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The Color of Heaven

Color of Heaven by Dong Hwa Kim

I think it took the first two books of this series for me to get used to the prose style. While before I was often a little distracted by the constant symbolic discussion of flowers and the natural world, this time I was able to let the symbolism in The Color of Heaven wash over me. The volume opens with a moment of high melodrama as Ehwa has to say goodbye to the man she loves at the train station. Duksam’s master didn’t take his rejection by Ehwa well, and he’s sent out a goon squad to rough up Duksam. With his livelihood gone, Duksam decides to travel to the sea in order to make enough money to support Ehwa by fishing. He promises to return.

Ehwa returns to her mother’s house, and just as her mother waits for the Picture Man, Ehwa now waits for Duksam. I suppose one of the more frustrating aspects of this series is that the women really don’t have much to do but bury themselves in the details of domestic life and wait around for their men. Still, if that’s what life was like in rural Korea at the time I think one can’t complain about the lack of narrative urgency.

Eventually the women get to stop waiting and begin new lives when their men return. I was very interested in the details of Ehwa’s wedding ceremony, and I thought it provided more of a window into Korean culture than many of the earlier discussions the characters had about flowers and butterflies. Overall, I’m glad I took the time to read this series. This trilogy is utterly without irony and sincere in its literary ambitions. It definitely demanded more patience from me as a reader than I’m accustomed to but I was left with the feeling that I’d been able to experience manhwa in a new way.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Color of Earth and The Color of Water

The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim

The Color of Earth
lives up to its title by being extremely earthy. The characters are drenched in nature and preoccupied with relationships. Ehwa’s mother is a tavern owner and her father is long gone, so the seven year old girl must deal with snide comments from her playmates and remarks from the tavern’s customers that she barely understands. As Ehwa goes through puberty, she begins to understand what’s going on with her changing body and she has a brief first love when she encounters a young monk on a narrow bridge. Ehwa’s mother holds herself apart from her male customers, pinning her hopes and dreams on a traveling salesman nicknamed “The Picture Man” due to his ability to express the meaning of names in calligraphy.

This is a quiet, meditative book. While events happen there is no urgency to the plot. I found myself having to work a little in order to sustain the momentum to finish the book. Ehwa and her mother discuss the events of the day and their changing lives in language that refers to the natural world around them. Seldom have I encountered a book where flowers were mentioned so often. Here is a sampling of dialog:

“Do you want to plant the hollyhock seeds tomorrow? Didn’t you say you wanted to cover the entire front yard with those flowers?”
“No…I’d rather plant them on the roadside. All along the road to the orchard farm…that way the peach orchard butterfly can rest from flower to flower.”
“And, finally, rest on your heart?”

Ehwa exchanges flowers with the monk Chung-Myung and decides that her favorite flower is now the tiger lily because it reminds her of the scent of grey robes. Ehwa’s mother plants gourd flowers all over her house because these flowers only open at night, hoping that the scent will somehow summon the Picture Man back to her. Ehwa is distracted by the arrival of the young scholar Sunoo, and begins to make up excuses to gather plants in the orchards near his home. There’s an element of melancholy to this book as Ehwa becomes a young woman and leaves her first loves behind.

The characters are simply drawn but the pastoral backgrounds are rendered in meticulous detail. The plants, wildlife, and flowers that the characters constantly refer to are highlighted, providing a contrast with the simplicity of the characters’ expressions.

The Color of Water by Dong Hwa Kim

There’s more dramatic tension to The Color of Water, as Ehwa’s mother begins to experience a little bit of jealousy about her younger, prettier daughter. Ehwa has a fateful encounter with a young man named Duksam from a nearby village and begins wonder if he’ll be her future husband. The second volume was much easier for me to read than the first. As the characters aged, I found myself more invested in what happened to them. Also there were background details weaved into the storyline that I thought provided more of a window into Korean culture at the time, like an acquaintance of Ehwa’s being betrothed to a 9 year old fiance and having to care for both her new child husband and her grandmother-in-law.

I had mixed feelings about this manhwa but I think it is worth sampling although I think requires more cultural context than the average American will have about manhwa. Most of the other manhwa that makes it over here seems fairly derivative of the standard shoujo and shonen type stuff that everybody’s used to reading. There was something about the style of writing in these books that I just wasn’t able to completely connect with as a reader. For me, the symbolism used in these books would have had more impact if it wasn’t so overwhelming. On the other hand, there were several moments in the series that seemed naturistic and expressive: the arrangement of shoes having an unspoken meaning, walking across a field of flowers, and silently hanging brushes on the wall.

