Untouchable: Lee Hyun-se‘s Alien Baseball Team

Vol. 1 cover art from a 2001 printing, featuring a determined Oh Hye-sung. All sequential art in this article reads from left-to-right, as it typical for Korean comics.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Alien Baseball Team by Lee Hyun-se - the best, most significant, and most influential South Korean comic you’ve never heard of. Alien Baseball Team tells the story of Oh Hye-sung, a poor, dirty boy with a drunkard father and behavioral problems who takes up baseball to impress a girl, Choi Uhm-ji, the only other kid he’s ever known to be nice to him. The fairly straightforward premise goes through some astonishing twists and turns, including a timeskip to a high school tournament, another timeskip to Hye-sung’s first meeting with a professional team, and yet another following a personal disaster, at which the point the titular baseball team is only just getting established; they do not start their first baseball game until nearly halfway through the series' 2,500 pages.

Alien Baseball Team is bewildering in a lot of ways; it’s so unclear where Lee Hyun-se is taking the story that even doing this much plot summary feels like a spoiler. Yet it is always going somewhere. Professional baseball in South Korea began in 1982, but in the world of Lee Hyun-se's story, the "Alien Baseball Team" is introduced as a mysterious business card 10 years before the country even had a league for them to play in. Symbolically, Alien Baseball Team is less about baseball than the extreme lengths taken by Hye-sung, a representation of the dirt-poor country of South Korea at large, to swing for the fences as quickly as physically possible, human limits be damned.

Oh Hye-sung slays a wild boar with his fastball, to the astonishment of his mountain man father.

There’s an angry vibe to Alien Baseball Team that has helped the comic evade appreciation relative to its cultural influence - although the fundamentally untranslatable title certainly doesn’t help. I only use "Alien Baseball Team" because it’s the most commonly used one to date, though it’s not much good. In Korean, Alien Baseball Team is rendered as “공포의 외인구단” - this actually means “Scary Alien Baseball Team”, but bit by bit the meaning of these words must be carefully contextualized. Translating “공포의” (gohng-po-eui) as “scary” is simple enough, but “외인” (wei-een) is more like “outside person” in the alien sense, while “구단” (goo-dahn) has military connotations beyond a simple team. It’s a much better title in Korean, but there’s no way to communicate that without taking significant creative liberties as a translator.

The Korean title is important because while the "Alien Baseball Team" is prosaically a group of outsiders in the sense of free-agent athletes, they are also outcasts from beyond the margins of society. Ha Guk-sang is the dark-skinned child of an absentee American father. Choi Kyung-do is short, and psychotic about it. Choi Kwan is a Zainichi Korean—an ethnic Korean from Japan—who grew to resent the Japanese even before he started to resent everyone with two working arms. Jo Sang-goo resents being treated as a mere underling for his team’s star pitcher. And Baek Doo-san is a really big guy, and Hye-sung’s only friend - his weakness is sentimentality in a cutthroat world.

The genre mash-up of Alien Baseball Team is one of its most fascinating aspects. In general, the series looks and acts like a simple shōnen-style sports manga. But every so often, a character will perform an improbably super-powerful athletic feat. At other times, salary negotiations become a major plot point. Right before the main story gets underway, there’s an extended philosophical/political discussion where the United States is likened not to freedom and democracy but a fierce and dangerous tiger, while South Korea aspires to be a wild dog that can challenge the wolf of Japan. Meanwhile, the core conflict of Hye-sung’s wish to be with Uhm-ji is pure melodrama. The sheer eccentricity of these constantly shifting genre tones underlies much of the comic’s appeal - and also its influence.

Choi Uhm-ji in meme-worthy form.

Anyone familiar with modern South Korean cultural content has probably experienced the same form of whiplash. International hits like Parasite and Squid Game have been big mainstream examples of much the same blended storytelling, which has been the calling card of South Korean media since the first Korean Wave back in the late '90s. The earlier Alien Baseball Team isn't credited much as an influence, but it exhibits all the same hallmarks. It’s the earliest example of any South Korean creative property I’m aware of to synthesize clashing tones in such a way, and it’s also the earliest South Korean creative property I’m aware of to be popular enough to support multiple commercial adaptations just on the basis of its brand name.

How did this comic come to be? Its origins add another wrinkle. Lee Hyun-se was very much a comic author of the pre-digital era - by which I mean he had no real expectation that his comics would be reprinted, so he frequently recycled the same characters in new settings (though none in so long or deliberately foreshadowed a form as Alien Baseball Team). There are boxing and soccer versions of the Oh Hye-sung character, a military story, one where he’s a pianist, and one where he's just a guy trying to climb the corporate ladder.

