Sunday, May 15, 2011

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

I was greatly moved by a scene from page 173 through 177, in which Ehwa has her first period. Earlier in the chapter, Ehwa has been talking with her mother and some of her friends, and mentions that her stomach hurts. in the first panel of page 173, Ehwa is on her own, and is suddenly shown in shock! After Ehwa observes a bump on her chest, we are shown a provocative image of a bleeding line, followed by a close-up on Ehwa, panicked and sweating. Page 174 is a single image of Ehwa drawn shakily without shading, suddenly in a mysterious shock, illustrated with a giant wobbly exclamation point. The next four panels are a POV shot of ehwa slamming and locking the room door. Emphasis is placed on her slight disorientation, stemming from concern. She lifts her skirt (the camera tastefully moving the side), and in a wide shot on the next page, featuring a large white space surrounding Ehwa implying her aloneness, she states the obvious: “Something’s dripping down there!” Four ridged rectangular panels depict a  hand (assumed to be Ehwa’s) reaching to touch the same line we saw earlier with her finger, lifting up to reveal a drop of blood. Page 177, the highlight of this set of pages, where we are shown her mortification at the sight of blood, and a slow, believable decent into tears in three panels. As a male, I have never had a period, but this sequence was highly enlightening to me as to how one would deal with such an experience. I am constantly surprised by the fact that the author of this comic is also male, for this volume is consistently enlightened me to truths of the female experience, and the human experience in general.

 Even stranger than Hwa’s incredibly positive depiction of women is his oddly negative depiction of men. While he is clearly not sexist; Chung-Myung and The Picture Man are definitely nice people; there are several instances where the author can’t seem to think of anything but how disgusting and loathsome men are! The main instance of this bizarre treatment of the male gender is the character of Dongchul. Dongchul is the polar opposite of The Picture Man, only ever depicted as a horrible wretch. He first appears at the begging of the book (at which point Ehwa is very young; they are both the same age) having a “peeing contest” with a friend, and calling Ehwa deformed for her lack of a Gochoo (a korean euphemism for penis). Later in the book, we are shown Dongchul has grown up into an ugly young pervert, masturbating in front of Ehwa while trying to bribe her with butterflies and beetles to show him her “persimmon seed”. To make matters worse, he has already successfully bribed Ehwa’s plain friend Bongsoon, depicted now as both helpless and impossibly vain. While I understand that The Color of Earth is a feminist work, and that men do deserve criticism for past treatment of women, this absurdly animalistic depiction is insulting, unhelpful, and worst of all, bad storytelling. With three pages of straightforward evil, The Color of Earth goes from and incredible creation to a greatly flawed one.

The Color of Earth is set in rural Korea, generations ago, in an unspecified year. In the book’s introduction, Hwa explains through two short poems that his intent is to tell a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s youth. Through this generational gap, the story becomes both more universal and more personal. If one goes a certain amount back in history, the entire world’s civilizations all look somewhat similar. When I read this comic, I observed that this version of Korea did not look too different from historical versions of Japan, China, and to some extent, any other part of the world at a certain time. This is not to say there are no cultural differences, but this ancient place halfway around the world feels oddly familiar. This presents one of the central morals of this book: the importance of human emotions. The reader is shown a world very different than anywhere in the 21st century but can connect and empathize with what is shown, because the story is not told through setting, but through emotions, the most universal language.

This manwha reminded me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated, which, like The Color of Earth, features fictional characters stated to be the author’s ancestors, a concept used to make the story more personal. In Color of Earth, this side of the story is kept to subtext; had I not read the Hwa’s introduction, I would not even know that Ehwa is meant to be the authors grandmother. However, Everything is Illuminated reminds us of the significance of the people of the city of Trachimbrod throughout the narrative, and has a parallel story in which Foer finds information for the book. Despite this, I think The Color of Earth is a much more personal story While Illuminated spends more time elaborating on Foer’s family tree, and through that does achieve an incredible level of emotional resonance, the reader never doubts the fictitious nature of the book. Trachimbrod is not a real city, its inhabitants are not real, and according to the back cover of the novel, Jonathan Safran Foer is not the author, but someone who has the same name (And looks the same. And has the same religious beliefs). However, Hwa’s story may well be based on truth, and has not been disguised for the reader’s sake. Since the town they live in is never named, it could (and most likely is) real. Ehwa is, without a shadow of doubt, Hwa’s ancestor. This knowledge makes The Color of Earth an even more emotional read than it is otherwise. The book discusses things I wouldn’t say about myself, let alone my grandmother. Perhaps this is why fiction exists, to let us say things about life we never could otherwise.


Despite flaws, Color of Earth is an impressive graphic novel, and a perfect English language debut for Kim Dong Hwa. Featuring incredible art, elegant prose, and intelligent storytelling, Color of Earth portrays an elegant and unique mastery of graphic storytelling.

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