I have been quite negligent in posting to this here blog thingy, except for the daily trees and poems.
You might wonder, well, what in the world does he do all the time, these days?
There’s my work at the gift shop – but it’s hardly full time. And there are my various projects: outdoor projects, like the storage tent and treehouse, and indoor projects like my mapping server, my geofiction, my aimless feints at unfinishable novels.
And meanwhile, I kill time reading things. Blogs, mostly – about politics or science or culture or philosophy. Lately, I have plunged into reading a few “webtoons.” This may require explanation for those not in-the-know with respect to current cultural trends. A webtoon is the online incarnation of the good-ol’ graphic novel, also called “manga” – a Japanese loanword but fully nativized to English at this point. Once upon a time, these were also called comic books, but the comic books of my youth or my parents’ youth have little in common with contemporary graphic novels, which often treat complex themes, have novelistic plots and characterizations, and can be of epic length.
I had a phase, about 10 years ago, when I was reading manga quite a bit. I picked up the habit from my middle-school students in Korea. It was something they did, and so I pursued it too, out of curiosity and to find points of common interest. There were some excellent old manga that I enjoyed – the Deathnote series, the Excel Saga, I even found a graphic novel version of the life of the Buddha that I read substantial portions of. (At right, a photo of my manga collection, on the shelf – you can see I even bought a Korean edition of Deathnote, thinking to try to learn Korean better while reading it.)
With the emergence of smartphones and the always-online generation of my last few cohorts of students in Korea, I noted that interest in manga (called by the cognate “manhwa” in Korean) had faded, and had been replaced by what have come to be called webtoons (In Korean 웹툰 [wep-tun]). These are graphic novels translated to the infinitely scrollable vertical format familiar to web browsers.
And since coming back to the US, I have occasionally dipped into the world of webtoons out of a kind of nostalgia for my years of daily interactions with Korean teenagers, most of whom always had a webtoon window open on their smartphone, which they would scroll through and read given any free time to do so whatsoever.
One webtoon I was enjoying was a sci-fi series called “Seed,” by a Turkish artist, I believe. It deals with themes of emergent Artificial Intelligence, the nature of cognition, and of course, lots of international spy-thriller events, too. More recently, I was browsing through a series called “No Longer a Heroine!” – a Korean series that I enjoy mostly because it’s a low-bandwidth way to remain somewhat immersed in Korean culture – the plot is reminiscent of any number of Korean television dramas of the most generic sort, but vaguely compelling nevertheless.
But then I found “Space Boy.” This webtoon started in early 2015, but this month is the first I’d known anything about it – though it’s been quite popular. It’s currently on episode 263. Each episode is like a chapter in the old manga books, and, given the format is heavy on artwork and often quite light on written dialogue, can be consumed in a matter of 5 or so minutes. But at 263 episodes, that’s a lot of scrolling. I did something I’ve never done before with a webtoon – I compulsively read through all the episodes, catching up to the most recent online. It took me about 5 days – a few hours each day, easily.
It’s a remarkable bit of narrative work. The art, too, is nicely done – but most webtoons I’ve seen are compellingly drawn, from an artistic angle, exploring visual space in interesting ways, providing support to narratives through creative bits of visual evidence and cues. This has all that, but the story itself is several grades above your “average” webtoon – at least in my estimation (and limited experience). At times, it reads like some kind of CS Lewis allegory about love, forgiveness, trauma, human frailty, and such. Other times it’s just a simple teen romance, and other times, it’s a sci-fi thriller.
I’m not sure that I have anything conclusive to say. The series is on-going and unfinished. But if anyone wants to try a long-running webtoon, they could do much worse than “Space Boy” as an introduction to the genre.