“Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” is now available in Tesseracts Twelve, the 2008 edition of the annual Canadian speculative fiction anthology, which was edited by Claude Lalumière. This story also appeared on the Locus 2008 Recommended Reading List.
I’m really happy that this story has found a home. I have to confess, the idea was originally inspired by Cory Doctorow‘s short story “The Super-Man and the Bugout,” which is a distinctly (Eastern-) Canadian remix of the Superman story. I thought it over, and realized that while superheroes have often stood as emblems of national power — especially in American comic books — I’ve never seen them used as such in an Asian setting. (Though I’m told there was a great superhero story published a few years ago that did this, I still haven’t tracked it down.) I started drafting it at Clarion West, realized it would be a long work, and quickly set it aside, to continue work for the remainder of 2006 and into early-to-mid-2007.
I found that it was just a few short hops and skips to the idea of writing about international relations in East Asia in an allegorical mode, with each nation represented by one or more superheroes… which led to it being about a team of international superheroes working in Seoul, in a privatized super-hero branch of one of the megacorps here, since, after all, every niche in Korea seems to be dominated by the same few big corporations.
While I was writing the first draft of this story, North Korea conducted nuclear weapons tests, which lit a fire under my backside and drove me to really hammer this tale home. Along the way, I also managed to work in a few specific things from my vague gleanings of Korean literature, and the ending is, indeed, intended as an echo of the allegorical ending found in so many of the Korean short stories I’ve read, but with a few unique twists.
A disclaimer is worth making: some readers will suggest this story is too critical of the Korean left and its Sunshine Policy. While I am critical of the Korean Left (which is hardly like what Westerners think of as left- and right-wing, by the way) there is also unbridled criticism aimed at the Korean Right and its fearmongering, of the whole political establishment’s desire to put off North Korea for some faraway future time, of corporate and bureaucratic power and irresponsibility (moral, economic, and environmental), and more. The story is a satire, and I don’t doubt that some readers, especially Koreans, will miss this point: but I intend the criticism to be so wide-ranging as to approach being universal.
This story benefited from many useful comments from various friends who served as critics and readers, but especially to Lime, who helped me nail the Korean speech and details (and get Wonjjang’s name right), and to my friend and Clarion West classmate Ben Burgis, who suggested a much better title than I originally came up with.
“New writer Gord Sellar’s first few stories have quickly attracted notice – and so should “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang”, yet another modern day superhero story. Wonjjang is a much put upon South Korean superhero, trying to lead a multinational group of “shoopers” against such supervillains as the title North Korean madman. But politics is a problem – the South is trying to make nice with the North – and so is his crush on a Japanese superhero – all while his mother is trying to match him up with any convenient Korean country girl.” (Rich Horton, Locus, November 2008.)
“Gord Sellar’s “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” follows a well-trodden storytelling path, in this case a world where superheroes are omnipresent. While this has been the setting for a number of very good stories in recent years, Sellar takes a masterful leap by making his superheroes “shoopahs,” which is a Korean reworking of the English word. In the story, South Korean shoopah Wonjjang not only has to defeat Kim Noh Wang, the powerful evil villain of Pyongyang, he also has to manage his chaotic corporate group of international superheroes and deal with an overbearing mother who simply wants him to marry a nice girl from the North. This is a great story, and one which breaks out of its formulaic mold to become something very different. Highly recommended.” (Jason Sanford, The Fix, January 2009.)