Ryan Estrada and Kim Hyun Sook Talk “Banned Book Club” and Life Ahead of This Weekend’s Book Signing at HQ

We talked to artist Ryan Estrada and author Kim Hyun Sook ahead of their book signing event for “Banned Book Club” this Sunday evening at HQ Gwangan.

It’s been a long journey for Ryan Estrada and wife Kim Hyun Sook, a Busan-based couple who have shot to fame for their book “Banned Book Club”, a story which resonates with many readers around the world and tells the tale of Kim’s story in college to read books during the authoritarian regime in South Korea in the 1980s.

Kim’s husband, Michigan native Estrada, is an internationally-renowned comic artist who brought inspiration to the book through his inspired storytelling.

He has previously made comics for Star Trek, Popeye, Garfield, DC Comics, Scholastic, Random House, and many others but his real passion is telling his own stories, including Student Ambassador: The Missing Dragon, as well as making comics to help Korean language learners pick up the language amongst a host of others.

His website sports an impressive collection of drawings that span an almost 30-year career which has culminated in the release of “Banned Book Club”, a story told by his wife Hyun-sook and illustrated by Hyung Ju Ko. The award-winning book has also already been translated into Korean and Spanish.

This Sunday sees the couple running a one-day only pop-up shop at HQ Bar in Gwangalli from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. where they will do a book signing for their best-selling books Banned Book Club and Student Ambassador – The Missing Dragon, both of which are seeing their first release in Korea.

I caught up with the couple to discuss their engaging stories leading up to this weekend’s event.

Image: Amy Chu

Ryan Estrada Talks About His Long Road to Success

It’s not every day in Busan you meet a foreigner based here who is an internationally acclaimed artist. How did you get into drawing comics? And what other projects are you interested in?

Busan is chock full of amazing, internationally-renowned artists, and the stages here are a breeding ground for big book projects! Jihyun Yun workshopped her poems here, and they won her the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, and a book deal for Some Are Always Hungry.

Amy Rose’s Busan performances are being adapted into the graphic novel Occulted, illustrated by Busan’s own Jeongmin Lee. I illustrated one of Dorian Cliffe’s poems for a book by George Takei. Chris Tharp’s travel stories have filled many books, and now the pages of National Geographic. I am honored to be part of this amazing artistic community.

I got involved in comics though long before I came to Busan. I was already applying to newspapers when I was six-years-old. I bugged the same newspaper until they finally hired me at age 16. It has just always been what I wanted to do, even before I had the ability to form memories.

Being in Busan though has opened me up to so many other art forms though. I would never have started telling stories on stage, producing radio, trying stand up comedy, or doing theater if not for the warm, welcoming communities here that brought me in even when I bombed.

Due to Covid-19, you’ve had to wait a long time to actually get the books over here and be able to do promotions and sell it. How hard was it for you two to wait for the copies of the book to finally arrive?

Working in traditional media is a waiting game even in the best of cases, especially for someone used to webcomics where I can make a comic and post it the same day. But this has definitely been a wild year. Banned Book Club took almost three years to make it into bookstores once you factor in all the research, writing, illustrating editing, and then the pandemic-based delays.

But I wasn’t too stressed, because even before COVID hit, weird things were making things difficult. In 2019, Banned Book Club was supposed to be honored at an event in Paju Book City. This was huge for me because I had flown out to Paju Book City for a job fifteen years before, only to find out the person who had hired me was an imbalanced former employee who had been fired for incompetence. There was no job, and no one there knew who I was. Now I had the chance to return as an honored guest.

But shortly before the event, a bunch of diseased North Korean feral hogs broke across the border and caused panic in the city, canceling the event. Once you’ve dealt with diseased North Korean feral hog gang-based delays, nothing else can get you down.

Image: Ryan Estrada

Can you walk us through your work process when you are starting a new project?

I am never not working on about thirty projects at once. Most of my projects begin as a simple idea I think about while sitting on a bus, and I might just think about them for years and years until I get to the point that I can close my eyes and watch it like a movie.

Then suddenly, I just get super excited about one project in particular and can think of nothing but making it happen as quickly as possible.

Student Ambassador, for example, was something I worked on for sixteen years until it finally became a finished book! Banned Book Club, however, was a little different in that it was my wife’s story, and as soon as I learned it, the publisher offered us a book deal so I had to jump right into work mode, figuring out how to take a collection of memories and interviews and turn them into a cohesive story. Luckily that got me just as excited and working on it was a blast.

