By Jason S. Yadao
The following review — part of the special Manhwa Movable Feast discussion among the manga bloggerati this month, and by the way, thanks to Eva Volin over at Good Comics for Kids for providing complimentary copies of this month’s books — is presented in glorious Kim Dong Hwa COLOR-VISION! To anyone who reads Kim’s Color trilogy, it becomes apparent rather quickly that the guy loves using metaphors. If there’s any character in these books who doesn’t speak in metaphors, they all must be standing just outside the panel frames, because otherwise they simply don’t exist here. Compare your standard real-world conversation to one rendered in COLOR-VISION!:
Typical conversation (real world)
Duksam: “I love you.”
Ehwa: “I love you, too.”
Duksam: “But … I have to go! I’ll miss you!”
Ehwa: “I’ll … I’ll miss you, too!”
Typical conversation (Color trilogy world)
Duksam: “The jegae is full of my love for you. In fact, there’s so much that a mere jegae isn’t enough to carry it all. At night, I count out everything I love about you, but I never finish because morning arrives long before I’m done.”
Ehwa: “I, too, have a difficult time sleeping. In my mind, I draw your eyebrows, then your eyes and then your nose, and then I look up and dawn is breaking.”
Duksam: “Still, you’re better off than I am. Every flower I look at reminds me of you. So how can I go into the fields and mountains?”
Ehwa: “It feels as though you glued my shoes to the ground. I can’t seem to part with you.”
And after reading several hundred pages of this over three volumes, you can’t help but feel inspired to write in that style. Like so.
Today’s profiles: “The Color of Earth,” “The Color of Water” and “The Color of Heaven”
Author: Kim Dong Hwa
Publisher: First Second
Suggested age rating: Older teen 16+
The Eisner awards are a crown of the comics industry, the polished jewels adorning it hand-picked by appraisers who truly appreciate glittering graphic novel splendor. Those appraisers have deigned this year to consider the Color trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a set of South Korean gems that bursts with the brilliance of a thousand shining stars … yet focuses on a single topic.
See, in Kim’s world, everyone — from the young monk in training to the village elder, the chaste and pure of heart to those unafraid to sneak out back for a quick fling — is a babbling brook of sexuality, seemingly capable of murmuring only metaphorical musings and proverbs about such matters.
From the opening pages, where two beetles are shown entwined in their tight rope of love, this story flows in one direction, carrying one theme: Life is all about the buds that blossom between a man and a woman; all other matters are mere leaves that fall and litter the ground. And under this canopy, the flowers of women can only bloom to their fullest potential with the gentle rain provided by men.
So we have Ehwa, the girl who gradually matures into a woman by the strokes of Kim’s pen, whom we never see going to school, eating, sleeping, playing or doing mostly anything we’d expect to see normal children doing. Fallen leaves, remember? Instead, she gets most of everything she needs to know about life from her mother, a tavern owner who seems to be more Carolyn Hax than caring hostess. (Then again, when her patrons have libidos strong enough to power a small village for months on end, perhaps that’s understandable.)
Ehwa’s mom is a widow, but there’s no time for her to pine for passionate days lost; instead, a mysterious man appears in her life, a traveling salesman, and hark — the morning dew that had seemingly dried is renewed for a fresh dawn. Her insight comes in handy for Ehwa, a girl who finds love fulfilled first in the young monk Chung-Myung, then in the orchard farmer’s son Sunoo, and finally (and most permanently) with Duksam, the burly young man. Thus the stories of the young brook and the mature river flow parallel to each other, the river occasionally intersecting with the brook, with both coming away with additional pebbles of wisdom to carry forward.
Kim’s flood of gaudy prose and poetry often drowns me, a reader who would have been satisfied with a few long sips. The pill he asks me to swallow — about women needing men to feel complete — is large and bitter, and my gag reflex kicks in rather often when I try. And yet a still, small voice within me tells me not to be quick in offhandedly dismissing it. Perhaps what we’re looking at here is a rose, full of thorns from an outsider’s perspective, yet bursting with delicate beauty through the eyes of his native Korean audience. These are, after all, “little gems from my mother’s life at 16 … ochre-colored earth stories…” as Kim’s introduction notes.
I can see the beauty, and I can certainly appreciate the Color trilogy for that. At the same time, though, my enjoyment is tempered by those thorns. But would this story have resonated quite as much with me, for good or for ill, had those thorns been removed? I know for starters that this post probably wouldn’t have had nearly as many metaphors crammed into it. But more importantly, the story probably wouldn’t have had as much of the flavor of a cultural perspective unlike our own, and it wouldn’t have stirred nearly as much discussion or debate as it has.
And that would have been a real shame.