A Tale of Two Comics
I am a fan of the comics. When I was a kid, every Sunday I’d get the newspaper and read the comic section to get my laugh on. Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, Shoe, Wizard of ID, and Peanuts were some of my favorites. These comics usually were no more than 3 or 4 panels with a good one liner for the punch line. Sometimes they were hilarious, other times they got a tiny chuckle, but the jokes were at least understandable.
Okay so what does this have to do with Korea?
Well, I’m not here to talk about Korean comics, or manhwa (만화). I’m talking about two comics written in English that appear regularly in The Korea Herald, one of Korea’s two major English-language newspapers. (The other major English-language newspaper is The Korea Times.) The comics are Ssomi & Hobo, by Artier Lee, and ROKetship by Luke Martin. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are not. I appreciate that when you are trying to make a creative endeavor, often you run out of material and start scraping the bottom of the creative barrel, so while I will be critical of both of these comics, I mean no disrespect to their makers.
Ssomi & Hobo
This comic appears twice every day in the Herald. Once on the comics page, and once in color as part of the English Update insert. Now usually the comic is supposed to teach us a moral lesson about ourselves or about human nature with clever nips and quips, not necessarily trying to make you laugh. Sometimes it tries to make you laugh. That this comic gets so much exposure is baffling. Other people on other blogs and other foreign people all lament that it’s not ever funny. However, the reason I don’t like this comic is not because it’s not funny, it’s because often, it DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE! Judge for yourself:
This comic suffers from a SEVERE case of lost in translation. I don’t know who is doing the translation, but I could do it better in my sleep. There have been times when I have read the comic, scratched my head, then read the same comic in Korean only to be laughing for hours. The version of the comic that’s published in the English Update section of the Herald has the benefit of the original Korean being there. The daily strip in the rest of the paper is never subtitled, and almost never funny. This comic is often very hit or miss with miss being the norm.
Let’s analyze the three strips.
In the first one, the robot asks what the difference is between big and great. Already we have translation issues. Any native English speaker would tell you, big describes size, and great describes quality. Why does this question even make any sense? Big and great are translations of the words kun (큰) and dae (대) which can be represented by the same Chinese character, 大. Already, I’ve probably lost 1/2 of my readers simply trying to explain that, so obviously this means it’s a joke or clever nip that works only in Korean.
The second strip is one of the few attempts for the comic to actually be funny. Again, it’s not funny because the translation hurt it. Well after looking at the original Korean, it is decidedly funny. But for an English speaking audience I would have written “Follow the directions.” “WTF??!??!” And even then it’s only worth a tiny chuckle.
As you can see, the rightmost comic above actually is mildly funny in English, perhaps because incompetent politicians are a constant no matter what culture you come from. However, this is as funny as it can possibly get with Ssomi & Hobo (in English anyway).
This comic is also printed in the Korea Herald, but only on Thursdays in a section called Expat Living. It’s a comic about a foreign guy who comes to Korea to teach English and how he handles the cultural differences and situations that appear strange to him. It its most popular form, it is a webcomic. ROKetship, (ROK being Republic of Korea) is made by Luke Martin, who himself is an American who came to Korea to teach English.
Okay, I’ll probably get a lot of negative comments from ROKetship’s fans but I can’t say I really like this comic either. First, it’s made for a VERY limited audience. That audience is native English speakers living in Korea who have lived in their home countries for most of their lives. Granted, there are a lot of people in that community, but if you were to show the comic to someone who doesn’t live in Korea, it wouldn’t always be funny.
I admit, it’s funny, but sometimes it is culturally insensitive, uses cheap stereotypes, and makes Koreans the butt of the joke. Here, I’ll show you…
Now I have to say that I am guilty of selecting those that I could complain about, but it is precisely these that leave a bad taste in my mouth. They do nothing but encourage western stereotypes of Asians. In the first one, the stereotype is that Asians can’t drive. In the second one, the stereotype is that Asians are abnormally small. Finally, in the third, and possibly the most hurtful stereotype, Asian men are effeminate.
But wait, that’s not what the author meant at all!
Okay fair enough. I really should judge by intent, right?
The idea of the second comic is the observation that I guess the author has, that his feet are so much larger than any Koreans he has met. I’ll admit, there is some truth to the idea that on average, Americans are larger than Koreans. When I say that, I mean all Americans, including Korean Americans. This stereotype is based on the days right after the Korean war, when Koreans could barely feed themselves. These days however, since Korea has achieved the rapid economic growth, there is an abundance of food. The average size of Koreans is also on the rise. But is that a good thing?
In the picture, his shoe size seems to be more than twice that of any other shoes there. I know this is done for comedic effect, but I have to ask how his giant crocs would look against Korean K-1 fighter Choi Hong Man’s shoes?
The idea of the first comic is that it’s unsafe to drive in Seoul, or in Korea in general. I personally have yet to see any kind of driving that is worse than a normal day in any crowded city in the U.S. However I have heard plenty of stories from both Koreans and non-Koreans that drivers in Seoul are insane. Maybe they avoid me most of the time. Maybe it’s only during rush hour. I am not sure. Perhaps the joke is that taxi drivers, not Asian drivers are unsafe. I don’t really see this to be the case either. If it is indeed true that Korean drivers are that terrible, I must be blind or completely lucky for never noticing. I think the fans are flamed by the pre-conceived stereotype that westerners have of Asians.
Finally in the last comic, the author’s intent is to express his culture shock at some of the fashion choices of some men in Korea that would not go over well in the U.S, but here he has the Korean man taking the role that is stereotypical of women. Again, I know it’s intent, but the author is reinforcing a stereotype. First of all, only a tiny segment of the population chooses the clothes that would not be fashionable in the states. It’s usually the people aged 16-25, and even then it’s not all of them. Or even most of them, in fact, most Koreans dress so averagely that if you were to teleport them to the U.S., they would seamlessly fit right in (in regards to fashion anyway). This is overemphasizing what stands out to the author. Furthermore this image reinforces an attitude that I think many visitors to foreign countries have, that their way is good and right, and anything drastically different is bad and wrong. Korea’s fashion sense is different from that in America. So what? Again, I know it’s probably not the intent of the author, but the idea might foster the perpetual stereotype in others.
So Luke Martin can’t say anything about Koreans?
Well, when you are a comedian, and you are telling a joke about another group of people, you have to be kind of sensitive to that group, as you are an outsider. Keep in mind the history between your group and their group, what stereotypes exist, and try to stay away from topics that might be offensive to members of that other group. If that seems to be too hard, then I have a much easier litmus test for these situations. If you’re white, and you’re going to tell a joke about Koreans or their stereotypes, cross out Koreans and replace it with blacks and their stereotypes. Now, would you be comfortable showing that to a black person in the U.S. that you don’t even know? If so, then it’s probably safe. If not, then perhaps you should change your idea.
ROKetship doesn’t usually have this problem though, as Usually the joke is on the protagonist, not on Koreans. Here’s one of my favorites.
So, between Ssomi & Hobo and ROKetship, we have a horribly translated comic that doesn’t make sense in English, and a funny one that only foreign English teachers can really get. I think the Herald needs to find a comic, written by a Korean who is fluent enough in English to understand humor rather than continuing to use both of these extremes.