TalkingComics / Underdogs

#TalkingComics: Underdog Spotlight Ft. Keiiii (Heart of Keol)

In this edition of #TalkComics, I met up with Keiiii (four i’s), author and artist of the amazing webcomic, Heart of Keol. An incredibly beautiful webcomic, I was eager to peek into Keiiii’s process and how her Korean heritage plays an enormous role in the telling of her epic story.

 

Keiiii Header Image

KEVIN CULLEN: You mention in your About section that Heart of Keol draws its name from the Korean language. Seeing as the comic takes place in a fantasy world that also appears to be influenced by Korean culture, I’m curious if there are any specific Korean legends that directly influence the story as well.

KEIIII: The only shared element I can think of are the weretigers (or rather, werehuman tigers). Many Korean fairytales feature tigers with the ability to assume a human form; I don’t recall any story where it was a human turning into a tiger, unlike Western werewolves.

Keol also has its own version of the multi-tailed fox mythology, but it’s not an important plot element.

KC: How about Korean culture in general?

KEIIII: While Korean mythology doesn’t have a big presence in HoK, Korean social culture is almost omnipresent throughout the story — but not necessarily in ways that are obvious to a reader unfamiliar with the culture. Sometimes it even makes things confusing. The scene in Chapter 2 where the villagers accost Ethan, for example, made perfect sense to Korean readers. That’s the expected behavior for them. They know why the villagers act that way, and they might even react the same in that situation.

But when I published the comic in English, I had a few people who were very confused about the turn of events. Some of them questioned right away; others didn’t wonder until the next chapter, when I introduced another non-Asian character. I had never expected that I’d need to explain these things. As someone who was born and raised in Korea, I just took it for granted, the understanding. Now I’m more conscious of it and trying to communicate these things to all readers is a huge, ongoing challenge.

Culture is not just the chopsticks you use to eat, or the rice in your bowl. It’s in the water you drink, the air you breathe, the space and time you occupy. Things one might assume to be universal, such as eye contact, smile or laughter, mean different things. I think it might be impossible to fully communicate it all to all my readers, but I have to try. Having a “newcomer”/ “outsider” main character helps when he’s confused about something — but when he’s too oblivious to even feel confused, a good chunk of the readers will be oblivious, too, unless I find a way around it.

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KC: The comic itself is stunningly gorgeous. Do you work solely in digital format or do you go from physical to digital?

KEIIII: Thank you! 😀 I do traditional media occasionally, but I rarely bother to scan/photograph those. It’s been so long since the last time I did a finished traditional piece. I live with a very clingy, very hairy 150-lbs dog (an Alaskan Malamute), and she makes it hard to find the space or the time chunk required for painting. The comic is done 100% digital.

KC: That’s what I thought, but wasn’t totally sure. Which program do you use?

KEIIII: I use Photoshop largely because it’s the one I’m the most familiar with. I’ve used Corel Painter extensively back in the days, from ver 5.5 to 9, but dropped it when I could only afford to keep one between Photoshop and Painter. The nice thing about Photoshop is that it does everything, even if that makes it weirdly large and cumbersome. I’ve heard of some programs having no text option, for instance, and that’s just not gonna work for me.

KC: How about your workspace? Is it designed with a purely-digital artistic vision in mind?

KEIIII: Here’s a picture of a custom-built desk that my dad designed and made for me.work

I specifically wanted the keyboard tray to go above the tablet. That’s a Wacom Intuos 4 XL. It makes me move almost my entire arm when I work (note I’m barely 5′ 2″), which means my shoulder takes the brunt of motion/posture-borne stress, rather than my wrist. And I think that’s better for me; the shoulder is probably capable of bearing more stress than the wrist. Regular exercise is enough to ward off my shoulder discomfort, which had gotten really bad at one point in the past. Not pictured: a squat rack and an exercise bench with some weight plates, on the other side of the room.

The mirror is for referencing my own hand, and the three little booklets to the left of the keyboard are sample packs from various printers. I’ve been researching printing lately for… reasons.
Usually, the desk is a teeny bit messier than is shown here. There’s often a folded piece of tissue lying around (I have sweaty hands, and my keyboard/mouse need to be cleaned often), and the pens may or may not be in that cup.

KC: Your comic is formatted differently than most webcomics I’ve read. Where a majority of the comics are visible all at once in the well-known grid format, your comic stretches down the page like a tapestry and almost rebels against the grid format! Why did you decide to draw the comic this way? What advantages does this give you when compared to formatting your comic so that you see one image on the screen and simply click to the next without scrolling?

KEIIII: There is an earlier version of HoK which I released in Korean, on various Korean platforms. Since most of the dialogue is supposed to be in Korean, canon-wise, I decided to give the Korean audience a try. Before I started drawing the comic, I took a look at the Naver webcomic section to see what it was like over there. I’d known that they had professional webcomics on big sites; I’d imagined it to be kind of like an expanded version of the comic section in newspapers.

BOY WAS I WRONG.

Naver’s webcomic section is huge. It’s more like a digital version of Shounen Jump, except bigger and broader in terms of genres and target demographic. Every icon on this page represents a professional series, meaning the site pays the creators a living wage.

And that’s just one site.