Ha Guk-sang, from a 2009 printing.
Beyond self-plagiarism, however, several of the characters also reflect thorny political problems. As noted, Ha Guk-sang is the dark-skinned son of an American soldier. The existence of such abandoned children isn’t one that South Korea (or the United States) likes to acknowledge, and when we see more layers of Ha Guk-sang beyond his generally cheerful self, it’s clear he resents his existence and the relationship it represents: one where the United States, a strong country about which he knows nothing, could do as it pleased with his South Korean mother, only to abandon her. Alien Baseball Team thus represents one of the first truly South Korean stories - none of its characters even remember a united Korea, and their problems are thoroughly modern, derived directly from political conditions related to Korean inferiority. This can likewise be seen in Choi Kwan, the Zainichi Korean. Much like South Korea’s biracial military bastards, Koreans who chose not to leave Japan have long been an awkward topic of discussion, even in the modern day.

Such complexity may not be as big an issue, though, as the simple ways in which Alien Baseball Team can be criticized as politically incorrect, particularly outside the comic itself. For example, in a highly-abridged 1986 film adaptation (also known as Lee Chang-ho's Baseball Team), Ha Guk-sang is played by a Korean man in blackface; this sight will prove grotesque to anyone unfamiliar with Ha Guk-sang’s arc in the comic, to the point of overwhelming any deeper discussion of what his character represents. Other elements, like heroine Choi Uhm-ji’s at-times nearly farcical propensity for excessive tears, can read as chauvinistic. I would disagree with such an interpretation, though. Everyone in Alien Baseball Team is extremely emotional. And the women don’t just cry - they plot and scheme with all the deranged fervor of the men.

Choi Uhm-ji, in a not-infrequent dolorous state.

In the world of this comic, winning isn't enough to satisfy the madness and desire for success. Another character, Ma Dong-tak—Oh Hye-sung's rival—vocalizes this sentiment. As the only major character not in the titular squad, his success as a baseball player, which he owes both to his natural talent and his single-minded determination, represents a South Korea growing increasingly bitter and cruel from capitalism, determined to be the best no matter the cost. The humanizing element of Choi Uhm-ji on Oh Hye-sung’s character is significant in that it demonstrates how Oh Hye-sung, in contrast, doesn’t actually want power, or to be better than anyone. He just wants to be with Choi Uhm-ji, and is torn apart by the fact that the better world she represents will always look down on him unless he destroys it first. Ma Dong-tak, in contrast, succeeds not due to any moral virtue, but by lacking the other characters’ arbitrary, socially-constructed flaws. Which is not to say, of course, that anyone on the Alien Baseball Team itself has any particular moral virtue - especially once the club's ludicrous and inhumane training regime is finally unveiled.

There’s a strong metaphor for South Korea’s cultural development over the postwar era that resounds throughout Alien Baseball Team, giving the comic startling accuracy as a sort of founding document for the modern-day national origin myth. It is quite bleak along these lines, but its strong synthesis of such disparate qualities is why it resonated so much for a generation in the 1980s. There simply wasn’t any other work of this quality that could be so easily identified as unique to the South Korean cultural experience.

Yet Alien Baseball Team today is probably best understood in South Korean culture as a source of memetic imagery, rather than for appreciation of its original story. The image of Uhm-ji’s shocked reaction is a common staple in local advertising. This is a testament to Lee Hyun-se’s powerful line work, with individual panels perfectly punctuating moments of severe anguish - often out of nowhere, in sharp contrast to a preceding scene or a preceding panel. Take this image of Ma Dong-tak winning a big game, with Uhm-ji noting in glib, agonized despair that she will never be with Oh Hye-sung:

Is this a statement on the limited options for women in '80s South Korea? Plain old misogyny? Did Lee Hyun-se just really love drawing these intense reaction shots? The lack of serious scholarship on Alien Baseball Team is frustrating, but not so strange as it may seem at first glance, given the genuine difficulty of unpacking all of its influences, even in the South Korean context. A brief resurgence of interest in 2009 led to the production of a TV drama (Strike Love) and a fresh printing of manga-style books (from which the scans in this article were pulled). Both were influenced by demand from online consumer surveys, a new means of gauging interest in a quickly-growing cultural content industry.

The boar-slaying scene, as played out in the short-lived English serialization, Untouchables (Eastern Comics, 1988). Translated by Franz Henkel, lettered by Ju Soo-keong.

Though popular in nostalgic terms, an intense, violent drama about baseball politics with a fairly definitive ending doesn’t exactly play well for branding purposes. An official English-language version is unlikely for these same reasons. A small outfit, Eastern Comics, gave it a shot back in 1988 with a stapled comic book series titled Untouchables, translated by Franz Henkel and released to comic book stores on a weekly basis. This English edition struggled with the series' baffling pace, opting to skip the childhood and high school phases of the story entirely in the hopes that Oh Hye-sung killing a wild boar with his fastball before seeking a pro signing would prove a more straightforwardly exciting introduction. The project lasted only four issues, which is a real shame. No work of fiction, comic or otherwise, encapsulates the South Korea of the 1980s quite like Alien Baseball Team.