Comics: JR Han on JR Comics and Monkey King

A man on a mission.

By , Columnist

Dreamers, the world’s full of them.

But someone possessed of a vision, as well as the willpower and fortitude to work their way through all obstacles to finally achieve their ultimate goal? Well, that, my friends, is what’s known in the comics business as “Living the Dream.”

And right now, JR Han, the mastermind behind JR Comics—an imprint he created to bring the great Chinese tales to a wider audience—is living his dream.

That’s due in large part to the fact that his upstart imprint recently enjoyed a successful launch in the North American market with the release of Wei Ding Chen’s newly minted 20-volume adaptation of The Monkey King. Even better, this is but the first in a series of new, multi-volume graphic novel interpretations of China’s most revered texts that JR plans to release in the coming months and years.

Recently, JR took a few moments from on overfilled day to lay out his publishing plans, both in the near and long terms, explain his decision to go into publishing, and what keeps him going in times good and otherwise. As you’re about to discover, JR’s funny, disarmingly straightforward, and a man on a mission.

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Let’s start with the basics: What is JR Comics, why was the company created, who are the principal people involved behind the scenes running it on a daily basis?

I am a Korean who is crazy about China. I've traveled in China for ten years. By chance, I came across a Chinese cartoon artist, Wei Ding Chen, in 2004. As soon as I saw his works, I had decided to work with him. He has two comics creation companies in Tianjin, 30 minutes by train southeast from Beijing. There are 80 people working at his companies.

After six years of hard work, we finished four comic series based upon Chinese classics. Monkey King is one of the four series. Each series has 20 volumes, with each book of the series featuring 176 pages of full color. My company, JR Comics, publishes his comics in other languages, such as English, Spanish, etc.

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You mentioned a really unique aspect of your business, the fact that you’re a Korean national based in Seoul who is publishing Chinese graphic novels. Which leads to my next question: why choose to publish Chinese, as opposed to Korean, comics?

China has a long history. About 500 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, China had a golden era for novels. So-called chapter novels began to be published. They are composed of 100 chapters. And the novels are still read by people.

This means that if I publish comics of these novels, it will be selling forever. And my comics will help foreigners understand the stories much more easily. Your people can understand China better through my comics, I hope.

It seems as if you’ve truly dedicated yourself to this effort, heart and soul.

I am the right person to do this mission, regardless of whether I am Korean or Chinese. I think this is my mission, and I will do this work until I die.

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Why choose to us the comics medium to further your cause?

China, Korea, and Japan have had the same cultural environment hundreds years ago. So we understand Chinese stories quite well. Some Korean and Japanese stories were written by copying the Chinese format in older days.

We read, know, and enjoy your American stories. It makes us understand America better. So I thought if foreigners want to understand China, you must read the basic classic stories. But it is very difficult for you to understand Chinese by reading the real novels and books. Comics are a good form to make people understand the stories.

How difficult has pursuing your passion proven to be, and what kind of obstacles have you had to overcome in order to make JR Comics a reality?

It is very, very difficult to do business or projects with China successfully. It took six years for us to finish these four series of comics. It is about 12,000 pages in color and 12,000 pages black and white, in total. And we made many posters featuring the characters, additionally.

I had to be very patient and waited for six years after paying the money for this work. It is impossible without strong trust in my friend and his colleagues.

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Why start with Monkey King? What about that particular series made it the perfect choice for your first release?

Actually, it looks very difficult for your people to understand the four stories fully. Monkey King is the easiest story out of these four, because it is an adventure story written 500 years ago.

The other three—Three Kingdoms, 108 Heroes, and Love at Red Manor—are quite difficult for your people to enjoy. So it is my mission to translate these three in English for an easier and better understanding. It is not easy. Nowadays I focus on this target all the time.

What can you tell us about The Journey West, the novel that Monkey King is based on?

First, you will be surprised and amazed to know that this wonderful story was written 500 years ago. It is a story about a long journey [undertaken by the heroes], looking for Buddhist scriptures—based on actual truth, I think.

In the middle, they meet with hardships and monsters. And they get over those obstacles. Some monsters are easily forgiven for their bad deeds. It makes us a little angry and frustrated. It is a criticism of the high positioned officers with power.

If you are more interested, you can try to read real novels. But I am afraid that there are not many good translations of Chinese classic novels.

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I know that your books are available online through Amazon, and are also available in comics shops, via Diamond Distributors. Will these also be appearing on the shelves of more mainstream bookshops anytime soon?

My distributor in the US is Lerner Universal Corporation, on an exclusive basis. So they will distribute my comics to book shops, Amazon, and libraries. We really think libraries will like these comics.

Well, what’s your next release?

We have a lot of comics to release. Our next comic due out this year is Three Kingdoms or 108 Heroes. They are in the same format, 20 volumes, each one with 176 full color pages.

In 2013, we plan to release another 20-volume series. And we plan to release a six-volume series, based on a legendary story. After that, we plan to release a ten-volume story.

We will continue to create story-based comics from China.

What about that tale, Three Kingdoms, makes it the perfect series for your second release?

Actually, Three Kingdoms is the best selling story out of the four stories. But it is difficult to translate it very successfully, so it takes some time for me to decide on the format suitable for the English version.

And the next one will be out about a year later, then?

We target to publish 20 volumes a year. But usually it takes more time than planned... [Laughs]

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What do you hope that readers get from your books?

I really hope [to help] your people to understand China story and culture. China is rising now. I think you must read China stories for many purposes.

I am the publisher of China comics, and I focus on the classic and historical stories. We also have modern Chinese stories, but I don't think you like them. They are very different.

What do you hope that these books do for Wei Dong Chen and his fellow artists you’ll be publishing? How about for Chinese comics in general?

Generally, Chinese comics are focused on the Chinese market only. Only I try to publish them in English and other languages. [Honestly] I think only Wei Dong Chen's quality matches that of the US market; others are still lacking of high quality.

Wei Dong Chen understands and supports me a lot, because he wants to communicate with more foreign readers. And this will happen more and more. We have Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese translations already.

How about you? What do you get from all your efforts as a publisher?

As I told you, I think it is my mission to publish English version of his works. Of course, I don't want to lose money, but money making is not the only object of my comics publishing business.

I want to spread my comics of China stories. It will have an effect on people's mind and imagination. I want to suggest you to go to China through my comics. And you will find something different and good or bad.

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Anything you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?

I want to send you the first sample book of Three Kingdoms in 3 months time. Have a look and tell me your opinion.

Thank you so much!

It’s been my pleasure, JR.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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