Comic artwork by Kim Jung-gi.
Kim Jung-gi, also spelled Kim Jung Gi or Junggi Kim, was a South Korean comic artist, muralist and illustrator. He became world-renowned for his ability to draw complex and detailed drawings entirely from memory. Kim Jung-gi used no visual aid and worked directly in ink. He often drew on huge canvases in front of mesmerized audiences. Touring all over the world, his fame and demand for his work increased, while his sketchbooks became bestsellers. As a comic artist, Kim Jung-gi’s most notable work was the webcomic ‘Tiger the Long Tail’ (2008-2010), scripted by Seung-Jin Park. He also collaborated with French scriptwriter Jean-David Morvan on the action story ‘SpyGames’ (2014) and the historical graphic novel ‘McCurry, NYC, 911 (2016), about photojournalist Steve McCurry. Sadly, Kim’s prolific career was cut short by his untimely death at age 47.
Early life Kim Jung-gi (in Korean: 김정기) was born in 1975 in Goyang-Si, one of the suburbs of the South Korean capital Seoul. In kindergarten, he noticed a drawing by Akira Toriyama from the ‘Dr. Slump’ series, depicting a fish flying in the air and a girl wearing swimming goggles. The image appealed so much to him that he wanted to become an artist himself. Among his other graphic influences were mangaka like Akira Toriyama, Mitsuru Adachi, Ryoichi Ikegami, Oh Sae-young, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Samura, Masamune Shirow, Katsuya Terada and the Taiwanese-American fine artist James Jean. He also admired Western creators, like French comic artist Jean Giraud, AKA Moebius. From the United Kingdom he was influenced by illustrator Robert Fawcett and comic artist Simon Bisley, while his American graphic inspirations were Norman Rockwell and the comic artists Richard Corben, James Harren and Adam Hughes.
Initially, his parents didn’t support their son’s artistic ambitions. Since Kim Jung-gi was the oldest child, he was expected to become the breadwinner of the family and art wasn’t really considered a lucrative profession. At school, his teachers wanted him to pay attention, rather than draw in his notebooks. Out of fear that their son would otherwise never consider going to college, Kim was eventually allowed to study art and design. He attended Dong-Eu University in Busan for three years. Although the lessons were useful, Kim Jung-gi had always drawn by simply following his intuition. Now he had to learn the math behind anatomic proportions and follow the rules of perspective. But once he understood them, his craft improved considerably, enabling him to draw much faster and efficiently. Still, he dropped out after three years, because he really aspired to be a cartoonist, rather than a fine artist. Since military service was mandatory in South Korea, Kim Jung-gi joined the army afterwards. He was part of the Special Forces Unit, which left him little time to draw. However, this period made him more observant of his environment, stashing away all the weapons, uniforms and military material he saw in his mind, for later use in his graphic projects.
Original artwork from ‘Funny Funny’ (2003).
Early career After dropping out of art school, Kim Jung-gi joined a team of cartoonists. Within this group, he specialized in figure drawing. He also met his future wife there. Despite his talent, Kim initially had a tough time finding a job. At the time, South Korean society had little interest in its own cartooning culture, and relied heavily on the Japanese manga tradition. All publishers rejected him. One told Jung-gi that his style was “too old-fashioned” and that it would be better if he drew in a “more Japanese style”. But times and tastes changed. After a year, when Kim Jung-gi was 27, he was suddenly accepted everywhere, despite the fact that he had changed nothing in his portfolio.
His earliest printed work, ‘Funny Funny’ (2002-2003), appeared in the Japanese magazine Shukan Yangu Janpu (Weekly Young Jump). He soon got noticed and became an art teacher at various private schools and universities, including the Kazone Art Academy and the art studio Super Ani. Together with fellow artist Kim Hyun-jin, he also founded his own art school in Seoul, AniChanga.
TLT – Tiger the Long Tail Together with writer Seung-Jin Park, Kim Jung-gi made the webcomic ‘TLT – Tiger the Long Tail’ (2008-2010). Set in an anthropomorphic animal world, the story revolves around Taeho, a tiger who struggles to find a job and suffers from recurring nightmares. One day, Taeho receives a mysterious letter. He is told that he has been “selected” and has to “get on the bus, next Saturday morning, if he wants to conquer the world.” It turns out that Taeho’s neighbor Rachel, also knows about the bus. Taeho finds out that the ride will take him to a training facility operated by the mighty corporation Daesan Pharmaceuticals. What he is supposed to do there, let alone how they got his address, remains unclear. But Taeho is determined to find out more.
