Posted : 2013-05-12 17:33
Updated : 2013-05-12 17:33

Dooly turns 30

Kim Soo-jung, creator of Dooly, poses at his office in Gangnam, southern Seoul.
/ Korea Times photo by Baek Byung-yeul

Dooly creator Kim shares thoughts on cultural influence of his cartoon

By Baek Byung-yeul

Before there was Pororo the Penguin, there was Dooly the Dinosaur, perhaps the country's first cartoon and animated film character to acquire cultural appeal beyond pages and screens.

Dooly, an icon of the 1980s and 1990s, never came close to being the product Pororo is now ― following the immense success of its television show, the goggled, baby penguin is seen on virtually every item of consumption, from DVDs, books and toys to food, furniture and accessories.

But for all its commercial power, Pororo will probably never be as influential as the socially-rooted Dooly, which continues to be a source of inspiration and imagination for artists in different fields.

Dooly's creator Kim Soo-jung may not have first intended his cartoon to double as a commentary of the real world. But in a country that had just begun to feel the side effects of its ruthless process of industrialization ― the widening rich-poor gap, collapse of traditional family values, and marginalization of migrant workers ― Dooly was consumed within the social context.

The story begins with a chunk of ice flowing into a stream of Ssangmun, central Seoul. That happens to be a part of a glacier broken off from the South Pole and breaking through the melting ice is Dooly, a baby dinosaur, who had been locked inside it for 100 million years.

Yeong-hee, a school girl, mistakes him for a dog and brings him home. This is where Dooly meets his nemesis, Yeong-hee's father, Ko Gil-dong, an overworked, underpaid and permanently-angry office worker. The Tom-and-Jerry-like squabbles between Dooly and Gil-dong provide the template for the whole series.
In "A Sad Homage to Dinosaur Dooly" (2003), cartoonist Choi Kyu-seok portrays the adult version of the famous dinosaur as a struggling, low-income worker suffering from bad living conditions and lack of welfare. / Korea Times file
Dooly happens to have magical abilities. Gil-dong's house proves to be a magnet for unusual characters, including a crash-landed alien, a talking ostrich which escaped from a Las Vegas circus, and Michol, a failed pop singer who believes he's talented as Michael Jackson.

Dooly first started as a series in the monthly comic magazine ''Bomulsum'' in its April 1983 edition. While Dooly quickly became popular, the cartoon was also controversial for its brand of ironic humor that had been rarely seen in Korea's mainstream cultural products back then.

Conservative organizations, such as the country's Catholic Church, considered the cartoon too violent for a children's work and also expressed discomfort over Dooly's attitude to Gil-dong, which they saw as disrespectful toward elders.

However, the younger generation of Koreans, not only school children but adults in their 20s and 30s with a better appreciation of sarcasm, accepted Dooly with rapt applause.

Somewhere along the way, Dooly became a metaphor of Korea's working-class life, which has become a testament to the country's gap between its material success and social failure.

In 2003, cartoonist Choi Kyu-seok published "A Sad Homage to Dinosaur Dooly,'' which portrayed the adult version of the famous dinosaur as a factory worker with precarious employment status and bad healthcare coverage, his right arm revealing a severed stump where his hand used to be. The cartoon provided a biting commentary to the country's treatment of migrant workers and illegal immigrants.

On April 22 of this year, Google Korea featured a special logo featuring Dooly and other characters of the cartoon to celebrate its 30th anniversary. This was notable because the search engine had annually celebrated that day as Earth Day.

"Since Bomulsum was a monthly magazine, Dooly's birthday can be any day of April. But I picked April 22, because 'dool' and 'ly' both mean 'two' in Korean,'' said Kim in a recent interview with The Korea Times.

At the age of 63, Kim is no longer the pointy-haired maverick of the Korean comic scene, but a soft-spoken veteran with a grey buzz cut and a disarming smile. When asked about Dooly, however, Kim speaks with intense passion.

"Back in those days when I first serialized Dooly, cartoons were looked down on as low-end culture or even social evil by the more conservative of people. And since there were no age-specific censorship system, our challenge was to create a product that both adults and children could enjoy. This is what I tried to do with Dooly,'' he said.

Cartoonists had a stigma to battle, and so did the children who were reading their work. These were the days when schools disallowed students from carrying comic books and encouraged parents to ban them at home as well.

Culture authorities had a heavy-handed influence on content as well. Kim said his decision to pick a dinosaur as his protagonist had less to do with an artistic inspiration than as an attempt to avoid censorship.

"There were so many restrictions, so I was looking for a way to avoid as many of them as possible. Choosing a dinosaur, instead of a human, as a protagonist made things convenient. In the post Jurassic Park-world of today, there are countless cartoons inspired by dinosaurs, but this wasn't the case in 1983. It was a decision out of necessity,'' he said.

"We started publishing the series in April, and by the summer, the cartoon became so popular that Dooly was appearing on stationery products and other school items. The popularity of Bomulsum hit a new level too.''

In 1987, Kim was approached by national broadcaster KBS to do an animated version of Dooly. While the television series proved an immense hit, Kim now describes the experience as a letdown.

''The quality was bad. The broadcaster made 13 episodes, but I was excluded from the creative process once the production started,'' he said.

''At that time, Korea was rising as the international manufacturing hub for television animation, although none of these were homegrown products. I had expected much more from the Dooly television series, but it turned out to be a disappointment.''

The frustration from that television experience motivated Kim to work on a movie version, which was released in 1996 and sold more than 350,000 tickets. The movie was exported to a number of countries.

Kim was chiefly involved in the second television series of Dooly that aired on SBS television in 2008.

"There are two generations of Dooly's fans. People who first read its comic version are the first generation, and the second are those who watched Dooly through its 1987's TV series. I hope I created a third generation with the movie and SBS series," Kim said.

"The responses I got from the second television series were polarized. In the original cartoon, Dooly is a much edgier and more mischievous character than what was portrayed in the KBS series. In the SBS television series, Dooly is closer to the original character, but those who remember the KBS series didn't seem to like this.''

Asked how Kim thinks of Pororo, the most popular cartoon character since Dooly, Kim politely refused comparison.

"From the outset, we are aiming at different targets. Pororo is a character for preschoolers. I hope they graduate to Dooly,'' he laughed.

There is another Dooly movie in the pipeline, which will hopefully be released in the winter vacation season. A three dimensional version of the movie will also be produced, Kim said.

"I have a 10-year-old daughter who considers me as a one-hit wonder cartoonist. But of course I am still doing other stuff than just Dooly,'' Kim said.

"Dooly will forever be my bad boy.''

  • 1. Arrest warrant requested for Samsung chief in corruption scandal
  • 2. 'Stop wiring money illegally'
  • 3. Moon, Ban begin race for presidency
  • 4. Korean language becomes college entrance exam subject in France
  • 5. Samsung chief's arrest to be decided on 'Sunday or later': independent counsel
  • 6. US eggs to go on sale this weekend
  • 7. K-pop's HyunA tunes up for North American tour
  • 8. Counsel mulls Samsung chief's arrest
  • 9. Foreign minister pressured to resign for statue remark
  • 10. Whistleblower of Choi Soon-sil scandal unaccounted for