By the end of the second volume I was left curious enough about what would happen to Ehwa that I think I’ll try to read out the third volume of the trilogy, The Color of Heaven. I wanted to like these books more than I did, but I was much more engaged in the series after reading the second book, so I wonder if by the time I finish the third I’ll like the series that much more. If you’re curious to read manhwa with a unique sensibility and literary ambitions, The Color of Earth and the Color of Water are worth checking out.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders

by Didier Lefèvre, Emmanuel Guibert, and Ferderic Lermercier

The Photographer is a stunning hybrid of photos and sequential art that tells the story of Didier Lefevre as he joins Doctors Without Borders as a photographer in Afghanistan in 1986. The story is divided up into three sections as it was originally published in France as three separate books.

In Part 1 Didier says goodbye to his family in France and arrives in Pakistan to prepare to join the expedition to set up two medical clinics. He gets measured for clothing and helps pack for the expedition, and elaborate process that involves packing items so tightly they can’t move, waterproofing the boxes, and sewing the boxes up in burlap cloth. Didier meets his companions on the expedition. Juliette is the head of the mission. She dresses in men’s clothing and keeps a watchful eye on the horse trading the group must do in order to equip their caravan. He also meets the surgeon John, Regis the anesthesiologist, and a doctor named Robert. The expedition sets off for Afghanistan, trying to avoid landmines and occasionally traveling by night in order to avoid Russians. Didier has to keep sewing up his expensive hiking boots as they get abraded by the rocky terrain. As they travel, they run into refugees fleeing in the opposite direction.

In Part 2 the expedition sets up a hospital in a dusty abandoned building. The operating room of the building is the porch and the waiting room is an open courtyard. The doctors treat a number of wounded patients, and the switch between Guibert’s drawings and photos of the wounded can be quite jarring, especially in the case of a man whose face was ripped apart by shrapnel. Several children are treated for horrible wounds, and the casual way many people handle their guns ensures a steady supply of bullet wounds to treat in addition to everyday medical issues.

Didier does something incredibly frustrating in Part 3 that results in a journey back to Pakistan that is filled with danger. Although when talking about The Photographer I’ve mostly focused on some of the serious medical details, there is also a lot of humor found throughout the book. Didier and Regis joke with each other often. A doctor hangs his stethoscope on the wall of the dusty clinic to make it look like an official hospital. Everyone comments on the diet, and when Didier gets a boil on his arm he finds one of his companions lancing it with a little too much enthusiasm.

When I first picked up The Photographer I was a little skeptical about how well the photos would mesh with Guibert’s art, but I was silly to be concerned about this. The photos were incorporated into the graphic narrative in a variety of ways that just served to bring the story to life. Contact sheets of photos were used in some places as decoration, and as a way of presenting a mini-sequence from an event. The photos were too small to see many of the details, but I was able to see how difficult it would be to coax a donkey across a river. There’s a scrapbook feel to the way the panels are put together, as some of the photos reproduced are circled or crossed out in red pencil, with captions and drawings placed next to them or slightly overlapping. Frequently a new character will be introduced in a photo, and the following comic panel of the character will continue a conversation, which I thought was an interesting way to transition from one medium to another. Seeing the multiple images that go into a contact sheet followed by a larger size photo of the event made me appreciate how much good photography must depend on self-editing to select one image out of many.

The Photographer
is a very powerful story and it is filled with images I won’t forget, like a little girl with her hand stuck in a teapot filled with anesthetic liquid. I didn’t know much about Doctors Without Borders before, and it was interesting to read about the lives of some of the people who choose to provide medical treatment in horrible conditions. This book produced an engrossing autobiography with a combination of photos and drawings that is unique. Something will be very wrong if The Photographer doesn’t win some major graphic novel awards. This is a must read for fans of graphic non-fiction.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond (Paperback)
by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden (amazon)

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is a art class in a book, giving an overview of the process of creating comic books. It is divided up into themed chapters, so budding comics creators can explore topics like layout, inking, lettering, story development, and digital art. Each chapter has a suggested reading list for further study and exercises for students. A variety of examples was used throughout the book, ranging from Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman to the work of the Hernandez brothers. The examples showcase a wide variety of artists and styles, providing a good overview of a variety of historical landmarks in comics and current indie creators.

