Onrie Kompan is the Yi Soon-shin of the comic book world

October 14, 2014
"Yi Soon-shin: Warrior and Defender" (Courtesy of Onrie Kompan)

“Yi Soon-shin: Warrior and Defender” (Courtesy of Onrie Kompan)

By Tae Hong

Onrie Kompan’s got a whole different idea about what makes a superhero a superhero, and it’s got nothing to do with tights, shiny armored suits or swooshing capes.

That’s because the Chicago-based comic creator’s superhero is based on a very real, very beloved figure in Korean history: Admiral Yi Soon-shin.

The three-part “Yi Soon-Shin” series, launched in 2009, has sold more than 35,000 copies as an indie effort without a distributor and is now preparing to launch a Korean-language edition.

With the help of three years of deep research and fueled by the life and times of the storied legend, 32-year-old Kompan is more than a cartoonist — he’s an (un)certified Yi Soon-shin expert.

His fascination with the admiral started in 2006 with a Korean drama, “The Immortal Yi Soon-shin,” while he was a fine arts student at Columbia College. Even without subtitles, Kompan was hooked.

“I had no idea what anything meant, but I started watching the show and I fell in love with it,” he said. “It really gave me an idea of who Yi Soon-shin was and what he meant to Korea.”

Admiral Yi’s story, recently told in an epic film, “Roaring Currents,” to great box office success in Korea, is about as familiar to Koreans as Americans are with George Washington’s rise to greatness. The admiral reputedly bested Japanese soldiers to save Korea on the high seas, saving the nation with the help of his impenetrable turtle ships.

After a series of rejections from publishers and a wakeup call that spurred him to hire former Marvel editor David Anthony Kraft, who remains with the project, Kompan put together a team of experienced comic creators to bring his story to life.

And as the admiral famously stands in the heart of Seoul, a 21-foot-tall icon inside the Gwanghwamun Square, so does Kompan’s comic, a rising indie effort in an industry still ruled for the most part by Marvel and DC Comics.

Onrie Kompan speaks at The Great Battle of Hansan Festival in Kyungnam, South Korea on Aug. 15. (Yonhap)

Onrie Kompan speaks at The Great Battle of Hansan Festival in Kyungnam, South Korea on Aug. 15. (Yonhap)

Kompan travels around the country’s comic conventions to promote and sell his books. He stands in front of his table, approaches passersby, shakes hands.

Without a distribution channel, direct sales are the only way for “Yi Soon-shin” to gain any traction, he said.

“I always keep the same mentality as Yi Soon-shin did when he went to battle — keep going after it, keep believing it, don’t give up,” Kompan said.

He’s seeing the results of Yi’s wisdom. The comic’s sold out in 19 shows across the nation and given him faith in the book’s quality.

“I believe in it,” he said. “I believe in the story, I believe in the characters.”

Behind each page of the comic lies Kompan’s long journey — in dealing with a nonfictional character, Kompan had opened himself up to a world of detailed history to learn and recreate.

He dove into the Joseon Dynasty of the mid-1500s, from piles upon piles of books — translated journals and memorials providing insight into the admiral’s mentality — to a visit to Korea, during which he did the rounds on historical sites and museums and connected with Korean military officials, who provided further perspective.

“Now it’s come to the point where I’ve lived with the history for three years of my life,” Kompan said. “I know it. There’s no aspect of it that is hazy to me at any point.”

It’s with that historical clarity — or as much of it is available, anyway — that he’s taken on the comic, which illustrates several well-known battles that Kompan says are as accurate as the accounts told in history books.

"Yi Soon-shin: Warrior and Defender" (Courtesy of Onrie Kompan)

“Yi Soon-shin: Warrior and Defender” (Courtesy of Onrie Kompan)

Peppered with historical figures, the series explores the hardships of Admiral Yi through a slew of colorfully, painstakingly researched characters and settings, among them King Sonjo, traitors, court officials and Japanese and Korean soldiers.

“We want to entertain [readers], and at the same time we want to show them that the hero has the same integrity as [Yi] has in terms of how he’s depicted in movies, in books,” Kompan said.

The series has received glowing reviews across the board, but it was comic industry legend Stan Lee’s stamp of approval, a foreword for the first book in the trilogy, that marked a victory for Kompan.

He and his team are now working on the second part of the trilogy, “Fallen Avenger,” as well as a Korean edition, especially after an explosive reaction — “The most wondrous response I’ve ever had,” he said — from comic lovers in Korea. Kompan sold out 60 books in 60 seconds there, a first for him.

“I think a lot of Korean people that I’ve seen at conventions are just shocked that a foreigner is taking an interest in Yi Soon-shin,” he said. “That’s the immediate reaction.”

For the creator, Yi stands apart from every single comic character out there simply because he really existed.

“It makes [Yi] the most relatable character in comics. He’s a testament to so many different things. Nothing is impossible,” Kompan said. “It’s impossible for a man to climb up walls. It’s impossible for a man to fly. But it’s not impossible for someone to repel an entire invasion on the naval front. That’s what makes the story so wonderful.”