As Americans, we tend to think that all the really cool historical stuff happened here in America, or (at the very least) to Americans. Well that isn’t so much the case, as is evidenced by Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender published by Onrie Kompan Productions in 2013. If you missed it, that lushly-rendered hardbound graphic novel that was a compilation of the four-issue limited series told a historical accounting of one of Korea’s most celebrated heroes, Yi Soon Shin. It was Yi Soon Shin who defended his country from a Japanese invasion in the year 1592. The epic story was filled with richly-rendered characters, internal deception, political intrigue, and some of the most spectacular battles scenes that you are every likely to see in comics, and depicted a magnificent rendering of an amazing battle which took place on the open sea and on land between the massive invading forces of the nation of Japan, and the (much smaller and not as well-equipped) Korean forces.
Kompan is now running a Kickstarter to help fund a follow-up story arc with Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger. We recently caught up with Onrie Kompan who filled us in on why an American audience has gone positively Gaa-gaa over a 16th Century Korean General.
Robert J Sodaro: As Americans, we tend to think that all the really cool historical stuff happened here in America, but the story of Yi Soon Shin clearly takes place in Korea. Can you give us a bit of the background about the story behind Yi Soon Shin?
Onrie Kompan: Yi Soon Shin is literally Korea’s version of Batman. He’s one of their most profound heroes and not for just any reason. Yi Soon Shin defended Korea from an invasion from Japan. Imagine hordes of Japanese samurai were beaten 23 times in a row against Yi Soon Shin who was literally outnumbered 10 to 1 against them. He’s the man!
RJS: What caused you to pick this story to tell in comicbook format?
OK: I wanted to show that more could be done in comics aside from superheroes; but beyond that, I wanted to show that real heroes actually exist and are just as cool (if not cooler) than superheroes because they are real. Comics felt like the perfect medium to show this.
RJS: Do you think that we as Americans are interested enough in a war story between Korea and Japan that took place in the 16th Century?
OK: The American audience is always hungry for new stories! They always have been and they always will be. And let’s be honest, we’ve heard it all already. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it’s really difficult to stay fresh these days when it comes to storytelling. I was willing to venture out of my comfort zone to discover the story of Admiral Yi. And despite how crazy I might sound when saying this, I believe that one day people will be so into this series that they’ll praise it the same way they do Star Wars or Game of Thrones. I just hope I’m alive long enough to see it so I can cash in on it!
OK: It’s the greatest underdog story never told! It’s a human story about a man who sacrificed everything for what he believed in — a man who was an incorruptible force that stood before the face of evil—and won! You couldn’t make this kind of stuff up because it ACTUALLY happened. The whole world deserves to know about this!
RJS: Do you believe that history (either Korean or American) can be taught through comicbooks?
OK: People always ask me that and the real answer is, I don’t know. I didn’t make this comic to educate people. I made this comic for the same reason all creators make comics — because they want to entertain.
We try and avoid the word “history” wherever we can because that is an automatic turn-off for a lot of people. History itself is fascinating to some but to many others, it can be boring.
But to answer your question, if a first-grade teacher brings Yi Soon Shin into a classroom, there is a good chance that they will lose their job. This is a story about war and war is ugly. People ask why there is so much blood and gore in our comic and the reason is because well…it’s war.
Our story is about how real people dealt with war and how others used war to their advantage so that they could manipulate people and have their way. Like I said, it’s a human story. This is what people do during times of war. It’s every man for himself. What sets Yi Soon Shin apart from the entire cast is that he’s the only character in our book that is trying to protect people. Everyone else is in it for themselves.
RJS: Comics are essentially known for superheroes in tights. Do you honestly believe that the medium can expand beyond this and be taken seriously by the mass market?
OK: I think we’re seeing that happen today. Look at all the superhero movies out there and how they are marketing knick-knacks towards both kids and adults. Gillette is now selling Avengers shavers. I bet nobody saw that coming back in 1962.
RJS: As a rule, more people have seen even one of the big-budget superhero movies than read all the comics on which it was based, why do you think that comicbook movie ticket sales don’t translate into comicbooks sales?
