American-Korean literature professor at the State University Of New York, Heinz Insu Fenkl, is promoting the use of North Korean comic books to understand the country, its politics and its culture. His team gather up rare, insular titles that get smuggled out to China and Japan, as well as buying titles directly on rare visits to the country's capital, which he then translates into English at the University before drawing out common themes and seeing how they change over time. The plan is for this work make up a very large web-accessible archive.
Known as gruim-chaek, the Korean comic books in question are usually spy thrillers with bad guys are usually loud mouthed Americans and greedy Japanese, causing problems in the country. The books emphasise the importance of self reliance, a key North Korean philosophy espoused by Kim Il-Sung. And include plots such Americans and North Koreans in an airplane crash in Africa, only for the Americans selfish actions tosee them eaten by alligators.
Global Post quotes Fenkl, following new emerging trends;
I've also seen some covers of more recent comics that seem to be re-establishing a mythic narrative by referring back to old folktales
The Post also quotes Nick Bonner, a Chinese-North Korean tour guide who describes the books;
They're much like the themes I read when I was a kid, on the British Army fighting the 'Nazis and Japs'. But their themes are either historic or based on the Anti-Japanese Guerilla War, or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, the North Korean name for the Korean War in 1950-53.
Fenkle also describes one of the more famous propaganda comics from 1944, The Great General Mighty Wing in which a honeybee holds off against an invading swarm of Japanese wasps before creating a worker bee's collective to improve local irrigation. And how The Mighty Wing became an iconic image on a similar level to Mickey Mouse.
However, Fenkl also describes a wrinkle in his research, in that he may be being fed the wrong kinds of comic books. That the books reaching the black market do so intentionally and contain different, less ideological content to increase foreign readership… especially in China.
Looks like even more research is needed.