The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Legendary cartoonist Lee Hyun-se says curiosity propels him forward

Lee calls for more investment in 'auteurism-based cartoons' in order to grow cartoon industry

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : May 15, 2024 - 17:14

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Lee Hyun-se speaks during an interview in Seocho-gu, Seoul, May 9. (Yonhap) Lee Hyun-se speaks during an interview in Seocho-gu, Seoul, May 9. (Yonhap)

South Korean cartoonist Lee Hyun-se, creator of one of the most successful cartoon series ever to be published in Korea, "A Daunting Team," said his curiosity to uncover untold stories is what pushes him to challenge himself, even after achieving stardom.

Lee made his debut as a cartoonist in 1976. Following the success of "A Daunting Team" (1982), he has been honored with some of the most prestigious awards in the field of cartoons in Korea, including the Korea Popular Culture and Arts Award and the President's Award in the cartoon division of the 2007 Korea Contents Awards.

Lee, 68, is currently working both as a cartoonist as well as the chairman of KOMACON (the Korea Manhwa Contents Agency), and is a professor at the Department of Comics and Animation at Sejong University.

His current projects include collaborations with Jaedam Media and Sejong University to train generative AI using his works and art style. This initiative aims to produce remakes of his original works, as well as homages and original pieces using AI technology.

In a swiftly evolving industrial landscape, cartoonists will inevitably embrace AI tools, Lee said.

"You need to follow the changing trends. For content creators, using AI is like having thousands of assistant writers," said Lee, during an interview with reporters at the National Library of Korea in Seocho-gu, Seoul, on May 9.

However, he added that AI should only function as a tool to enhance the creative abilities of human cartoonists.

"(In the field of cartoons,) the roles of AI and humans are clearly distinct. The contemplation about 'what kind of story to tell' and 'what texture and depth to add to the cartoon' remains the creator's responsibility," Lee added.

Alongside his endeavor to develop an AI cartoonist, Lee is also engaged in other ventures, including writing a webtoon series as well as rebooting his old works.

Lee said he is currently collaborating with film director Kwak Kyung-taek, who helmed hit crime flicks such as "Friend: The Great Legacy" (2013) and "The Classified File" (2015), to simultaneously create a webtoon and a drama series titled "Era of Luxury Goods."

Lee said he is also scheduled to make a reboot of "Blue Angel," (1988) an R-rated cartoon series that follows the story of a tough female detective.

According to Lee, his insatiable curiosity for discovering new stories is what drives him to push his limits.

"I am naturally curious. I constantly question the various things happening in the world," said Lee.

"I think I have dealt with all the stories one could narrate, but my curiosity causes me to delve into even more stories," he added.

Characters from Lee Hyun-se's mega-hit cartoon series, Characters from Lee Hyun-se's mega-hit cartoon series, "A Daunting Team" (Haksan Publishing)

Moving forward, Lee said more investment needs to be made by the webtoon platforms and the government in the production of independent, artistic cartoons rather than commercial cartoons.

"Currently, the market is driven by commercial works dealing with themes of (spiritual) possession, reincarnation and time slips. However, it's the auteurism-centric cartoons that inspire the production of such commercial cartoons," said Lee.

"Commercial writers reproduce and expand upon universally accepted works according to market logic, so they don't conduct (unique) experiments. When readers get tired of commercial cartoons, (cartoon) content in general starts to decline. Personally, I believe the future of Korean webtoons depends on how much major platforms or the government invest in auteurism-centric cartoonists," he said.