OK: I ask myself that very question quite often. Perhaps people see the comics as a lesser version of the movie. Perhaps the majority of comics aren’t as great as we all wish they were. Or maybe the comic book community isn’t inviting enough to new readers because they don’t want to be seen as nerds for reading them. Maybe I’m completely wrong or maybe I’m 100% on point.
The truth is I don’t have the answer to your question. But every time I go to a convention and someone who has never read comics before in their life buys my book, I hope that our work has the power to change their minds and open up that door for them.
And more importantly, I hope that they start by supporting independent comics rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of mainstream. There is a lot of great independent stuff out there that deserves way more attention.
OK: I believe it will happen eventually once we finish our work on the series. Honestly, I see it as a trilogy of movies. Call me crazy but I want Yi Soon Shin to be the next Star Wars. As for when that will happen, I can’t say but I hope I’m around to cash in on it and that I get to play a role in its production.
RJS: Tell us a bit about how you went about assembling your team for Yi Soon Shin.
OK: Great question and one I’m always happy to answer. It was really a two-year long process. I spent a lot of time studying trends in comics and looking for art styles that I knew had the potential to stand out.
When the time came to start building out the team, I posted ads on sites like Digital Webbing and Deviant Art and went through a slew of very bad portfolios. I was hoping my idea would attract a big name artist but even they weren’t interested.
Then one day, I got a submission from Giovanni Timpano, an artist from Italy who was hungry for work. After that, things sort of came together rather quickly. My friend, Alverne Ball introduced me to his colorist, Adriana De Los Santos, and was totally fine with me hiring her to do work on the book. Check out her work on Alverne’s series Virgin Wolf.
Adriana then introduced me to Joel Saavedra who is our letterer. Finally, I realized that after getting rejected by damn near every publisher out there, that I needed an editor to show me the ropes. I became friends with Papercutz’s Jim Salicrup through Facebook and he put me in touch with his good friend, comics’ veteran David Anthony Kraft.
Eventually, we brought on a second artist named El Arnakleus for Fallen Avenger. We wanted to give the book a different feel and his style meshed perfectly with Giovanni’s. I like to say that Gio is my Steve Ditko and that El is my John Romita.
RJS: Tell us a little about their (and your) backgrounds.
OK: I’m a Chicago native and Yi Soon Shin is my first entry into comics. I’ve been working on the series for the last five years and have been putting it out myself. Everything from concept to final product has my hand in it somewhere and if you see me at conventions, then you know that I also handle selling it. I’ve sold nearly 40,000 books.
Giovanni Timpano is our artist from Italy. He’s currently working on The Shadow for Dynamite and has an extensive portfolio. He’s worked on GI Joe, Hellraiser and much more. El Arnakleus is heavily inspired by Frank Frazetta and brings his artistic influence to the series.
Adriana De Los Santos is our colorist from Argentina and she turns every page into a painting.
Joel Saavedra is also from Argentina and he letters the book.
And finally, my editor/co-writer David Anthony Kraft is a veteran of comics. At some point or another, he has edited every Marvel Comics character you can think of. He had a very memorable run on She-Hulk and The Defenders (which is soon going to be a Netflix series) and went off to run his own publishing venture called Comics Interview.
Everything I learned about storytelling, production, and publishing is thanks to DAK. I enjoy working with him very much and I respect him immensely. In fact, I respect everyone on my team immensely. They put everything into this book and it’s not an easy comic to work on at all. Our production process is grueling compared to other titles because I demand the best and they are willing to give it to me. No matter what it takes.
OK: Curse the dreaded “H” word!
Given all the blood, gore, and sex in our book, I have to say that we’re definitely straying away from this being a boring high school history lesson. That is the one thing we are really trying to avoid. History is boring. Most people don’t want to learn while reading comics. They want to be entertained. That being said, if our book entertains readers enough to get them to do their own research, then that’s an added bonus and we’ll happily take credit for it.
All we want to do is make a great comic series so I wouldn’t say our approach is standard either. We work using the classic Marvel method. DAK and I work scene-by-scene so that we get the most out of everything. It’s a very challenging book to work on but one that has taught me a great deal about comic book production. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it despite the challenges I’m faced with.
