May 16th, 2023 – A Day of Solo Leveling, the Serbian Edition
The weather was rather dull when I was exiting my building, though it stayed consistent while the public transport took me from Novi Beograd to the Kralj Aleksandar Boulevard, or more precisely to the Korean supermarket K-Food. During the journey, I spot and take a photo of a massive billboard. Generally, I don’t really take photos of billboards, but this was the first time I ever saw one advertising a Korean comic book in such a magnificent manner. A perfect overture for what was to come next.
And what came next was the promotion of the Serbian edition of a world-famous manhwa series, Solo Leveling (나 혼자만 레벨업), itself an adaptation of a web novel that was originally published in 2016. The original author of the novel is Chu-gong (추공), while multiple authors participated on the webtoon itself – the controversial Gi So-ryeong (기소령), known as Akira Rei in Japan, followed by Hyun Goon (현군) and the unfortunately deceased DUBU, i.e. Yang Sung-lak (장 성락). With its 179 chapters published in digital webtoon format, as well as the subsequent 7 printed compiled volumes, the series officially ended in early 2023, yet its popularity keeps growing worldwide. Both a board game and an anime adaptation of Solo Leveling are in the works, and the merchandise is flying off the shelves even today.
And here we are, well into May of 2023, and we lived to see this monumental series get its Serbian edition published, courtesy of the publishing house Najkula.
This was an event I simply had to attend. Not only as someone writing this article before you, mind. I’ve attended this event as a lifelong fan of Korean comics (the complete Tokyopop edition of Priest, 프리스트, continues to take an honorable place on my bookshelf) and someone who had been waiting for an event like this for a long while. I still recall back in 2009 when the first volumes of the mini-series ArchLord (아크로드, by Park Jin-hwan, 박진환) and Hero (히어로, by Kim Hwan, 김환) and my unending joy to see something so unique sold on Serbian kiosks. With that in mind, when Marko Stojanović, the organizer of the Balkans Festival of Young Comics Creators, asked me back in 2021 to pen a text covering the history of Korean comics for the exhibit’s official catalogue, I accepted the task fully and wholeheartedly. With immense help from expert outside contributors (Paul Gravett, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Jacco Zwetsloot, and especially Nakho Kim, 김낙호) as well as the selfless contribution of webtoon authors from the esteemed Chungkang College of Cultural Industries (청강문화산업대학교), the first ever exhibit of manhwa in all of Eastern Europe was set up with the level of quality it deserves, and it went by with stellar reception by the visitors. The expanded version of my text on the history of Korean comics is still waiting on its publication, in the form of a bilingual brochure. I mention all of the above simply to paint a picture of why this promotion meant so much to me, and why I had to attend.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with a keen interest in Solo Leveling. Though the promotion itself was meant to begin at 20:30, it was roughly 15 minutes or so late – there was an abnormal number of visitors there! There had to have been over 120 people interested in buying their volume of this manhwa. Furthermore, there were plenty of people present who are active in Serbian comic book publishing. Kreša, full name Aleksandar Nešić, was there as a representative of the publishing house Laguna and the editor of the Serbian edition of famed manga series Good Night Punpun. His co-workers, Tamara and Maša, stood right by him, along with Maša’s friend Stefana and their buddy Miloš. Though, to be frank, some of them were there for the comic, yet others were there to sample the brochettes. Adjacent to them was the young Njegoslav, whom I’ve seen on no less than three comic book events over the past few months. Furthermore, this would not be an event focusing on an Asian comic book series without Jelena Vučić, the author of the novel The Escort, YouTuber, and recent editor of the manga section of the publishing house Lokomotiva, making an appearance. There, among her friends, I managed to recognize my namesake Ivana Zrnić. I repeat, all of the folks noted above are lifelong fans of Asian comics (mostly manga and manhwa) – what’s more, Maša and Stefana are trained Japanologists.
So, with all the people in place, right at the entrance into the snug K-Food market, things were slowly picking up the pace. I had my pen and paper at the ready, and all that was left to do was to slowly enter the market and start taking notes. The ceremony could officially begin…
…and it would have been great if I could have actually got into the market at all! I reiterate, the crowd was so huge that no less than 40 people had to stay outside, right in front of the door. I missed the entire official part of the promotion. And within said program, the people who were part of the panel were Dejan Savić, the chief editor of Najkula, and popular Serbian YouTubers Lil Zebra and Bajko. With the situation being the way it was, I had to strategize a bit – wait for at least some of the people to leave the building, then get inside and have a chat with some of the key people of the promotion.