‘TLT, Tiger the Long Tail’ was posted on Naver, one of the major Korean web portals. Afterwards, the stories were published in book format by CNC Revolution.
SpyGames In 2009, Jung-gi was contacted by Han Sang-jeong, a professor at Sangji University. She told him she had met French comic writer Jean-David Morvan at the Comic Festival of Angoulême, France, who was very interested in his drawings. Kim Jung-gi and Morvan met twice, in the Korean cities Insadong (2010) and Hongdae (2012), and decided to work together on a graphic novel. Morvan sent his scripts to professor Han, who translated them from French to Korean. Unlike South Korean comic writers, Morvan’s instructions were far more detailed, making it easier for Kim Jung-gi to translate the writer’s ideas into drawings. Their series ‘SpyGames’ (Glénat, 2014) follows Chinese police commissioner Ka Lei Ng, who investigates a series of unsolved murders in Hong Kong. He discovers that these crimes are part of an international contest between the intelligence units of eight countries. This depraved version of the Olympic Games is a true survival of the fittest. Besides its French publication at Éditions Glénat, ‘SpyGames’ was also released in Chinese.
‘McCurry, NYC, 911’ (2016).
McCurry, NYC, 911 Jung-gi also worked with Jean-David Morvan on the graphic novel ‘McCurry, NYC, 911’ (2016), published by Dupuis. The book is a biography about real-life photojournalist Steve McCurry, most famous for his haunting National Geographic photo of a green-eyed Afghan girl. McCurry won additional fame for documenting the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the New York City World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. ‘McCurry, NYC, 911’ is partially a written biography, partially a graphic novel. Some of McCurry’s real-life photographs are also included in this book.
Civil War II At Marvel Comics in the USA, Kim Jung-gi also contributed as cover artist to the superhero series ‘Civil War II’ (2016), scripted by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by David Marquez. Kim Jung-gi designed black-and-white interconnecting variant book covers, depicting the Marvel superheroes in epic battles.
Hommage to Hergé’s Tintin characters, created by Kim Jung-gi in 2015.
Drawing talent Kim Jung-gi was a seemingly tireless artist. Whenever he had a pen or pencil and paper near him, he started drawing, regardless of where he was. His drawings were rarely preconceived. Most of the time he just let his mind wander, while his hand expressed his thoughts in pen and ink. He had a knack for people with a specific profession, since he could draw them at work, using their utensils. Kim Jung-gi’s drawings show great versatility in topics. He penciled the people, animals and objects he observed around him. But he also enjoyed drawing monsters, historical figures or famous cartoon characters like Hergé’s ‘Tintin’, Albert Uderzo’s ‘Asterix’, Stephen Hillenburg’s ‘SpongeBob’ or the DC superheroes. Sometimes, Kim evoked scenes from films too. A classic example of an artist scared of “horror vacui”, Jung-gi filled up every inch of his paper with background art and extra details.
Kim Jung-gi made most of his personal drawings in a series of sketchbooks. To him, they were like a personal diary, graphically recording his thoughts from hour to hour. Seven of these books were released to the public, respectively in 2007, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2022. The fourth volume, ‘Omphalos’ (2015), collects his erotic art. In 2017, he also released an art book in collaboration with one of his graphic heroes, Katsuya Terada.
From: ‘Omphalos’ (2015).
Kim Jung-gi’s biggest claim to fame was his extraordinary memory. He was able to reproduce things he observed in the past on paper without visual aid. Kim could depict these people, animals and objects from different viewpoints, moving them around three-dimensionally. He could combine certain elements and still keep the proportions correct. Kim worked directly in pen and ink, using Shinshan, Monami, Sakura, Fude, Pentel, Bic or Montblanc pens. His gift brought up comparisons with savant artists like Gottfried Mind, Stephen Wiltshire, Winnie Bamara or Looney Tunes animator Bob McKimson who, after a concussion, was suddenly able to draw extraordinarily fast and precise. People constantly asked him if he was a savant himself, but Kim Jung-gi always denied being autistic. He attributed his exceptional talent to constant practice since childhood, although he had to admit that his working methods were different from most other artists. Since his parents and teachers discouraged him from drawing, he had to find out everything by himself. As a youngster, Kim Jung-gi trained himself in drawing from memory. It wasn’t until later that he found out most aspiring artists use references to recreate the subject they want to draw.
