Soo-hyun Roh (1899-1978) is a Korean painter and comic artist. Roh collaborated with Dong-sung Kim and created the first Korean Manhwa series, “A dumb man who digs a wrong well” (멍텅구리우물켜기). The series was published in Josun-Ilbo (조선일보) from October 13th, 1924 to May 30th, 1926.

Soo-hyun Roh was originally trained as a Korean painting painter, and he is one of the six masters of Korean painting in Korea. In fact, his collaboration of “A Dumb man who digs a wrong well” is Roh’s only major achievement as a comic artist. In 1920, Roh started his comic career by contributing an illustration to celebrate the first issue of Donga-Ilbo (동아일보). His career as a comic artist accelerated as he started working as a reporter for Donga-Ilbo in 1923 and collaborated with Dong-sung Kim who was already publishing his own comic strips in the newspaper. Later both Dong-sung Kim and Soo-hyun Roh left Donga-Ilbo and joined another newspaper, Josun-Ilbo. Here together with Dong-sung Kim, Soo-hyun Roh started publishing “A dumb man who digs a wrong well.”

“A dumb man who digs a wrong well” occupies a significant place in Korea’s comic history. It was the first newspaper Manhwa series with the same recurring protagonist, it was the first Manhwa series that was made into a movie, and it was the first comic work produced through collaboration among different artists. Dong-sung Kim, who studied how to create comics in America, initiated and orchestrated the project; two novelists, Sang-hyup Lee and Jae-hong Ann, wrote the stories, and Soo-hyun Roh took charge of the drawing. The series initially started as an effort to save the dying newspaper by attracting readers, and the series in turn became a huge success as the newspaper continued the series.

“A dumb man who digs a wrong well” revolves around a protagonist, Chae-mung-tung (the dumb Mr. Chae), a tall, ugly, and dumb wealthy man obsessed with gisaeng (a Korean geisha), Oakmae Sin, and Baram Yoon (“playboy”) who manipulates their relationship in between. This romantic comedy and its funny characters and stories appealed to many people living under the oppression of Japanese colonization. It is also assumed that “A dumb man who digs a wrong well” was inspired by another popular comic series in America, “Bringing Up Father” (1925) by George McManus.

Roh’s later career as a comic artist is controversial. At the final stage of Japanese colonization, Roh published a few pro-Japanese comic strips and encouraged people to fight for Japan during the war. After the independence, Roh’s became a faculty at Seoul National University and taught Korean painting.

–Hye Su Park

Further reading:

  • Lee, Haechang. The History of Korean Comic Strips. Ilgisa (일지사), 1982. Print.
  • Lent, John A. Asian Comics. University of Mississippi Press, 2015. Print.