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Drawing the fine line: Artistic expression and offensive content

“Hellper” (Naver Webtoon)
“Hellper” (Naver Webtoon)

Following widespread controversy over violent and sexually explicit content in his work, Naver webtoon “Hellper” author Sakk apologized Monday and said he was taking a break. It was the 248th episode of the webtoon’s second season.

While controversy over “Hellper” began brewing as soon as the new season kicked off in 2016, things came to a head Sept. 11 when the local media picked up comments that had appeared on an online community site a few days earlier.

The webtoon had gone too far in the latest episode, readers said. The scene that ignited the protests showed the much-loved grandmother character Pibada being tortured, stripped and injected with drugs.

Although “Hellper” is restricted to readers 18 and older, many readers had expressed discomfort with its content.

“Even we men think there is a definite problem when such a sexist webtoon is shown weekly without any regulations on mega platform Naver, just because there is an age restriction of 18 or above,” wrote one reader.

The scene showing Pibada in distress brought out readers’ discomfort with other content in “Hellper.”

The sexual objectification of women has been a consistent theme of the second season. Criminal acts such as rape, spycam filming, prostitution and sex with minors have been shown multiple times. Characters that blatantly reference celebrities such as IU, RM of BTS and Song Min-ho of Winner are shown performing indecent acts or being beaten to a pulp.

“It is true that I expressed myself more freely after (the webtoon was) labelled adult content than when it was for a general audience,” said Saak. “Although Naver Webtoon officials warned me to keep the level of violence and sexual material in check so as to not disturb readers, despite it being adult content, I always went a bit beyond their guidelines because of my greed as an author.”

But while Saak said he made a mistake, he insisted that the violation of Pidaba was essential to the plot and that the ultimate message of the comic is that good triumphs over evil. The only thing to blame was his lack of skill in presenting the material.

“As someone who loves comics, I always thought the level of regulation for expression in comics is harsher than that for other kinds of content. So I thought to push the boundaries of expression a little,” said Saak in Monday’s announcement. “I feel that I have done the reverse and want to apologize to all those readers who love webtoons as well as other authors and fans who want to enjoy more diverse comic content.”

Naver also apologized in the same announcement.

“We will keep a closer eye on expressions of sensitive content and try to communicate more closely with authors,” a Naver Webtoon official said.

This is the second time since last month that Naver has pledged to monitor authors’ work. The first concerned an innuendo-laden scene in author Kian84’s work.

At the time, Kian84 admitted that his attempt at satire was over the line and he revised the scenes in question. Saak has also revised his controversial scenes.

With few legal grounds to regulate contentious material in webtoons, it is up to authors and platforms to self-regulate.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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