The Lakes International Comic Art Festival is to publish a new edition of Mark's Stafford's comic Kangkangee Blues, a tragic love story produced at the behest of the British Council as one of their collaborative artistic endeavours.
One of several print projects form LICAF this year, the British edition of the comic will be launched at this year's Festival in Kendal, and on sale from the Page 45 stand at the weekend-long event, then available through mail order.
The comic strip was originally posted online by the Arts Village site as part of the Busan-Sheffield Intercity Art Project and saw print in Korea in 2018. Mark retained rights to publish a British print version, and LICAF patron Bryan Talbot suggested the work was one perfect from the Festival's publishing program.
The Busan-Sheffield Intercity Art Project saw various artists, cultural organisations and residents exchange with each other to create an "Art Village", focusing on the Yeongdo ferry town of Busan and the declining steel industrial area of Sheffield, England. Various cultural and arts organisations, Sheffield City Council and the University of Hallam took part and helped organised a joint project with the British Council Korea, and Korea's "Plan Culture and Arts Cooperative".
"Kangkangee Blues is similar to the Shakespeare Lives! event I was involved in, in Seoul, back in 2016," says Mark of the short but powerful comic. "My brief on this occasion, when I first took on the gig, was to create visuals to accompany a piece of music by a Korean singer/songwriter, but that idea fell through, essentially because he didn’t feel like collaborating much, and I was left to come up with … something else, something about the area where the Arts Village is based, which they are engaged in various attempts to artistically celebrate, decorate and map.
"My contribution was to be just part of an initiative by the Village to raise the creative profile of the district. Muralists, painters and installation artists were also there during my visit, with bigger budgets than mine…
"Kangkangee Project Director Seung suggested that my ‘something’ should be about the Kankangee women, who have long had the thankless task of ridding ship’s hulls of rust, barnacles and the like. Decades back, they did this by the simple method of hitting the thing with hammers (the ‘kang kang kang’ of the hammers hitting steel is where the area gets its name). These days they do it with power sanders on sticks, but it has always been dirty, insecure, dangerous work, largely undertaken by middle aged women on up into their seventies."
So I got flown out to Korea in late July, and once there, visual inspiration was easy to come by," Mark continues. "The Kankangee area is extraordinary, a wonderland, if your idea of treasure is rusting maritime junk - mine is, So woohoo!
"Its function, in a shipping port, is to be the place to go to return your vessel to seaworthiness," he explains. "It doesn't manufacture ships, but anything your craft needs can be cast or constructed or worked there. There's a legend that if a man knows his business he could go to the right seven places in Kankangee and build himself a submarine.
"Walking around I immediately saw images that I wanted to draw, and I fairly quickly came up with a simple idea for a story around which to hang those images, a simple tale of love lost and, possibly, regained, told over five decades. It’s not wildly complicated, but it’s one in which I could squeeze a fair amount of what I experienced and learned in two heady, delirious weeks in Busan, from food to history to landscape to architecture.
"I took hundreds of photographs and made a lot of notes and climbed a lot of steps in a lot of heat," Mark recalls. "I tried to work in everything and have it work within the story, always aware of so much more that I missed, barely glimpsed, or failed to understand because of woeful ignorance of the Korean language. I think that lack lies behind my instinctual decision to make the strip ‘silent’ save for the repetitive ‘kang kang kang’, which the old KKG women swear still haunts their dreams.
"It is not a realistic picture of Busan," Mark freely admits, "it’s one seen through the eyes of a bedazzled cartoonist from other shores, it’s not true, but I hope there’s truth in it. It’s a love story, but also a love letter to the city, and everybody I met whilst I was there."