RJS: You already have one story arc of Yi Soon Shin out, and now you are working on a second arc. Do you see this going onto more multiple arcs?
OK: Yi Soon Shin is a trilogy and right now we’re gearing up to wrap up the second arc. After that, we’re planning one more arc that will conclude the entire series. Eventually, if the opportunity arises, I’d like to do a prequel trilogy about what happened prior to the war so that readers can get more insight about the origin of Admiral Yi. But we’ll cross that path when we get there. Right now our focus is on finishing the trilogy we started!
RJS: Will you attempt to mine Korean history for more comicbook stories?
OK: Korean history is very expansive and there are a lot of wonderful stories but I don’t believe in genre mining. Like I said, history can be boring and if it’s approached without passion, readers will get bored. My job is always to entertain my audience first and I believe the best way to do that is to venture towards topics that pull my own interests. I don’t like the idea of being categorized as a genre writer either. I’m willing to write anything so long as there is a story to tell, even if it’s about superheroes.
RJS: How is the series selling?
OK: To date, we’ve sold close to 40,000 books without a publisher or distributor.
We decided to use conventions to reach our customers directly and while our sales at shows, Amazon, and select retailers have been great, the truth is that it’s impossible to make money when we’re in this position.
Our funding recently fell through for reasons unrelated to the book’s success but I’ve come so far with Yi Soon Shin that I have to see it through to the end for the sake of all the readers that have supported our series over the years. Therefore, we launched a Kickstarter initiative to keep this series alive and finish what we’ve started. We invite everyone to join the fight and help us win this battle!
OK: Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger #4 is the issue we’re currently working on. It’s going to be a 48-page book with no ads in it. This is the book we’re focusing on for Kickstarter and folks can be a part of it by funding the Kickstarter. As far as what to expect from this issue — expect it to be bloody, brutal and the Greatest issue of the series yet. Why? Because in this issue, Admiral Yi is going up against a Japanese armada of over 333 ships with only 12 ships at his disposal. He’s been beaten, bloodied, and broken and now he’s pissed. Readers are going to learn from this book why he is such a great hero.
Fallen Avenger is really a homage to Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again arc in the sense that both stories feature protagonists who have been broken but are unwilling to accept defeat.
RJS: Where can fans get their own copies (are you selling online, is it stocked in stores, are you attending cons, and if so can you give us your schedule for the year)?
OK: We invite everyone to check out our webstore. I will personally sign and ship your books around the world. As far as conventions go, I will be attending Motor City Comic-Con, Phoenix Comic-Con, NY Special Edition, SDCC, Wizard World Chicago, Baltimore Comic-Con and NYCC. I will also be doing a few store signings in both Chicago and New York. The rest of the time, I’m going to be focusing on production as well as my next few projects.
RJS: What’s next for you?
OK: I recently launched Freedable Comics which is a site I co-created to help independent creators like myself get their work out there. The beautiful thing about Freedable is that we collect data from our readers and provide creators with this information for free so that they can learn more about their demographic. It’s a free tool for creators to help aid them in their creative endeavors and it’s also free for readers.
I am also finishing up a 144-page graphic novel that I’ve been working on since 2011. JM DeMatteis is the editor for the book and it features artwork from some of the finest artists in comics. We’re working on the final segment of the book right now and then we’ll be shopping it around to publishers. I’m hoping to get it out later this year or at the very latest, sometime in early 2016.
I’m also working on a third project with a Chicago-based artist that I’ll hopefully be able to announce sometime later this year and I’m trying to get my foot in the door with a fourth project from a more well known publisher.
Yi Soon Shin, and all artwork associated with the character, is © & TM 2015 Onrie Kompan Productions. All rights reserved.
Funnybook City is © 2015 Robert J. Sodaro, D.B.A. Freelance Ink. All rights reserved.
Robert J. Sodaro is a noted comicbook historian and journalist who began reading comics during the early ‘60s while sitting on the newsstand in his Uncle’s “Mom & Pop” grocery store. He has written about them for virtually every print comicbook publication published during the ‘80s & ‘90s. These days, much of his writing can be found on Examiner.com.