King of Hell is manhwa from Korea, a medium that, along with Chinese man hua, fits within the overall manga model. It’s what I’ve taken to calling a supernatural adventure, based on the exploits of one Majeh, an envoy for the King of Hell.
Majeh was a great swordsman who in some eyes left the path of virtue. In his own view, he merely saw the universe as it was, a place of grays, and dealt with it accordingly. When he was killed, his body was preserved in a magical pool, watched over by his love Dohwa, while his soul was reincarnated as a boy serving the King of Hell. Now, a rift has opened between Hell and Earth, allowing evil spirits to infest the mortal realm. Majeh is charged with hunting them down and eliminating them.
As might be expected, the story is somewhat episodic, although a major thread does begin to emerge about halfway through the second volume: there is a conspiracy afoot to release the worst demons from the worst part of Hell. The prize, as always, is power.
Majeh is somewhere between trickster god and bratty kid in this one, at least in his manifestation as Envoy of Hell. Majeh the Swordsman, whom we do meet, is another story entirely — or would be, except that seven sages affixed a seal limiting his superhuman strength. He’s probably the most interesting character we meet, at least in this segment. The King of Hell is portrayed as a somewhat bureaucratic old man, always sitting at his desk behind a pile of papers. And there is another Dohwa, a martial arts expert herself, who falls in with Majeh as he travels with his chance-met companion, Chung, to a martial arts contest in search of the seven escaped demons.
The drawing here is stupendous, very detailed and rich, and I think that’s why I like this series, although I have reservations about other aspects of the book. There’s a fair degree of abstraction in the character designs, but not enough to breach the realistic feel of the renderings. The narrative flow is clear, although there are occasional sequence that are close to being indecipherable. (A note: Majeh’s hair deserves to be a character in its own right: it’s long and wild and seems to have a life of its own. I love it.) While the conventions are pretty straightforward, artist Jae-Hwan Kim has taken liberties with the frame-follows-frame template: there are passages where images are layered and frames pretty much dispensed with, and they’re beautiful. Title pages for the various episodes are particularly arresting. And for those who insist on backgrounds, you’ll be very pleased, although I sometimes found them a bit claustrophobic.
My big issue is the comedy aspects. The confrontations between Majeh and the King of Hell (and there are several) dissolve almost into slapstick, both in dialogue and drawing, and I found it distracting. Yes, there are chibi sequences, and I didn’t feel they were always apt — they became pretty obtrusive and I thought they undercut the mood quite a bit.
Nonetheless, I’m prepared to say that this is a series worth keeping up with: the story does gain coherence, at least by the end of the third volume, and the drawing is superb. Be warned, though: as of 2016, which I take to be the end of the series, it ran to 47 collected volumes.