LEE JONG-BUM (’01, Dept. of Psychology) is 32-year-old cartoonist. His recent webtoon Dr. Frost involves a brilliant professor who attempts to solve the mysteries of people’s minds. It will come out next year as a new TV series from OCN.
Q: How did you learn to draw cartoons?
I am self-taught, as most cartoonists are. I was into comic books since I was little. Back then, I was more engrossed in the cartoon’s artwork and illustration than in the story. As I entered high school, I started to learn how to create a comic strip with a complete storyline and thereafter illustrated my comics on a proper art board. I read a lot of comic books, looked into different ways to create cartoons, mimicked some that I really liked, and analyzed them in my own way.
Q: Why cartoons?
There are so many different ways to convey your story, such as films, TV dramas, novels, and cartoons. Of those, cartoons stand out because you don’t need much capital to make them, compared to films or TV shows. Also, you can work alone. It is not that forming a team is impossible, but “having a team” for a cartoonist often just means “having an assistant.”
Q: What was your college life like?
I devoted my college life to the Yonsei student jazz club, “So What,” where I served as music director. I first approached music only with the intention of collecting data for my music cartoon, since it was my dream to draw one. As I kept at it, I found it more intriguing, so I continued until I graduated. In addition to that, I always had three to four part-time jobs to pay for tuition, and I was very keen to keep my grades up. I also served as the class representative during my freshman year. College years were a really busy period; there wasn’t any time for cartoons.
Q: Why weren’t you part of any cartoon-related activities?
I was always interested in the school’s cartoon club, but I thought that I would be limiting what I could experience if I devoted myself to cartoons even in college. It was an arrogant notion in a way, but doing different activities and meeting new people seemed important too.
Q: Then how did you prepare for your debut as a cartoonist?
It wasn’t until my senior year that I was back on track to becoming a cartoonist. I started looking for the opportunities that were available at the time. Just as people take internships for job opportunities, I looked for cartoon publishers and attended all kinds of lectures that seemed helpful. I also published comic strips for a jazz culture magazine called “jazz People.” Although jazz was a minor genre in Korea, it was the best option for me at the time since I was already involved in jazz music and I actually got to publish my work. I drew cartoons that gave the readers tips on how to enjoy jazz music, while introducing jazz albums, jazz musicians, and my personal insights into the music.
Q: What does it take to be a cartoonist?
There doesn’t seem to be any real qualification to becoming a cartoonist. If I had to think of one, it would be that a cartoonist has to have a story to tell. It’s tough to publish something without a story to tell. Drawing is a skill that you can learn as you go along, and so is writing. You can still be a great cartoonist without special talent. Obviously you should like cartoons.
Q: Who are your most respected cartoonists?
I read a lot of Lee Doo-ho’s work, like Gaekju, Taoist Meoteol, and Im Kkeokjung. The fact that he dedicated his entire life to cartoons is honorable. Also, he has his own unique style in portraying traditional Korean culture in his works. He once said, “Cartoonists draw with their hips,” meaning that cartoonists need tremendous patience and stamina since they have to work hours sitting down. I also consider Yang Young-soon, who is famous for drawing Denma, as a natural talent, with his unique style. He really shows the depths of a person’s power of imagination. Other cartoonists I respect are Hitoshi Iwaaki, who wrote and illustrated Kiseiju, and Takehiko Inoue, who wrote and illustrated Slam Dunk.
Q: By the time you became a cartoonist, webtoons became the new trend. Did you have any feeling of estrangement?
I grew up reading and wanting to draw traditional paper-published cartoons. Currently, there are only a small number of opportunities to do that. It’s like being an actor who has practiced all his life to act on stage, but there is no stage for him to act on anymore. I still hope to be able to draw paper-based cartoon someday.
Q: With the rising popularity of webtoons and the current two million webtoon readers in Korea, how do you think webtoon culture will turn out 10 years from now?
First, there will be more webtoons intended for an older audience, since the majority of current readers who are in their teens and twenties will age with the cartoonists. Second, webtoons will become predominant overseas. Once Europe and North America develop a more widespread Wi-Fi environment like Korea, more people will be able to read cartoons on their mobiles whenever and wherever they are. I think it will also give Korean webtoons a show on the world stage.
Q: Moving on to Dr. Frost, why do you think people love it?
I still don’t feel like it’s such a huge hit - most cartoonists aren’t aware of how popular their cartoons are. But I think psychology is a subject that intrigues people, and many people seem to sympathize with the cases in the story. I intended to deal with problems that young adults today can resonate with: exam stress, insomnia, and depression. I can get a sense of what’s on my readers’ minds when I read the online replies to my work. Also, I think that the fact the content is based on real psychological studies makes Dr. Frost unique. Interviewing experts is a lot of work, but it makes my work different from others.
Q: How did you come up with the character Dr. Frost?
I had a few sources of inspiration. There are lots of similar characters out there such as the unorthodox diagnostician Dr. Gregory House from the famous American medical drama and the physics genius Manabu Yukawa from the Japanese TV series Galileo. Also, the character that Kang Dong-won played in Haunters, who is always in self-agony, made an impact. I think Dr. Frost is a mixture of those multiple characters.
Q: How do you conduct your research?
After doing a case study, I consult professionals and my advisory panel. I show them my scenario based on my studies and receive their feedback. I tend to ask them a lot of details, because they have experiences of treating patients like the ones that I’m trying to depict. After I write the story, I ask other storywriters whether it’s entertaining or not. I also read multiple dissertations and books; there’s a lot of studying going on.
Q: Cartoonists have to always live up to their readers’ expectations – how do you cope with them?
I go through a lot of stress; imagine that tens of thousands of feedback comments on your work get posted almost instantly. Yet compared to my years as a rookie, I don’t get swayed as much by the readers’ online replies. I’ve learned to respect my readers’ opinions as strictly theirs while keeping my own opinions intact. But the constant feedback is helpful for future references.
Q: Any memorable replies?
The readers who say that their daily lives have changed come to mind. Some tell me that they decided to consult a therapist because of a concern they had. Sometimes they tell me that their lives are much happier and positive because my cartoons became a source of comfort and consolation. They really make the time I dedicated to my work worthwhile.
Q: A message to Yonsei students?
Everyone nowadays seems to be preparing for a Civil Service Exam, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, or working for a big company. Stop worrying and enjoy yourself. Join a club, go on a date, or go traveling. Having a variety of experiences is also a part of what companies expect from you. It’s regrettable to see today’s young adults stuck studying in the library. Carpe Diem!