Anyone who follows your social media knows you are very active and vocal in supporting independent artists getting their work out to the public. What kind of advice would you give to an up-and-coming artist to get recognized?

Just make stuff and put it out there and if you’re making stuff just for you, make the stuff that only you can make. Nothing is too weird. Nothing is too niche. If you are driven to create it, no one can stop you.

If you ignore what interests you and sit down to figure out what is popular, or try to emulate already-successful artists, you will be competing with their work and yours will be the version made without passion. It will get you nowhere. But somewhere in this big wide world are people who are weird like you and you will be making work JUST for them with no competition.

And then, when you start working for other people, yes, you can adapt to fit the project, but you will have been chosen because of what you love doing, so the work will more likely be in your wheelhouse.

I spent years doing terrible superhero commissions for money because that was what paid the bills, but all it begat was more work that I hated.

Meanwhile, I have comics online that were rejected as too weird by every publisher and agent on the planet. But I made them anyway, put them online, and a decade later was offered a TV deal based on it. You never know what’s going to hit big, so make the stuff that you’ll be happy to keep making.

Image: Ryan Estrada

If you had to choose one, what work would you say you are most proud of?

The one-two punch of having Banned Book Club and Student Ambassador out in the same year, and having critics all over the planet commend them has been unbelievably amazing.

Shortly before these two books came out, I had tried to quit comics. After almost 40 years of making them, I thought no one wanted to read what I made.

But then these two projects came along and changed everything. We were flown out to be honored at international events. We were one of the best-reviewed books of the year. We’ve gotten requests to adapt the books into film and television. We got translated in Korean and Spanish. We’ve been topping bestseller and best-of lists all year, and just an endless stream of honors that I never imagined after decades of being told by agents that my work was too weird.

Image: Stacy Schmittling

Kim Hyun Sook’s Journey From 80s Rebel to Award-winning Author

“Banned Book Club” is such an interesting story from your youth in what was quite a turbulent time in South Korea’s history. Did you ever think at that time, “I’m going to write a book about it someday”? Were there a lot of banned book clubs back then?

I never imagined writing a book. Not even when Iron Circus came to us with the idea. I rarely even talked about my story until then. Not because it was a secret, but because here in Korea, that is just what life was like.

So many people have a story similar to mine but when Ryan posted about it on Twitter, so many people were interested and I realized that others could learn from what Korea accomplished.

Did you expect this kind of reaction to the book and did you have any hesitation to write it with how the Korean audience may perceive it?

I had no idea. When Ryan asked me “do you think there is enough to the story to make a whole book?” I said no. And everyone we interviewed said, “I will tell you anything, but who would want to read it?”

But around the world, there were people who knew nothing about the story, so they were so interested. I didn’t expect that history would repeat itself so soon. While we were writing the book, many of the same things started happening in countries all over the world, and people started looking to our book to see how to fight it.

Image: Changwon City

How are you handling your new fame? And how special was it for you and Ryan to be honored by the mayor of Changwon who also had been arrested in the 80s for being part of a banned book club?

I don’t want to be famous. It is a lot of work. I am a very private person, so revealing all of my secrets in a book was already very scary. And now flying around the world and speaking on stage and going on the radio is very stressful, but I am happy that our book is getting attention.

Being honored by Mayor Hu and Changwon University was an amazing situation though because when we were young, talking about this story could have gotten us arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.

But now so much has changed in Korea that we were able to stand in City Hall, and in the University President’s office, proudly telling our story in front of cameras and reporters. It took so much hard work and sacrifice by so many people to make that kind of change and I was happy to be a small part of it.

What’s been your most interesting thing happen to you through this book-writing journey?

Traveling to America was wonderful. Last year, we were flown out to the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Washington DC, and then the American Bookseller’s Association in Pittsburgh. I never imagined even attending an event like this, but there were giant banners with my face on them, and the cover of our book was on digital screens and in the newspaper.

There were so many big celebrities there, but as soon as the convention doors opened, there was a long line of people waiting in line for me to sign their books. The books were all gone in about 30 minutes!

Do you have any more ideas from your past that you think might make another great book?

My husband will make many more books, and he tries to push me to write another one, but for now one is enough.

The one-day pop-up shop will be held from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. this Sunday at HQ Gwangan.

Jeff Liebsch
Jeff Liebsch has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Eurobasket, Tribal Football and Yonhap News. He can be followed on Twitter at @chevybusan.

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