Monday, October 5, 2009

Two Takes On Manhwa: Mijeong and The Color Of Earth

Rob reviews two notable manhwa (Korean manga) releases, MIJEONG by Byun Byung-Jun (NBM ComicsLit) and THE COLOR OF EARTH by Dong Hwa Kim (First Second).

Regular readers of this column may note a huge gap in a particular area: manga. This is for three reasons: 1) Typical manga has a slickness to it that makes it difficult for me to engage; 2) Typical manga tends to be genre material of a nature that doesn't interest me; 3) There are many, many other writers out there to tackle this sort of material. That said, there's a growing wave of alt-comics manga out there that have started to get english translations, and I will be addressing a number of those. In this column, I'll take a look at two manhwa, or Korean manga. Kim Dong Hwa's THE COLOR OF EARTH and Byun Byung-Jun's MIJEONG couldn't be any less alike in terms of story, even if they do share certain structural similarities.

THE COLOR OF EARTH is the first entry of a trilogy about a young girl's burgeoning sexuality and her widowed mother's reawakening sexuality. This 300-page book is told at a leisurely pace and is as much about the environment as it is about the characters. The design of the book is gorgeous, printed on coarse & uneven paper. Kim's figures are all in a clear-line style with simplistic & exaggerated facial expressions (the eyes being the most expressive), but uses an intensely naturalistic style with buildings (down to the most minute whorls in wood) and the countryside. What makes this book work is the page-to-page composition and the way Kim arranges his characters against the backgrounds with the reader feeling distracted by either. He creates a rock-solid structure in every panel in the way characters interact with each other and their environment.

And by "structure", I mean that almost literally. The way the characters are arranged against their environment forms a "golden section" in nearly every panel, balancing character and background, no matter how differently the two are drawn. The solidity of each page allows Kim to give his book a wistful quality that allows him to stretch otherwise thin plot points across the duration of the book. There's nothing revelatory about the book's subject matter or his treatment of it, other than giving it a slightly feminist bent. It's a book about young love, romance nurtured and delayed and the delicate balance between the sexes. The extended metaphor equating sex and flowers is startlingly obvious, but the characters themselves are quite aware of this, choosing to avoid the subject in a genteel fashion. The book is based on the experiences of the author's mother, and as such there's a certain sense of nostalgia for a simpler time and reveling in the roundabout ways romance was expressed. At the same time, Kim didn't ignore the baser aspects of desire either, mixing crude sex talk with starry-eyed romantic talk. I didn't feel much of a need to read the other volumes in the series; I get the sense that it will be more of the same. THE COLOR OF EARTH is a beautifully told, if entirely conventional, story. While the wisp-thin story faded from memory shortly after completion, many images still lingered.

If THE COLOR OF EARTH has a sentimental, traditional tinge to it, Byun Byung-Jun's MIJEONG feels distinctly modern (and even Western) by contrast. Byun is a stunning draftsman and character designer, but one got a sense of restlessness from this collection of stories. His previous book had been in a far cartoonier style, and MIJEONG seemed in some sense to be his attempt to prove to himself that he could work in any style. The restlessness of the artist did match up well with the restlessness of the characters, even if the intensity of his style made the emotions depicted on the page a bit too on-the-nose at times. Byun excelled in the few stories that had a humorous aspect to them, like "202, Villa Sinil", a story about a guy whose powers, unbeknownst to him, were inadvertently killing and maiming public figures. The climax of the story, where he accidentally destroys the earth, was one-upped by the Twilight Zone finale. Even if one could see it coming, it was still a funny capper. "Utility" mined an even darker vein of humor, as a group of children debated the best course of action after finding that a sibling committed suicide. Their worries about shame outweighing actual emotion and later confusion after being found out were slyly portrayed, and the scene where the parents walked in was hilariously executed.

The first story in the book was influenced by the film Wings of Desire, as we see an angel forlornly rescue a girl while ruminating over his own fate. For an artist of his considerable skill, Byun tends to overwrite his scenes a bit instead of letting the images tell more of the story. "Yeon-Du, Seventeen Years Old", is a considerably more ambiguous and rewarding story, about a traumatized young girl who kills a potential abuser and a desperate old man who knew her from her youth. It's the most visually restrained story in the book and one that plants visual clues that bear fruit later in the story. In "A Song For You", Byun goes to the trauma/sexual assault well one too many times, and the tortured use of watercolor to express emotion made the story almost unbearable. On the other hand, Byun sends himself up with "Courage, Grandpa", yet another story involving the assault of a young girl. This time, she was rescued by a young man that she eventually tracked down, much to the chagrin of a scenery-chewing cat that loved her.
Some of these stories have the feeling a Neil Gaiman or Jamie Delano-written Vertigo comic, as drawn by Steve Bissette or Dave McKean. Those tendencies are balanced by his own training and traditions, with the same sort of rock-solid structure on each page. There's a weird sense of idealization of women in this book as vulnerable, mysterious and ultimately tragic, even as he portrays men as pathetic, predatory and small-minded. This book felt like an author trying to shake something loose in himself and looking to a different set of influences and styles. This book distinguishes itself from THE COLOR OF EARTH in that it is modern, urban and squalid. Tradition had been long forgotten and animal urges threatened to destroy delicate beauty. Byun perhaps overplayed this point at times in this collection, but MIJEONG did act as an acidic counter to the other book's treacly qualities. Byun is certainly an artist whose work I'd like to see more of.

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