In 1996 a little PC game called War Diary saw limited distribution in the U.S. It was said to have very similar game play to the first Warcraft, but more importantly for me it was about the Imjin War, the Japanese invasion of Korea between 1592 – 1598. At the time I had just returned to the U.S. after a sojourn in South Korea studying the Korean language and was psyched to learn that there was a game about one of the most central conflicts in Korean history. And while I never got to actually play it, just learning of its existence was pretty cool.
Years later, a 2014 Korean film called The Admiral: Roaring Currents also saw limited distribution in the U.S. It became the most watched film of all time in Korea and was also about the Imjin War, or more specifically about the celebrated Korean navy admiral Yi Soon Shin who is credited for saving Korea from imminent Japanese takeover. (There was also a less widely viewed movie about him in 2005 called Heaven’s Soldiers which was pretty decent but too lighthearted to do him justice.)
Until very recently, these were the only works of entertainment that I knew of that dealt with the Imjin War and/or Yi Soon Shin and that had been released in the U.S. The rise of K-pop is one thing, but history still took a back seat when it came to the general public’s interest in Korea. But at this year’s Wizard World Chicago I met a writer named Onrie Kompan promoting a book called Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender. Again, I was intrigued – not just because it dealt with Yi Soon Shin but because there was a certain level of quality immediately evident just from picking up the book and flipping through its pages. As I ran my hand across the face of the hardback version, I noted how sturdy and beautifully crafted it was. But as I took a closer look at the art I became genuinely impressed. The art was eye-poppingly gorgeous, and the paper it was printed on was premium grade. Book designer/letterer Joel Saavedra definitely needs to get a mention for the attractive presentation of this volume.
The writing by Kompan ended up being just as good. This first volume, Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender, which collects four different issues, begins with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea and ends just as the latter’s navy, led by Yi Soon Shin, begins to gain the upper hand after what appeared to be near certain victory for the Japanese (this is known history so it’s not a spoiler!). The suspense of this story comes from seeing how this now-legendary man, who had no previous naval training or experience, seizes victory after victory against hopeless odds to become the most celebrated military figure in Korean history and arguably one of the greatest strategists ever, remaining undefeated at the time of his death.
My grasp of Korean history isn’t good enough to be able to verify the historical accuracy of the storytelling in Yi Soon Shin, but my sense is that this is historical fiction based on actual events but not intended to be biographical or authoritative. As far as I can tell with my limited knowledge, the key battles are portrayed in a more-or-less accurate way including the appearance of the armored Turtle Ships that Admiral Yi famously employed as well as the use of the so-called “crane wing formation” by his fleet at the straits of Kyunneryang in 1592. Meanwhile, writer Onrie Kompan seems to take creative liberties when it comes to the events in Yi’s personal life, much in the same manner that the great historical novelist Gore Vidal freely interpreted the personal lives of historical figures while remaining faithful to actual, documented events.
And what can I say about artist Giovanni Timpano and colorist Adriana De Los Santos? Their work here is absolutely glorious. I challenge anyone to disagree that the work in this book is just as good, if not better, than anything you could find coming out of the Big Two publishers. The way sunlight glints off armor, the tense beads of sweat on characters’ faces, the endless volleys of arrows and the crimson soaked horizons – every detail is rendered with loving, painstaking precision. And the full page splashes and double page spreads are among the most jaw-dropping images I’ve seen in any comic ever. De Los Santos’s coloring definitely needs to take equal credit here. Saavedra’s lettering is nothing to sneeze at either. When Admiral Yi gives the order to “Fire!” you feel the power, urgency and charisma in his voice. However, I have a minor quibble with the lettering for the page-long historical summaries that begin each chapter/issue. Due to a reddish-orange colored font on a black background, and the small size of that font, reading these caused a bit of eyestrain. I felt that the design choice for these full-page summaries made sense visually but not as much functionally.
Research is always of paramount importance for any kind of historical fiction, and it’s obvious that the creative team did not skimp in that department. Unlike even major Hollywood productions which sometimes get the details of different Asian cultures wrong, the Korean weapons, armor and dress are depicted faithfully and never confused with Japanese weapons, armor and dress. There’s only one character whose costuming (or lack thereof) struck me as slightly dubious, but as a realist I understand the need for an indie comic—especially one about the history of a country that many readers still know little about—to reach its audience by all available means.
As amazing as this book is, I would not recommend it for kids. True to actual warfare, it is extremely bloody and violent, and there are some sexual images/situations. This is most definitely a comic for adults with the patience and ability to appreciate mature storytelling.
The hardcover collection I’m reviewing here also includes a lot of extras that make it worth getting even for those who already own the individual comics: galleries with short bios of the characters, interviews with the creators and a lengthy essay by writer Onrie Kompan that details the long, hard road to translating his vision for this comic into reality. I feel that a short glossary might have also come in handy for readers not at all familiar with the Korean language, history and geography. It’s not that a lot of Korean words are used, and the few that are used can be understood in context. But given how already rich in features the hardcover was I thought it might have been a nice bonus.
It’s pretty obvious by now that I’m a big admirer of this book. But my praise doesn’t come lightly. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. For the following types of readers, especially, I would classify Yi Soon Shin as a must-buy: fans of military or historical fiction, fans of East Asian culture and history, and fans of damn good indie comics. The second volume in this series is Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger which will again consist of four issues and which is currently at issue #3. Kompan and company recently did a Kickstarter for issue #4 and it is expected to hit retail stores sometime next year.
Oh, and there’s a foreword by Stan Lee for this hardcover edition.
Stan. Freakin’. Lee. Wrote a foreword.
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