When Mark Stafford Went to Korea, All He Came Back with Was a Sad Love Story

The much-loved-by-Bleeding-Cool Mark Stafford has a new project commissioned by the British Council, Kangkangee Blues which he calls a “sad little love story in 21 pages”.

The Kangkangee Arts Village Project is an urban regeneration project, aiming to bring a new vitality to an underdeveloped area in Korea through arts and culture. Daepyeong-dong (Namhang-dong) of Yeongdo, where the first modern shipyard in Korea was built in the late 19th century, is the birthplace of the modern shipbuilding industry. The nickname of the area, Kangkangee Village, is derived from the sound of hammering to rip off the surface of a rusty ship.

Mark’s brief from the Kangkangee Project was to create visuals to accompany a piece of music by a Korean singer/songwriter, but that idea fell through, as Mark explains, because the singer didn’t feel like collaborating much, and so Mark was left to come up with something else, something about the area where the Arts Village is based, His contribution, when he visitedm was to be just part of an initiative by the Village to raise the creative profile of the district.

The title page above shows the Grandmother Goddess of Yeongdo-Ju, or at least, as I imagine her, hair in rollers, a cigarette and a bottle of wine on the go…. She is the goddess looking over Yeongdo-ju, in Busan, South Korea, and within it the area where my story Kangkangee Blues is set. From the stories I heard she could be a little possessive and wayward in her affections. (Anybody moving away from the island, for example, is advised to do so in the dead of night in hope of avoiding her disapproval.) I paid a visit to her shrine atop Mount Bongnaesan this summer. Woefully unfit, I just about made it to the top of the mountain, and made damn sure to pay my respects and offer her a little rice wine before descending. She can clearly carry a grudge…

Mark made the strip in July to get visual inspiration for the work, and it was suggested he focus on the Kankangee women,

who have long had the thankless task of ridding ship’s hulls of rust, barnacles and the like. Decades back they did this by the simple method of hitting the thing with hammers (the ‘kang kang kang’ of the hammers hitting steel is where the area gets its name,) these days they do it with power sanders on sticks, but it has always been dirty, insecure, dangerous work, largely undertaken by middle aged women on up into their 70’s.

Walking around I immediately saw images that I wanted to draw, and I fairly quickly came up with a simple idea for a story around which to hang those images, a simple tale of love lost and possibly regained told over 5 decades. It’s not wildly complicated, but it’s one in which I could squeeze a fair amount of what I experienced and learned in two heady, delirious weeks in Busan, from food to history to landscape to architecture. I took hundreds of photographs and made a lot of notes and climbed a lot of steps in a lot of heat. I tried to work in everything and have it work within the story, always aware of so much more that I missed, barely glimpsed, or failed to understand because of woeful ignorance of the Korean language. I think that lack lies behind my instinctual decision to make the strip ‘silent’ save for the repetitive ‘kang kang kang’ which the old KKG women swear still haunts their dreams. It is not a realistic picture of Busan, it’s one seen through the eyes of a bedazzled cartoonist from other shores, it’s not true, but I hope there’s truth in it. It’s a love story, but also a love letter to the city, and everybody I met whilst I was there.


Look for it to be published next year, with Stafford retaining the British publication rights.


About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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