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The Dark Side of Seoul – Weird Tales of Korean Lore (review)

Writer: Shawn Morrissey

Artist: Tim Bauer

Independently published, July 2020

It is quite an ingenious thing for a tour guide to capture the stories of a city in a comic book. That is what writer Shawn Morrissey, a long-term resident of Seoul in Korea, has done with his ghost tour. Mr Morrissey guides tourist around Seoul, and notes that even though Korea is a modern industrial powerhouse, the supernatural traditions of Korea run deep:

Horror Comic Review: “The Dark Side of Seoul: Weird Tales from Korean Lore”  – Everything Horror – Official Podcast Website

In this introduction, Mr Morrissey, a Canadian brought up on Celtic traditional stories, sought out Korean folklore upon his arrival in the country:

“Early on, I heard of Japgwi, Dokkaeshi, Chewshin, and other preternatural folk beings. I studied the work of folklorists Im Bong, Jeoing In-Seop, Sohn Chin-Tae among others. And I sat with the people, the folk, and listened to their stories, their tales. In many cases, these were more than simple recitals. They were beliefs”.

With those words in mind, Mr Morrissey and the very capable artist Tim Bauer (who is part-Korean) set out for us three historical tales:

  1. “Summoner’s Hour”. This is the story of two brothers, the wealthy lord Master Yi and his destitute brother Han. Yi and Han catch up over dinner, and Han reluctantly accepts an invitation to stay over, provided that no one interrupts him in his room. Yi walks in on Han reading from a magical scroll, surrounded by devils and goblins. Han is a punisher of shadow things, lashing creatures with names like Kan the Wayfarer Ghost – “The scroll says you’ve recently brought great torment on the living in the town of Jenju” – and Kal the Vicious Phantom. Han notes that he will soon retire, and Yi offers his own son to take Han’s place as the summoner. Han however has other plans.
  2. a chilling story, “Wicked Things Love Darkness”. This tale depicts a grandmother’s wisdom, speaking from beyond the grave, that helps a girl outwit a predatory wizard who compels his captives to eat severed limbs. In this, artist Tim Bauer’s dark-hued pencils are quite deliberately shocking;
  3. “The Truly Blind”, a story which seems almost Arabic in its cause to wisdom, in which a blind soothsayer who must prove his powers to the king or be put to death.
Dark Side of Seoul releases comic book

In an interview with the Korea Times , Mr Morrissey describes his fascination with the subject matter.

“There is so much content that I’d love to share on the Dark Side of Seoul tour,” Morrissey told The Korea Times, “but there are limitations ― like finding suitable moments to segue into a tale, since the key is to connect a specific location with the content of a tale. It’s not easy to incorporate all the tales I’d like to share because of those limitations. I had been contemplating how to share more of this content to a wider audience. So, I had the idea to write a comic book, bridging my love for horror comics and Korean folktales, while meeting my want to share more… I’m not an academic folklorist, so I’m less interested in categorizing folklore than I am in listening to the tales or beliefs from those who believe in them. Folklore is culture and it tells a lot about the beliefs and lifestyles of people, past and present. Ghost sightings on TikTok is good fun, sure, but folklore is beautiful.”

Korean shamans in and around Seoul are called mudang. Central to Korean shamanism is the belief in many different supernatural creatures, and the sort of ancestor worship we see in “Wicked Things Love Darkness”. The mudang are described as chosen persons. During shamanic rituals, mudang experience shinmyeong (“divine wind”), which is the channelling of a god, during which the shaman speaks prophetically. In his creation of this comic, and in his tours of Seoul, it occurs to us Mr Morrissey is a sort of shaman. He channels unearthly whispers, both a spirit guide and a guide to the spirits. This comic is partly autobiographical – Mr Morrissey is part of the story. But to what extent? Has Mr Morrissey been unwittingly co-opted by the folklore he talks about to further spread their harsh messages abroad by way of this sort of media coverage? Regardless of the machinations of spirit world, this comic opens a door to a fascinating and creepy mythology that is unexplored by most Westerners.