Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (part one of two)

The Color of Earth, the first volume of korean cartoonist Kim Dong Hwa’s The Story of Life on the Golden Fields trilogy, is a sunjeong manwha (a comic intended for girls) with themes of “coming of age” and Sex Ed. Sunjeong, like its japanese counterpart shojo, has often been pigeon-holed for its sparkly art, annoying protagonists, and frequently ridiculous romances. Also, the labels of coming of age and Sex Ed, unless meant as a cheap joke, seem completely contradictory as a coming of age story requires emotional focus, while Sex Ed needs to be, well, educational. Kim Dong Hwa manages to balance these elements by shedding the so-called sunjeong-style and potential educational sterility, and focusing on an adolescent girl's relationship with her mother. Puberty is depicted both realistically and beautifully, and the story is told from such a uniquely feminist perspective that makes it hard to believe the author is male. The core of story, however, is young Ehwa and her Mother, a familial bond so strong nothing could ever break it.

In some ways, The Color of Earth is not so much a comic as it is an epic poem. Dialogue is spoken in stanzas, and the illustrations suggests traditional asian artwork, namely woodblocks, which sometimes have poetry written on them. It may be surprising for some to see literary technique so openly celebrated in a comic book, especially one like this with a heavy emphasis on gorgeous artwork. And yet here it is, some of the finest modern poetry, in a comic book. The emphasis on a structure unlikely to ever be heard in real dialog never detracts or distracts from the telling of a natural story; the book attains almost a Shakespearian mood while rarely ever feeling pretentious or clunky. Were it not for the artwork, this would be the highlight of the book.

Kim Dong Hwa’s artwork is incredible, both intricately detailed and wonderfully minimal. The characters are drawn in a style suggesting influence from calligraphy, manga god Osamu Tezuka, and possibly newspaper cartoonists such as Charles Schultz. While occasionally guilty of equating ugliness and meanness, a common fallacy of cartoon art, for the most part Hwa manages to use this simplistic style to create expressive, emotional imagery. Ehwa in particular looks visually stunning, growing and changing naturally over the course of the volume, with numerous distinctive facial expressions. Even more impressive than this feat of character design are the incredible, woodblock-like, photorealistic background and nature art. Many artists these days don’t even bother drawing backgrounds, and instead make use of screen tones and Photoshop to create an emotionless, detached, but easily crafted environment. Yet here, not only do we get hand-drawn scenery, but breathtaking, unforgettable, naturalistic artwork poignantly illustrating visual metaphors of character’s emotions. Combined with the expressive characters and poetic verse, The Color of Earth is an unforgettable example of graphic narrative.

In this volume, the main story seems minimally influenced by Korean culture, focusing more on human experience in general. However, there is at least one subplot that hinges heavily on Korea, and Asia in general. What I am referring to is the story of Chung-Myung, a young Buddhist monk who falls in love with Ehwa after a chance encounter while crossing a bridge. Chung-Myung becomes conflicted between his duty to serve Buddha and his desire for Ehwa. This internal conflict can be seen not only as a nice story, but also as a possible metaphor for Korea’s own political conflicts. After the Japanese surrendered their occupation of Korea at the end of World War II, Korea was separated into two separate nations: the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the democratic Republic of Korea. In short, it may not have been what Hwa intended, but the nature of Chung-Myung’s inner troubles is a very Korean one.

 Love is the main focus of this story, and it manifests in various ways throughout the book. It is in moments where love is discussed where the comic is most poetic. The main romance of the book is a love triangle, in which Ehwa is conflicted between feelings for the young monk Chung-Myung, and an unrequited love for the seemingly flawless young Master Sunoo, the crippled son of an orchard farmer. Ehwa and Chung-Myung met while crossing a bridge from opposite sides, from different worlds that suddenly meet at a bridge. After engaging in a highly poetic, if somewhat stilted, conversation, the two exchange flowers (flowers are often used metaphorically in Color of Earth) and leave to the other side of the bridge, their lives changed forever. They cross paths again several times later in the volume, but these times are as brief as their first meeting on a bridge. Ehwa meets young Master Sunoo only twice, ounce by a reflecting pool, and ounce at an orchard farm. Ehwa is immediately smitten, but before she can tell Sunoo, he has left on a train to the Kwangju province to study.

Running parallel to Ewha’s story is her widowed mother, who has fallen in love with a traveling artist. Within this volume, we are always shown The Picture Man through Ehwa’s eyes, a perception shaped by her mother’s stories; in fact, he is never called anything other than The Picture Man. While this perception of events is interesting, we are never shown The Picture Man in any other light. Not only does he only have one interpretation, but only one facial expression as well! I hope that in later volumes we will see more sides to his character, because Hwa is clearly a very capable cartoonist.

However, the most powerful love in this manhwa is not of the romantic kind, but maternal. Ehwa and her mother are as close as a parent and child can get, sharing secrets and helping each other. Their relationship is even stronger in contrast to Chung-Myung’s relationship with the Master of his shrine, who treats Chung-Myung’s puberty as a nuisance, a simple distraction from enlightenment. Ehwa trusts her mother with difficult questions, and her mother always answers them. Their love and respect for each other rings true and clear throughout the narrative.

This love is handled with delicate care, in a medium once used exclusively for children’s entertainment and propaganda, and a genre/demographic sometimes infamous for its heightened melodrama. It is shocking to see such delicacy handled in a story not only told in a historically kiddy medium, but in a story intended for a pre-teen audience as well. How Hwa gives Color of Earth this surprising emotional resonance is through use of visuals and representations. Many of the original cartoonists of the 20th century relied heavily on descriptions and dialog, rendering the illustrations redundant attention-grabbers, only adding to the melodrama. Hwa, on the other hand, relies on his artwork to convey the story, using the dialog to add an element of prose, amplifying the reality of the already resonant emotions. There are no sentences like “After that, she went to the other room”; The reader is never talked down to, and is generally assumed to know what an image depicts. Hwa is more than aware that in graphic storytelling, less is always more, and uses subtlety to make his story and characters more relatable.

Continued in Part Two

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