“The maverick outlaw and master magician Hong Gildong is not only the Korean Robin Hood but he is a genuine Asian superhero,” notes historian Minsoo Kang. Kang recently translated the long version of the The Story of Hong Gildong into English, making it available to American readers for the first time.
The cover may seem surprising for a classic work believed to date back to the late 16th century (though recent scholarship suggests it only dates back to the 19th century), but the story has been influencing Korean pop culture for a long time. The name “Hong Gildong” is the functional equivalent of “John Doe,” even as the character is as ubiquitous in Korea as Superman is in the US. The covers of the “Hong Gildong” comic books from the 1960s, for example, were created by the pioneering comic artist Shin Dong Wu.
In 1967, Shin Dong Wu’s brother, Shin Dong Heun, made a film version of the comics, which was the very first full-length animated movie in the history of Korean cinema.
The story of Hong Gildong, a boy who becomes a bandit, punishes the corrupt, and eventually becomes a king, is so popular that it even inspired a North Korean movie made in 1986. Apparently a big hit in Eastern Europe, the entire film is available for viewing on YouTube (with English subtitles).
In South Korea, the story inspired the TV drama, “Hong Gildong the Hero,” which ran in 2008. The female lead is Sun Yu Ri, a former member of the K-pop group Fin.K.L.
In 1935, a silent movie version of the story was announced in the Korean newspaper, Donga Ilbo.
Described as “half fairy tale, half protest novel,”The Story of Hong Gildong has endured a long time. Gene Luen Yang will soon be giving us a Chinese Superman in the form of Kenji Kong from Shanghai, who will inherit the powers of the Man of Steel. In the meantime, should you be looking for a Korean version of the stalwart superhero, why not give Hong Gildong a try? (Thanks to Minsoo Kang for links to these historical images.)