“Oh, so kinda like Hiveworks but more of them,” one might assume. Wrong. Webcomics are mainstream entertainment in Korea, just like movies and TV shows over here. If someone asks you, “So what do you do for a living?” and you answer, “I’m a webcomic creator,” they actually know what you mean — even average Joe’s and moms and dads!

Most (but not all) professional platforms have an amateur section on the side, where anyone can upload and share their own comic. So that’s what I did. I liked that I got to share the story in the language 98% of the story was meant to be read in. I also liked that I had a chance of going pro, as the curators/editors of pro sites are known to scout your series off the amateur section if they like it enough.

What does all that have to do with my format? Vertical scroll is the default format for Korean webcomics. Which are actually called “webtoons,” but I won’t be using that term as I despise how childish “toon” sounds. I remember randomly clicking on a comic the first time I was checking out Naver. It happened to be Flow. I immediately ‘got’ the format: good for mobile, and lots of room for creativity. I was sold!

Then came a point where I made the decision to reboot the comic and focus on an English-speaking audience. I really liked the vertical scroll format, but knew it would be a pain if I were to ever get it printed. At first, I attempted to get around this by stacking multiple book-sized pages together, and design the pages in a way that makes them easy to separate into pages, and looks good both ways. Didn’t work. The restriction was suffocating my creativity. I did what I had to do: defenestrate printability.

Infinite canvas is awesome. You never have to struggle trying to fit the content into one page. I do have less horizontal room, and I have to use a relatively large font size in order to keep it mobile-friendly, which can be challenging at times. But I always find a way.

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KC: I can see the long, flowing format of your comic making the creation of a physical book a little tricky. One webcomic artist I adore, Emily Carroll, formats her comics in a similar, long-page format, and has somehow managed to reformat her stories to fit into a physical book. But in doing so, the feel of some of the stories changed a bit. You mentioned that the formatting the pages for print restricts your creativity. Are there any other reasons you’d rather steer clear of printing your book?

KEIIII: To be honest, I’m not particularly enamored by the thought of holding a book version of my comic in my hands. Yet weirdly enough, when it comes to prose works or non-sequential art, I LOVE owning the physical copies.

My guess is this has something to do with your early childhood exposure. A lot of people have been comic readers for a long time, I noticed. Not me. I was reading illustrated prose books as a child. The first comic books I read and owned were a children’s encyclopedia set (those usually contain comics in Korea — in fact, there are multiple tropes shared by encyclopedia comics. It’s a thing.), which I valued more for the SCIENCE!!!!11[sic] than for the comic. I don’t think it was until fifth grade that I became an actual, avid comic reader. But loose sheets of non-sequential art? I had lots of those as a kid.

That said, I do want to print my comic, mostly for self promotion. I can’t exhibit at SPX without an actual book. I’m considering doing a top-bound book (like a wall calendar) that will be like 7″x20″ when open. That would make it a little easier. I would still have to do loads and loads of editing, though. Some panels will even need to be redrawn from scratch. Crowdfunding will have to be employed, but I have a lot of researching to do in that area.

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KC: Is Heart of Keol your first foray into the world of webcomics? Or have you worked on other projects prior to this? The superb art seems to suggest that you’ve got some experience in the field that you’re not telling anyone…

KEIIII: It’s no secret that I’ve been doodling around for years! I was an obsessive doodler before I even learned to speak, and I was an early talker. My parents remember how I would fill up pages and pages with small, crudely drawn circles of different colors. That was the beginning. Then I evolved, and began to fill up pages and pages with… small, crudely drawn triangles of different colors. Fast forward 30+ years, and here I am.

But let’s rewind about 18 years, back to the age of dialup. Growing up, I was always ‘the’ artist in my class. There were lots of other people who were into comics, but I had never met anyone who shared the passion in creating — until the internet happened. Being able to meet so many other artists, it was like being thrown into a world of zero gravity and lots of rainbows. I have so many memories from between then and now.

One notable, embarrassing memory is from back when I didn’t have a tablet. My favorite artist had a tablet, and Corel Painter (called Fractal Painter back then) happened to be their tool of choice. I wasn’t mature enough to be fully accountable for my own shortcomings back then, so I assumed Painter — which I did not have — must be the magic ingredient. Then another skilled artist came along and posted her latest masterpiece on a message board I frequented. I very dumbly asked her: “Do you use Painter? Because I don’t think I could do this in Photoshop.”

Thankfully, and I do mean thankfully, she was a mature person unlike me. She responded very kindly that it was done in Photoshop from scratch, with a mouse.

I remember that very well. So I try to be patient and understanding with newbies and younger people. Making comics can be stressful because of the sheer NEVER ENDING workload, and that makes me cranky sometimes, but I try.

I should also mention my previous webcomic, Haru-Sari (on indefinite hiatus). The characters and the overall story are still very dear to me, but most of the execution makes me cringe now. Which gives me a little bit of hope… Maybe I’ve improved a lot? And maybe will continue to improve a lot? And that hope is important. Sometimes I’m too afraid to even hope for the day when my comic can be called a Good Comic (Period). Not just ‘a comic with really good art (and bad to mediocre writing),’ but a truly Good Comic.

For the rest of Keiiii’s amazing comic, click right here!

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