Manga Friday: Reading It Forwards
Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of Asian comics – you can read right-to-left without blinking, speak of shojo and shonen with ease and have even been known to bring up seinen in casual conversation – you get caught up short with the realization that Japan is not the entirety of Asia. There are other countries with their own comics traditions, and you (well, me) suddenly realize that you (no, it’s still me) don’t know all that much about them. But there will always be more books you haven’t read than those you have, so the only thing to do is dive right in….
By Byun Byung-Jun
NBM ComicsLit, July 2009, $19.99
If Bret Easton Ellis was a Korean cartoonist – and about twenty years younger – he might have produced a short-story collection like Mijeong; Byung-Jun’s characters are mostly urban young people, disaffected more often than not. There are seven stories here, in a wide variety of art styles – some painted, some drawn, and all absolutely stunning in their virtuosity – but they’re all quite bleak.
Byung-Jun’s stories traffic in rape and abduction, murder and suicide, but his viewpoint is distanced and quiet, as if to say that this is just life, and none of it can be helped. Some of the stories end on a relatively upbeat note and some the other way, but it doesn’t really matter – they all have that quiet, detached tone.
Byung-Jun’s art is amazing in its textures and environment, though his people, deliberately, have mask-like faces that show little emotion most of the time. It’s harder to judge his writing – there are passages like “For weary lovers, love seems distant. But they’ll endure it all. Overwhelmed, they endure. But, in the end, they’ll manage.” that clunk around like a tire with a bald spot, but it’s impossible to say if that was clunky in the original Korean, or if the translation (by Joe Johnson) is responsible. In either case, the writing aims towards sublimity but doesn’t always make it.
Mijeong is an Asian comic for people who usually like European comics – it’s nuanced and subtle, quiet and vaguely depressive, with gorgeous art and a deeply jaundiced view of the world. Perhaps the fact that it reads left-to-right – since it’s Korean, and that’s the way their books run – will help it find that audience.
The History of the West Wing
Story by Sun Jiayu; Art by Guo Guo
Yen Press, May 2009, $12.99
According to the first page of this book, The History of the West Wing is a retelling of Wang Shifu’s play of the same name, from sometime in the Yuan Mongol era – and that the play was itself a retelling of a fable by Yuan Zhen from five or eight hundred years earlier. However, China has been civilized for a long, long time, so all that really means to a Western audience is that this is set in costume-drama land: where everyone that matters is aristocratic, they all wear gorgeous finery and have much more complicated manners than we make do with these days, and that technology (of any kind) will not enter the story.
A young man – we don’t find out that his name is Chen Yuqing for a while – is wandering around China, apparently without cares for money. His parents are dead and he was supposed to take the Imperial exam to become a civil servant, but he never did, and so now he just drifts through life. But he comes to stay at a temple attached to the palace of a local government minister, and also living there is the minister’s gorgeous daughter, Pianpian.
Young women are sequestered in this society, but Chen manages to meet Pianpian alone a couple of times, and of course falls deeply in love with her immediately. But it’s a Jane-Austen kind of love, extending as far as touching hands and subject to the gentleman suitor impressing the parents and finding a suitable occupation.
Luckily, there are bandits in the neighborhood, which Chen can drive away to impress Pianpian and her mother, and there’s always that Imperial exam to take to finally grow up and find a job…
The History of the West Wing is pleasant, but it has the air of a story that’s been told and re-told so many times that the intended audience just needs to be given the highlights – or perhaps that its audience would rather see a slightly different version of the story rather than the same thing one more time. So it felt underexplained several times, and the movement of characters and their long speeches clearly shows its origins as a stage play. Still, it’s a cute love story, and Guo Guo’s art is delicately, lovingly detailed and has a light, earth-toned color palette with a thinness and clarity reminiscent of animation.
Step, Vol. 1: Dynasty Tang
By Yu Yanshu
Yen Press, April 2009, $10.99
This is also Chinese, but it’s substantially weirder: Mr. Han is a professional monster hunter, who has systematically eliminated all of the supernatural creatures in his unnamed town. (But he still gets regular work, perhaps because such beasties are always being generated or because they’re often on the move.) But he also cares for a little girl with the odd name of Dynasty Tang, and she’s a vampire.
All of the stories here are exactly ten pages long, and they have vibrant art with color that ranges all through the spectrum within a space of two pages, with large blocks of bright, solid colors under and over more subdued tones and shades. That length also feels slightly too short for the stories Yu Yanshu is telling; many of these stories get frenetic on the last pages, or jump around to get all of the events in. And, again, there’s sometimes a feeling of coming in one or two reels into a movie – everything makes sense, but some explanations would have been nice.
Each of those stories is independent, usually about Han battling some kind of monster, some of whom want to take Dynasty Tang. The stories start out very light-hearted and very separate – despite touches like Tang’s vampire older brother, the last remaining member of her family, who wants his sister back and instead g
ets summararily staked by Han just because he’s there. Towards the end of the book, though, some plot threads extend through several stories, and a serious tone tries to establish itself.
But Step is still a weird, quirky book – down to the fact that, at the end of this volume, it’s still not all that clear why it’s called “Step.” It’s certainly zippy and colorful, and monster-killing action is always in style for Asian comics, but I’m really not sure if I got this one.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.