masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

Gangsters and comics and gangsters in comics

kim-shirasoni-movie.jpgGangster movies in Korea are part of a much bigger cultural field. With roots going back to the birth of Korean cinema under Japanese occupation, the gangster movie has produced a cultural icon that partly fulfills the role of the PI and the cowboy in American fiction and cinema and that of the police inspector in European cultures. How the Korean gangster came to be identified as a freedom fighter and hero of the oppressed is a story I’d like to tell in another post, but Korean mainstream conceptions of the fictional gangster are similar to Raymond Chandler’s description of the ideal PI hero:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. …. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. (Raymond Chandler, The Art Of Murder, 1950)

Give and take a few differences, this is roughly what classic Korean gangsters are supposed to look like. The good ones, that is, because the real baddies in Korean gangster flicks are both mean and tarnished. Kim Duhan in 1944This image of the gangster, who is simultaneously outside the law and responsible for maintaining his idea of justice in his world, was not only propagated by the movies. Before the VCR made it into every home and movie watching was limited to the theaters, comics featuring famous gangsters were very popular in Korea. Interestingly, these gangsters were not fictional. They were based on real life persons: Kim Duhan 김두한 and Shirasoni 시라소니 (aka Yi Seongsun 이성shirasoni later in life after his conversion순). Their exploits in the comics, however, were fictional. They were not only exaggerated, almost superhero-like versions of their real selves, but they had been transformed from intimidating and very violent gangster bosses into crime and injustice fighting heroes who never lost a fight in the name of righteousness. And in a time when violence was institutionalized in South-Korean society (you’d be liable to get beaten in the streets, at school, university, in the military and if unlucky even at home), ultimate fighters such as Kim Duhan and Shirasoni (they apparently were extraordinarily skilled streetfighters; according to legend, Kim Duhan was only beaten by Shirasoni and Shirasoni was never beaten) understandably provided role models for young males. As a result, both the comics and the movies were very popular.hira.jpghira2.jpgThe covers of these comics are great and you’d hardly suspect the hero is really a gangster. Accompanying these cheap comics, real pulp in the literal sense of the word, were movies (“based on true fact”) about these famous gangsters, one of whom made it into parliament (Kim Duhan, his grandson Song Ilgook송일국 is a famous talent), while the other converted to Protestantism (his son became a minister in the Protestant church). Their real-life and comic/cinematic careers could have been cut short in 1961, when military dictator Park Chung Hee took over control over South-Korea. Fortunately for these two men, however, Kim Duhan had chosen the right side in a time when politics were partly decided in the streets by gangsters with baseball bats and Yi Jeongjae at his trial in '61Shirasoni wisely retired in ’61 and converted to Christianiy, removing himself as a threat to the power of the military. Rival crime boss Yi Jeongjae had chosen the wrong side in the political street battles and was immediately tried and executed by the new military regime.So crime doesn’t pay? Well, Master Lee hates to admit it, but the majority of his competitors in the movieskim.jpg were gangsters. And although he has no problem with fictional gangsters and their portrayal as heroes on the other side of the law but on this side of justice, the incursion of real-life gangsters into the realm of fiction does not sit very well with him. He is after all a one-man army fighting against the triads and other crime! He’ll just have to keep on fighting, walking down these mean streets and kicking gangster ass, fictional and real.

UPDATE 20 January 2008:

Master Lee added to his growing collection of gangster comics goodies. Here they are:






  Erik wrote @

Hi, this is a very nice post on Korean gangsters in the popular imagination. Where do you find these old comics? Also, I’ve been trying to track down copies of “old” gangster dramas (야인시대, 장군의 아들, etc) but haven’t had luck on the web. Do you have any thoughts on where those might be found?

PS — one minor correction: Sirasoni’s (시라소니) name was Yi Seong-sun (이성순) not 이정순.

  masterlymasterlee wrote @

Dear Erik,

Thank you so much for your very (i.e. undeserved) positive feedback. We really appreciate it. I will ask my fellow Master to reply to you, as he is the one who wrote this section. Meanwhile, I will correct the mistake, and hope you will check our site every once in a while. As far as I know, you can find all kinds of Korean comics online (eg., but in order to find old ones, going to 청계천 or 신설동 seems the only option.

With best wishes,


  Erik wrote @

Hi, you mention “How the Korean gangster came to be identified as a freedom fighter and hero of the oppressed is a story I’d like to tell in another post…” When will you tell us that story??? I’m hoping you can help me understand the evolution of that character. In the meanwhile, you might have some interest in a post (see the link) I did on real historical gangsters….

Hoping to see more,

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