It wouldn’t be odd to posit that both life imitates art and art imitates life–there is room for balance, ruled by circumstances which allows us to interpret reality in different ways. Hip Hop culture, for example, navigates both. And Luke Martin, through his extremely popular ROKetship comic that also went viral through OogeeWoogee this year, was able to reflect life in a foreign country.
“The strip is a cultural comedy of sorts, which pokes fun at foreign life on this planet called, Korea!”
I caught up with Luke Martin to gain some of his insights on art, culture, travel, and life in Korea:
1.You humanized your cross-cultural experiences in South Korea. You made truth funny and accessible, and not patronizing. What motivated you to create this specific kind of humor?
If a comic is funny, you may make a reader laugh or smile, and then you’ve done a beautiful thing. But, if a comic is relatable – if the reader can see themselves in the presented situation – you’ve told that reader that they aren’t the only ones who have felt that way. They may laugh out of familiarity or they might pause in reflection. Those are the memorable comics. Those are the ones that get printed out and pinned above desks or reposted onto people’s social media feeds. ROKetship was community, even therapy, for some readers: myself included.
The added benefit, from a production standpoint, is that I don’t have to contrive jokes. Punchline-based comics are very hard to sustain and get stale quickly. Also, everyone has a different sense of humor, so if your joke doesn’t resonate, you’re out of luck. By relying on experiences, I can walk outside and have my comic practically written for me! I can also invite ideas from readers: at once sharing ownership with them and creating a backlog of ideas for future comics. Writing comics based experiences increases the chance of them resonating with the audience.
2. How did your Korean colleagues feel about the comic strips when it was first published? Were they gleefully surprised or offended by your keen observations?
Interestingly, I had far more Western readers take offense than Korean readers ever did. I think they felt they were ‘sticking up for Korea’ in their accusations that I was being crass or near-sighted in the way I showed the culture. I always found this curious because in most of the comics, my Western characters were intentionally the ones shown in a negative light: bumbling and struggling to understand what was happening.
Most of my Korean friends and coworkers either didn’t get the humor or were intrigued by the outside-in perspective of their culture. Many of them were younger and had lived abroad. They especially liked the comics dealing with the older generation.
3. The comic strip illustrates just how deeply you managed to integrate into Korean society. Your comic strip is literally a sociological observation. You also captured huge similarities found within China and Japan—name five easy ways foreigners can integrate into Korea (and hopefully apply it to China and Japan as well)?
1. Expect that things will not make sense to you
2. Spend time with locals
3. Find an expat community
4. Celebrate the common and unique things
5. Respect and invest in learning as much as you can about your host country
4. Is the term “culture shock” more about overcoming the fear of the unknown -Or- simply the brain adjusting to the exposure of a new, unique place?
I think it’s really about struggling with expectations. If you go in expecting things to be different, you’re likely to be shocked less often. Embrace it. It’s a great thing to be out of your comfort zone.
5. Despite going through some “reverse culture shock” when you returned home, did you find yourself missing Korea– it’s small, quirky things that made it so different and appealing?
Totally! I think I miss it more now, that I’m a few years removed from it all. I miss the summer monsoon rains, the mountains in Fall, subway stations with 6 stories of non-stop neon, the corner stores: GS25! I miss speaking the language – there was such a sense of satisfaction when I was able to piece together a conversation. Jimjil bongs! Nori bongs! Sitting in the street eating Kalbi. Drinking soju, dongdongju, mekju. I miss seeing my friend Wong Jon. I miss the K-pop blaring everywhere. I miss my students. I could go on….
6.Some of the comic strips may actually require the audience to actually be in South Korea to fully understand it. Who were your intended audience, and do you find it difficult to explain some of the strips to people who’ve never been to Korea?
The audience was definitely foreigners in Korea. There is a notable advantage to writing for a niche, in that you know more detail about who your audience is. You can target your work and everyone gets more out if it. I rarely tried to explain the comics to those who weren’t there, until the ROKetship book came out. That included commentary and was great to send home to give family some insight into your experiences.
7. Is there an underlying meaning behind ROKetship? Did you have any other titles in consideration?
ROKetship was always the name. ROK is a play off of “Republic of Korea.” I like coming up with names that lend to branding. I had the name chosen before I had even decided to create the strip! Originally, in fact, ROKetship was going to be a website: a portal, aggregating news and information about Korea that expats would find useful. I have to say, the comic was much more in my wheel house! I think I made the right choice.
