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INTERVIEWConcept artist discusses success behind 'It's Okay to Not Be Okay' storybooks

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Concept artist Jamsan, who worked on
Concept artist Jamsan, who worked on "It's Okay Not to Be Okay" storybooks featured in the smash-hit drama series, poses after an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Tuesday. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Cable network tvN's series "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" wrapped up its 16-part run earlier this month, but is still making headlines because of the children's storybooks that appeared in the smash-hit drama.

Following the massive success of its fairy tale romance, the production company has decided to publish five storybooks: "The Boy Who Fed on Nightmares," "Zombie Kid," "The Cheerful Dog," "The Hand, the Monkfish" and "Finding the Real Face."

Jamsan, a concept artist who joined the hugely successful TV series, said he is still overwhelmed by the overnight success of the drama both at home and abroad, which caused his career to take off.

The benefits have continued even after the end of the drama.

All five of the storybooks shown in the series are currently listed in the top 20 bestselling books of the month, according to the Kyobo Bookstore and YES24 websites.

Jamsan's concept art sketch for
Jamsan's concept art sketch for "Finding the Real Face," featured in tvN's drama series "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" / Courtesy of Jamsan
In the series, Seo Yea-ji plays Ko Mun-yeong, a children's storybook author who suffers from antisocial personality disorder. She writes cruel fairy tales full of dark themes and grotesque scenes.

Ko falls in love with Moon Gang-tae (played by Kim Soo-hyun), a caretaker who works in a psychiatric hospital and takes care of his older brother Sang-tae (Oh Jung-se).

Apart from the healing romance between Ko and Moon, the drama shows how three adults ― traumatized by parental abuse and murder when they were children ― learn to recover from their past traumas.

"It's Okay to Not Be Okay," which earned popularity overseas through streaming on Netflix, is recognized for its visual storytelling that includes concept artist Jamsan's illustrations in Ko's body of work.

His dark, grotesque drawings entwined with screenwriter Jo Yong's stories about family and love resonated with drama fans.

"It's been a while since the series ended in Korea, but I'm surprised that people continue to express their interest in and love for it," he said during an interview with The Korea Times, Tuesday. "My follower count on social media has increased dramatically and I still get a lot of messages from drama fans."

Jamsan said he happily accepted the challenging task of illustrating all of Ko's storybooks seen in the series.

"I've worked with producer Park Shin-woo before on tvN's Encounter, starring Song Hye-kyo and Park Bo-gum," he said. "Last year, he told me he's preparing a dark drama about a psychopath. I expressed my desire to join the project, sharing my personal interests in zombies and cruel fairy tales."

The book cover illustration of
The book cover illustration of "The Boy Who Fed on Nightmares" / Courtesy of Jamsan

Compared with "Encounter," in which he created a fairytale-style rendering of the introduction and ending of the series, Jamsan had to build illustrations for each of the episode in "It's Okay to Not Be Okay." The 47-year-old artist said he changed the overall feeling of the illustration styles to reflect how characters overcame their fears and bad memories.

In Ko's early storybooks such as "The Boy Who Fed on Nightmares" and "Zombie Kid," the artist used dark colors to express the emotional damage suffered by the character. As the story develops and Kim Sang-tae debuts as an illustrator with "Finding the Real Face," Jamsan captures scenes filled with color and vibrancy.

"In the beginning, I pretty much focused on defining the dark mood and appearance of lonely characters. But for Sang-tae's drawing, I wanted to create his world in watercolor to give a warm and friendly feel to it, just like The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland," he said.

According to Jamsan, the illustrations made him feel proud because his work has proven that cruel fairy tales can become bestsellers.

"Personally I really loved this project because Ko Mun-yeong's storybooks becoming instant bestsellers has opened up new opportunities to concept artists and illustrators like me. In the past, publishers were reluctant to release cruel fairy tales, saying such stories would not appeal to a wider audience," he said.

The book cover illustration of
The book cover illustration of "Finding the Real Face" / Courtesy of Jamsan

Jamsan was among many concept artists who focused on work that delivered warm, fuzzy feelings. However, he grew tired of bright, mystical and fantasy-themed illustrations after experiencing a career slump.

"After working as a concept artist for more than 20 years and experiencing the ups and downs of life, I realized that life isn't beautiful," he said. "After going through a career slump, I found joy in drawing zombies and fairy tales with dark twists. However, the fact that I tell stories though images and symbols remains the same."

Jamsan shared that he had a visceral love for art and comics from a young age, dreaming of becoming a cartoonist. He studied oriental painting at an arts high school and then majored in cartoon illustration and animation at Kongju National University. He worked as an animation and art director until he quit to pursue a career as an illustrator when he was in his late 20s.

"I've always been interested in visualizing emotions and expressing feelings through art," he said. "I think good art is different from well-drawn art. Good art requires turning one's thoughts and feelings into art."

Jamsan's concept art sketch for tvN's drama series
Jamsan's concept art sketch for tvN's drama series "Encounter" / Courtesy of Jamsan

Jamsan is preparing a cruel fairy tale series titled "Blood Apple" for adults. The first book of the series, "Self-inflicted Mermaid," which is set to hit the shelves in September, features a mermaid's self-destructive behavior after being unable to win a prince's heart. The artist said he is currently searching for a writer who can turn his synopsis into a well-developed story.

"I want to tell the story but in small steps. My goal is to arouse some smiles and emotions in readers so they will wait for the next story. I'd like to entertain and, at the same time, make them think about things," he said. "However, I don't think a storybook should always have a message or a moral theme. I just want to share stories about empathy."

Kwak Yeon-soo


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