My main quibble with this book is that it mentions manga in the title, but there isn’t really much manga coverage or use of manga in illustrating comics storytelling other than a couple panels from Osamu Tezuka and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. Manga has some unique artistic conventions and storytelling techniques and I would have liked to have seen a few pages address it. There also isn’t that much in the way of superhero coverage. That aside, art books tend to be very popular in libraries and I think most public libraries will want to add Drawing Words and Writing Pictures to their collection. It is a very solid resource for aspiring artists and reading this made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating comics.

There’s a companion web site available with resources for students and teachers using the book at http://www.dw-wp.com.

A review copy was provided by First Second.

Kaput and Zosky

Kaput and Zosky by Lewis Trondheim 5/5 stars (amazon)

Kaput and Zosky is a thoroughly delightful comic book for young people about inept space invaders. Kaput and Zosky travel from planet to planet looking for a world to rule but they never seem to manage to pull it off. They land on a planet where the inhabitants immediately capitulate, run into issues with another planet’s potato-like populace, accidentally take over a world due to gambling and investments, and fail in an attempt to rule through democracy. Each time, the duo’s plans for mayhem and domination are spoiled, so they set out for new worlds to conquer.
Kaput is short and squat, with a wide mouth full of sharp teeth. He’s determined to cause as much mayhem as possible, saying things about like “Let’s be charitable and share our knowledge. We’ll teach them the meaning of pain and fear!” Zosky is taller, with expressive yellow antennae. He tends to be a little more moderate and logical in his quest for absolute power; “Phase 1: Analyze the ground situation. Phase 2: Devise a plan of action. Phase 3: Seize Power!!!!”
The art is expressive and whimsical, with a variety of cool looking aliens and monsters that Kaput and Zosky are never able to enslave no matter how hard they try. There’s an excerpt of Kaput and Zosky available on the First Second web site, so you can preview the book. I’m not sure that very young children will be able to fully comprehend the finer points of a parody of democracy or the trouble with arms races, but parents reading the book with their children will appreciate these plot elements. I’m definitely looking forward to sharing this book with my sons when they’re older, because I think every child should have a book that contains vocabulary building words like destruction, ruination, and planetary domination.

Review copy provided by First Second

Laika and Robot Dreams

A couple of the books that I most enjoyed reading because of the Cybils were Laika and Robot Dreams.

Laika by Nick Abadzis 5/5 stars (amazon)

Laika combines fact and fiction in a retelling of the story of the first dog in space. I didn’t really know a whole lot about the historical background of Laika’s flight, I enjoyed reading her story, which was told from the point of view of multiple characters. We see a little bit of Laika’s early life on the streets of Moscow. Other featured characters include the engineer Korolev who is incredibly ambitious after his experience as a political prisoner, the dog trainer Yelena, and a little girl who wasn’t able to keep Laika as a pet.
Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still got a little teary-eyed at the end of the book. The details about the unforeseen political issues that occurred after Laika’s flight were also very interesting. The thick black lines of the art serve to emphasize the anxiety and emotions of Laika’s caretakers. Laika is a must-have book for most school libraries, as it would fit in well with history curriculum since it so capably dramatizes the human elements of the early space race. Also, it has a bibliography! As a librarian, I do find bibliographies in graphic novels quite thrilling.

Robot Dreams 4/5 stars (amazon)

I usually steer clear of wordless graphic novels. There isn’t really a valid reason for my doing so, I just tend to like text. So it was interesting that this year’s Cybils had two wordless nominations, The Arrival and Robot Dreams. In Robot Dreams, a dog assembles a robot from a mail order kit. They become friends, bonding over classic Hayao Miyazaki movies and making popcorn. When Dog takes Robot to the beach, Robot becomes rusty and can’t budge. Dog reluctantly abandons his new friend, when he comes back to attempt to repair him, the beach is closed.
Robot Dreams splits into parallel stories, as Robot dreams of all the adventures he can’t have. The dreams have vivid imagery; Robot hitches a ride on a bird only to fall asleep being embraced by a cloud, he digs his way up to the top of a mountain, and encounters a friend in his dream in the shape of a flower. Dog meets new people, but they don’t seem to be able to replace his lost Robot pal. The art is simple and engaging, portraying a variety of creatures going about their day to day tasks. Robot Dreams is a great story of friendship lost and found. And it has robots in it, so you know it has to be cool 🙂

Review copies were provided by the publisher.