8. In a recent TedTalk, Taiye Selasi said, “all of us are multi — multi-local, multi-layered. To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart.” Why do you think it’s so difficult for a lot of people to respect or even praise cultural differences?
That is an excellent question. Honestly, I have no idea! Learning about other cultures; seeing from other perspectives – these are things that my family and I really value and enjoy. It baffles me when people resist considering how others ‘do life’. Maybe those people were told, somewhere along the way, that “different is bad.” Too bad, they’re really missing out.
9. Ibn Battuta, the great Berber explorer, said “Traveling– it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
What do you think sparks that creativity? Is it the mere act of traveling and physically touching foreign people and objects -OR- the sense of physical freedom and detachment from your homeland?
I think it’s a compulsion: something you can’t help but do. I imagine it stems from missing the magic that you’ve just experienced. You want to relive and share a bit of it. Others are compelled to listen to tales on such an exotic topic. Those two things, and some beers, are the makings of storytelling!
I think creative types, due to how they’re wired, are more likely to be the ones to go exploring. They then, are also equipped with the skills to convey stories in an interesting way.
10. Who’s an expat and who’s an immigrant? Do you think the terms are outdated? And do you think “expat” symbolizes national privilege and socioeconomic status, despite the term being synonymous with “temporary stay” in a specific country?
You have to cut away the bogus connotations. Immigrants get a bad rap, given the current political climate in many developed countries. “Expat” does seem like a glorified, Western idea: one of a daring rebel who chose to leave their home to live elsewhere: like Rick in Casablanca.
Major Strasser: “What’s your nationality?”
Rick: “I’m a drunkard”
Capt. Renault: “that makes him a citizen of the world!”
I think it’s about intention:
• Immigrant describes someone who specifically wanted to come to a place
• Expat describes someone who specifically wanted to leave some place.
11. It’s obvious that music (such as Hip Hop and Kpop) and film brings people and cultures together, sometimes regardless of the language barrier. Describe the power of comic strips?
Comics are arguably the most versatile, effective vehicle for communication. I can sketch on a napkin for 3 seconds and turn around someone’s horrible day. I can do that without needing to know a different language. I could draw something poignant and broach a topic that no one would dare discuss in other mediums that require seeing or hearing my voice. I can go on and on.
12. Your next project is called “What the L?!” You capture a series of human interactions on the Chicago train (a great mode of traveling). What’s the inspiration behind it?
I moved from Seoul to Chicago, in large part because I would not need to buy a car. The train was a huge part of defining the city for me. As I started to write What the L?!, it became much more than nostalgia, when I realized that everyone rides the train: regardless of status, race, religion, etc. The L is one of the most unifying elements in a city recognized for division. If I can unify Chicagoans in laughing at something we all experience, then perhaps we’re not quite as divided as initially thought.
13. Do you think other cities, in and outside of the U.S., can relate to the idiosyncrasies found in Chicago trains?
In general, I do. Public transit in large, urban cities has a lot of common elements. That said, I do write What the L?! for Chicagoans and including the nuances of the L are part of what makes the comic relevant to my core audience.
14. For the sake of day-dreaming and creativity, which mode of travel do you prefer? Window/aisle seat on a train, plane, or bus?
Always the aisle. I’m 6’3: leg room is a priority!
15. Who’s your favorite comic strip creator, and what advice do you have for someone who wants to create their own?
Creators? Wiley, (Wiley), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Walt Kelly (Pogo), Liz Climo (lizclimo.tumblr.com/), Gary Larson (The Far Side), Bill Hoest,Bunny Hoest and John Reiner (the Lockhorns)
In my experience, having a successful comic is (sadly) more about writing, consistency and both marketing and tech savvy, than it is about the drawing. My comics are nowhere near my best artwork, but the strip as a whole, is artfully crafted. I enjoy the writing, marketing and the publishing process. It’s a ton of fun, but you should know what you’re looking at, going in.
Some advice I’d give would be to come up with characters that you can draw efficiently and consistently. Think about what hobbies you have or groups you belong to and write about that. If you can create a comic about something personal to you, you won’t have to reach so far for material. Also, writing for a niche gives you a leg up in marketing and standing out.