Solo Leveling volumes flew off the shelf, and the sale of merchandise in the form of T-shirts was equally fantastic. The same could be said of the food and drinks that was served. As I approached the main booth, right behind Kreša, I snagged one copy of Solo Leveling volume #1 for myself (and a T-shirt), and once I did so, I made my way, with some effort, to Dejan Savić. His tired face and the sweat above his brow spoke volumes, but he was still willing and able to give a statement. “I’m more than satisfied!” he exclaimed in a reply to my inquiry about his thoughts on the promotion. “I honestly couldn’t expect a better outcome even if I tried, the turnout is great!” Of course, we then shifted gears and talked a little about Najkula’s future publishing plans. As it turns out, the next manhwa to be published by Najkula was announced via a small giveaway, wherein the visitors had to guess the title of the series based on the teases provided by the YouTubers. Naturally, it was Jelena Vučić who got the right answer, and as a reward she received a special T-shirt – the series in question is the famed horror outing Bastard (후레자식) authored by Kim Carnby (김칸비) i Hwang Young-chan (황영찬). However, that was not the end to Dejan’s announcements. “OK, so I didn’t get to announce this particular series because of all this hullabaloo, but here’s an exclusive for your article, Ivan,” Dejan proclaimed, wiping the sweat off his forehead. “The 3-in-1 secret series that we keep teasing on both our website and our official Instagram page – it’s Tintin, the collected edition.” Rounding up the brief interview, Dejan mentioned that come October, during the Belgrade International Book Fair, the author of the French manga (or manfra) Radiant, Tony Valente, will attend as a guest. Radiant is currently being published in Serbian by Najkula, of course.
Naturally, I had to speak to the officials of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, and so, with Dejan as the intermediary announcing my presence, I had the honor of conversing with the ambassador himself, His Excellency Jaewoong Lee (이재웅). Another official was also present, Mr. Junghyun Seo (서정현), the second secretary in charge of economic and cultural issues. His Excellency was of the same opinion as the chief editor of Najkula when it came to the event. “Couldn’t be more satisfied,” Mr. Jaewoong Lee stated, an earnest smile adorning his face, “such an incredible number of people came to attend the promotion.” When asked if he believes that, after the events like the aforementioned exhibit of Korean comics in Leskovac back in 2021 and this particular event, i.e. the promotion of Solo Leveling in Serbia, will result in a manhwa expansion in Serbia and the region, the ambassador gave an enthusiastic positive response, stressing how popular the webtoon phenomenon is globally. We also touched upon the growing number of foreign authors (including Serbian ones) on Korean webtoon platforms. “There’s no doubt that they can break into the Korean market,” the ambassador noted. “The biggest issue here is the quality of the translation.” During the closing segment of the interview, right before Ivana took a photo with him (and asked for his autograph), and right before the second secretary Junghyun and I exchanged contact info regarding this particular article, His Excellency even shared what his favorite manhwa was. After some deliberation (“That’s a difficult question”, as he told me, smiling), he opted for the series Misaeng: Incomplete Life (미생, by Yoon Tae-ho, 윤태호).
The market was slowly getting emptier and emptier. All of the visitors were now leaving with copies of Solo Leveling in their hands (and let’s not forget the T-shirts), while Kreša, Tamara, Maša, Stefana, Miloš and I remained to summarize the events. Some 20-ish minutes later and it was finally time to disperse. During the taxi drive home, Kreša and I exchanged a few more words, mainly regarding future publishing projects. It’s no secret that Laguna intends to publish the entire catalog of Asano Inio, and based on how things are at the moment, Asian comics (manga, manhwa, manhua) as well as comics clearly inspired by Asian sequential art (manfra) are poised to have a great future in Serbia. As I’m writing these lines, a copy of Ryuko (龍子, by Eldo Yoshimizu, エルド吉水) published by Lokomotiva, is sitting right there next to my copy of Solo Leveling, as well as a few volumes of manga printed by domestic publishers like Čarobna knjiga, Stalker, and Darkwood. And though this state of affairs makes me happy, nothing can even compare to the emotion currently dominating my mental space, the unyielding and sincere happiness – after 14 years, manhwa is making a massive comeback in Serbia. And I’ll allow myself to add the following to that last statement: it was about dang time!
Author: Ivan Veljković, May 16th/17th 2023