The title page above shows the Grandmother Goddess of Yeongdo-Ju, or at least, as I imagine her, hair in rollers, a cigarette and a bottle of wine on the go…. She is the goddess looking over Yeongdo-ju, in Busan, South Korea, and within it the area where my story Kangkangee Blues is set. From the stories I heard she could be a little possessive and wayward in her affections. (Anybody moving away from the island, for example, is advised to do so in the dead of night in hope of avoiding her disapproval.) I paid a visit to her shrine atop Mount Bongnaesan this summer. Woefully unfit, I just about made it to the top of the mountain, and made damn sure to pay my respects and offer her a little rice wine before descending. She can clearly carry a grudge…
Kangkangee Blues is a sad little love story in 21 pages (22 with that ‘cover’ ) Which I produced at the behest of the British Council as one of their collaborative artistic endeavours, similar to the Shakespeare Lives! event I was involved in last year in Seoul, (must post that sometime…) My brief on this occasion, given to me by the Kangkangee Project when I first took on the gig, was to create visuals to accompany a piece of music by a Korean singer/songwriter, but that idea fell through, essentially because he didn’t feel like collaborating much, and I was left to come up with …something else, something about the area where the Arts Village is based, which they are engaged in various attempts to artistically celebrate, decorate and map. My contribution was to be just part of an initiative by the Village to raise the creative profile of the district. Muralists, painters and installation artists were also there during my visit, with bigger budgets than mine…
It was suggested by Director Seung that my ‘something’ should be about the Kankangee women, who have long had the thankless task of ridding ship’s hulls of rust, barnacles and the like. Decades back they did this by the simple method of hitting the thing with hammers (the ‘kang kang kang’ of the hammers hitting steel is where the area gets its name,) these days they do it with power sanders on sticks, but it has always been dirty, insecure, dangerous work, largely undertaken by middle aged women on up into their 70’s.
So I got flown out to Korea in late July, and once there visual inspiration was easy to come by, the Kankangee area is extraordinary, a wonderland, if your idea of treasure is rusting maritime junk, (Mine is. So woohoo!) Its function, in a shipping port, is to be the place to go to return your vessel to seaworthiness. It does not manufacture ships, but anything your craft needs can be cast or constructed or worked there. The legend is that if a man knows his business he could go to the right seven places in Kankangee and build himself a submarine. Walking around I immediately saw images that I wanted to draw, and I fairly quickly came up with a simple idea for a story around which to hang those images, a simple tale of love lost and possibly regained told over 5 decades. It’s not wildly complicated, but it’s one in which I could squeeze a fair amount of what I experienced and learned in two heady, delirious weeks in Busan, from food to history to landscape to architecture. I took hundreds of photographs and made a lot of notes and climbed a lot of steps in a lot of heat. I tried to work in everything and have it work within the story, always aware of so much more that I missed, barely glimpsed, or failed to understand because of woeful ignorance of the Korean language. I think that lack lies behind my instinctual decision to make the strip ‘silent’ save for the repetitive ‘kang kang kang’ which the old KKG women swear still haunts their dreams. It is not a realistic picture of Busan, it’s one seen through the eyes of a bedazzled cartoonist from other shores, it’s not true, but I hope there’s truth in it. It’s a love story, but also a love letter to the city, and everybody I met whilst I was there.
I can only offer deep thanks to all the fine folks at the Kangkangee Arts Village, the Brtitish Council and Arts Council Korea who helped make this happen, and especially to the lovely Bomin Bom who was my long suffering guide, translator, researcher, and agreeable dinner companion. Mingjung Jung who, beyond the call of duty returned to me a precious memory card I had managed to lose in Hyundae (I blame the Soju.) Director Seung for introducing me to so many new foods and flavours.Yeji Shin for organizing the McLuckie-Jeon hook up, amongst other things, and Yeoju, who corralled the strip into readable shape into shape as we sent message after message back and forth across the world….. You are all bloody marvelous.
The strip will be posted online from the Arts Village site and see print in Korea in 2018. I have the rights to publish a british print version at some point, and am exploring options….
Here’s a link to a piece on the Arts Village site: http://kangkangee.com/index.php/ukkorea/