Interviewed by Paul Heaton for tokyoartbeat.com (16 June 2015), Kim Jung-gi explained that he collected a lot of visual resources from magazines and the Internet. By looking at them at least once a day and observing how they are constructed, he could store the imagery in his memory. Many seemed to think that Kim Jung-gi’s skill lay in the kind of pens he used. Much to his annoyance, people kept asking him about it. He stated that many young people were simply impatient. He advised aspiring artists and his students to first study and understand their subject matter perfectly. There was no need to rush. His personal motto was: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening an axe”. Practice through repetition works best. He told his students to not be afraid of making mistakes. Kim had noticed that many young artists were so fixated on becoming rich, famous and successful that they wanted to make their drawings as perfect as possible. In his opinion, mistakes are unavoidable – he also made them – but they should never stand in the way of having fun. In the same line, Jung-gi stated that getting too caught up in theory might cause work to become too stiff.
Comic artwork by Kim Jung-gi.
Live performances Already during his academy years, Kim Jung-gi demonstrated his talent in front of spectators. People were fascinated to see him work, even if it took three hours for him to complete a drawing. Between 12 and 16 August 2011, Kim Jung-gi was present at the Comic Festival in Bucheon, South Korea, where he stole the show by drawing in front of a live audience. Hyun Jin Kim, the CEO of publishing company Superani, had the foresight to film the event and post the video on YouTube, where it went viral. Soon, Kim was invited to many other public events and much like a pop star, he toured the world. When he appeared at the BD Festival in Strasbourg, France, it marked the first time he traveled outside his home country. Under the banner ‘Drawing Exhibition’, Kim Jung-Gi made huge mural drawings in China, France, Denmark, Japan, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Thailand and the USA, while crowds of people paid to see him draw. With his personal translator nearby, the enthralled spectators could ask him questions while he filled a huge sheet of paper with masterful strokes of the pen. His Drawing Exhibitions were such memorable events that he even reached audiences that normally weren’t interested in comics, or manhwa (Korean comics) for that matter.
Graphic contributions Kim Jung-gi illustrated Bernard Werber’s novels ‘Paradis’ (2010) and ‘Third Humanity’ (2013). On 6 August 2016, he and sculptor Simon Lee collaborated together during a workshop at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. During the New York Comic-Con on 6 October 2018, Kim Jung-gi and U.S. comic artist Jim Lee both sketched DC superheroes in front of a live crowd. Kim also livened up the album cover of ‘X: Rebirth of Tiger JK’ (2018) by the South-Korean hip hop artist Drunken Tiger. Kim Jung-gi said that he rejected several offers by other musical artists, but “honestly couldn’t, if it came from Drunken Tiger”. For the video game company Riot Games, Kim Jung-gi designed a mural at their headquarters in Los Angeles and one in LoL Park in Seoul. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their video game franchise ‘League of Legends’ in 2019, he also designed a mural. Interestingly enough, he never played a video game in his life.
Recognition One of Kim Jung-gi’s drawings was so large that it landed him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest drawing by an individual” (one of the previous record-holders was Belgian cartoonist Pirana). Jung-gi also put up a feature exhibition in the official workplace and residence of the South Korean president in Cheongwadae.
Death In a 2020 YouTube video, posted by Kazone Art under the title ‘Kim Jung Gi – Personal Sketchbook Tour’, Kim Jung-gi already remarked that the older he got, the more he started drawing medical-themed scenes. He attributed this to the fact that his health had been going downhill for some time. In the fall of 2022, Kim had completed a tour through Europe. At the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris – on his way to a comic convention in New York – he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital, where he died at age 42. His death shocked fans and comic creators all over the world. Already popular during his lifetime, Kim Jung-gi’s legend is destined to keep growing, even in death.
Kim Jung-gi portrayed with his children in Vogue Korea.