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INTERVIEWHarvey Award-winning graphic novelist highlights history in cartoons

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Graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim poses after an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe on Ganghwa Island, Jan. 15. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim poses after an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe on Ganghwa Island, Jan. 15. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Kwak Yeon-soo

GANGHWA ISLAND ― In 2020, cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim's graphic novel "Grass" won the prestigious Harvey Award for best international comic book. She was the first Korean cartoonist to win the prize, becoming a trailblazer in showing how subtle and serious the graphic narrative can be.

"Grass," which has been translated into 14 languages, depicts the life of a "comfort woman," a victim of Japan's wartime sexual slavery. Based on the testimony of the now elderly survivor of wartime sex slavery, Lee Ok-sun, Gendry-Kim addresses issues related to women and social class.

In addition to the Harvey Award, the book also earned the Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize, Krause Essay Prize, and nominations for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Eisner Awards, Believer Book Award, Ringo Award, YALSA Alex Award and YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Gendry-Kim's latest book "The Waiting," inspired by her mother's personal experience, revolves around Gwija, who was separated from her husband and son during the Korean War.

It tells the story of a family's heartbreak following the country's division into North and South. "The Waiting" is currently being translated into six languages. The French edition of the book will hit the shelves in May and the English edition will be available in September this year.

The book cover of the award-winning graphic novel
The book cover of the award-winning graphic novel "Grass," which depicts the life of a wartime sex slave / Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

A big focus of the cartoonist's work is women. In a recent interview with The Korea Times, Gendry-Kim said she feels the need to write stories about Korea's tragic history and characters who are marginalized.

"Because I'm a woman and I've grown up watching my mother and sisters face gender discrimination in patriarchal society, I feel determined to tell stories that center on women," she said.

Although she has a myriad of stories to tell through comics, being a cartoonist wasn't her childhood dream. Having majored in painting and sculpture, she aspired to be an artist.

"In Korea, I majored in Western painting at Sejong University. Then I moved France to learn sculpting because I had passion for the arts. I chose to go to France because the tuition was almost free and Paris is the city of art. I also admire the works of French Impressionist painters," she said.

After graduating from L'Ecole Superieure des Arts Decoratifs de Strasbourg, Gendry-Kim applied to numerous galleries in Paris. Despite her efforts, she was unsuccessful.

"I realized that gaining recognition in school and debuting as a professional artist are two different worlds. Since sculpture is an installation art, I couldn't make money out of it. So I began to translate Korean cartoons, like the works of Lee Hee-jae and Oh Se-ho, into French for a living," she said.

That's when she became interested in print cartoons and comics. "You only need paper and a pencil to draw cartoons in contrast to sculpture, which requires a large space and other materials. The way of expressing my artistic vision changed, but my desire to get involved in the creative process hasn't," she said.

A page view of
A page view of "Grass" / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Gendry-Kim insists on working with "meok" (traditional Korean ink) and tools such as brushes, twigs, sponges and rocks to produce hand-drawn art. The cartoonist's technical skill in drawing landscapes blends well with her heavy black outlines for cartoon faces.

"Webcomics are popular these days, but speed and technique are important factors when it comes to publishing them on a weekly basis. I feel more comfortable with print comics that come out as a finished product at once," she said.

Gendry-Kim said she first became interested in the "comfort women" issue in 1993. But it was in 2013 when she worked on a short comic book project titled "Secret" based on the testimony of victims that she decided to write a graphic novel that spotlights the plight of wartime sex slaves.

"While working on Secret, I wasn't sure how I should depict extreme violence in my drawings. I realized that the comfort women issue is far more complicated than I acknowledged," she said.

The author added that she wanted to highlight the lived experiences of these victims, and show how poorly they were treated after returning to their home country.

By the end of the story, Gendry-Kim includes the illustrated faces of former Korean President Park Geun-hye, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

Asked if she meant to hold them accountable, the cartoonist said, "That was part of my intention. I wanted readers to remember that the comfort women issue is a living history and it still remains an unresolved issue. The elderly sex slavery victims should rest at home, but they still go out to participate in rallies and demand compensation from the Japanese government."

The book cover of
The book cover of "The Waiting," which revolves around Gwija who was separated from her husband and son during the Korean War. / Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

Gendry-Kim said that another historical trauma that Koreans hold is the separation of families after the Korean War.

After hearing her own mother's story of losing her sister during the war, she did extensive historical research and conducted interviews with her mother and those have been to North-South family reunion events.

"Through The Waiting, I wanted to address issues related to the importance of family when we're witnessing the breakdown of a traditional family system. That being said, I also included social problems that we face in modern society," she said.

Gendry-Kim shared that her proudest moment as a cartoonist was when her work started being recognized abroad. "It's rewarding when people read my work in their own languages and tell me they were moved. I want my work to awaken people's empathy and make them see the world from new angles," she said.

An avid dog lover, Gendry-Kim hinted that she is currently working on a graphic novel that centers on human-canine bonding.

Kwak Yeon-soo


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