, when I came here, I discovered that the American comic book isn’t as fine a product of American creativity and imagination as I had dreamed it is. And, I also noticed, it really hasn’t changed since its first days 35 years ago. “For five years now, I have been living in the United States, illustrating those comic books. Now, for the first time here, I am making my own. “This book—we call it a montage book—is not like other comic books. At its core is the idea that the artist and the writer must be in harmony: the illustrations and the story must be conceived together; the illustrations and story must be executed together. “Unfortunately, the American artist and writer today rarely work together. Too often, a comic book story with merit, has poor art. And one with good art has bad writing. “Most people who follow comic books seriously, believe that a good comic book is the result of good art. They believe the writing is of secondary importance. That is wrong—entirely wrong. Good cinematography alone does not make a good motion picture. Nor does good art alone make a good comic book. Everything—art, writing, reproduction—must be outstanding for the comic book to be outstanding. “There are fortunately, many worthy artists in the United States. I respect their work very highly. There are also many fine writers here. Yet, the two rarely get together. “That is sad. American comic books are in a rut. American artists are too. Neither experiment. They have fallen into deep and deadening mannerisms. “I feel now, after these five years of illustrating someone else’s stories, of meeting some editor’s conceptions of what a comic book should be, it is time that I make my own comic book. “I do not think that Sword’s Edge is my best work. But I feel that it is new and different to America. In fact, it is similar in some respects to my old, Korean style. Whether it is good or bad—and that is only for you to decide—at least I am trying to show you what I feel a comic book can be.”
But even as Kim was trying to coax American comics out of their rut by bringing manwha to the United States in a graphic novel format, he was also experimenting with mixing elements from manwha and traditional American comics, most notably in “The Promise” from Charlton’s Ghostly Tales #101 (1973). (If you’d like to read “The Promise” click on this link. You can also watch an in-depth critical appreciation of “The Promise” from an American and a Korean perspective at Old Folks Comic Talks at the link below.) Ghostly Tales #101 also features “A Word from Sanho Kim” in which he explains how “The Promise” was inspired by a popular type of Korean ghost story and how his story differed from typical American comic book stories of that time.
Sword’s Edge and “The Promise” are variations of the same plot: a warrior chances across a maiden during his travels and faces consequences that arise from that meeting. But “The Promise” is a supernatural story, unlike Sword’s Edge, which might be called a coming-of-age adventure. And where Sword’s Edge is presented in a traditional manwha manner, “The Promise” is simultaneously told in Korean and English, something Kim would never have been permitted to try at Marvel, DC, or Warren with their conformity to United States storytelling standards. Perhaps the only reason he got away with at Charlton is because, being a smaller company, the publisher did not have the time or resouces to demand changes.
Kim only worked on American comics between 1969 to 1976 but he did not return to Korea until 1996. Even then Kim did not stop pushing the limits of comics storytelling. His Korean comics focus on historical topics, like his three-volume magnum opus Daejusinjeguksa (History of Great Korean Empire), and he has developed a new way to tell comic book stories he calls “picture scenario” that combines Western painting with comics art for a new way to tell comic book stories.
I was too young and inexperienced in comic book communication to know how to do more than enjoy Kim’s art when I first discovered it. If I had been a few years older or discovered Kim’s work a few years later I have no doubts he would have peeled my eyes as effectively as Byrne did. But Kim did get me to notice comic book art and stories and for that I am grateful. Now having rediscovered him and having learned about his impressive accomplishments in the comics medium I can truly say that I will never forget him again.