February 19, 2010

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Tarot Cafe Volume 7

Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park
Tokyopop

It's closing time at the Tarot Cafe, as this manhwa series finishes off the story of Pamela, a fortune teller unable to see her own future and blinded by the truths right in front of her face.

In this closing volume, Pamela, with the help of two friends, goes off to confront Belial once and for all, no matter what the cost. But can she escape the traps of Hell itself? And once she's there, can she deal with the reality presented to her? Even if she fails, has Belial actually won, or did he wager more than he bargained for?

This is by far the most straightforward presentation of Pamela's story, as the last few loose ends are tied up and Pamela is given a closure that, while not what she hoped, works well within the structure of a drama. We get the climax and the anti-climax here, and both work really well. Pushed to the limit, Pamela is ready to do anything to finally be rid of her curse. But that may not be best for her after all, and Park does a nice job of showing what happens when you take a minute to step back from everything and think about what you really want, as opposed to what you think you want.

The problem is that the first three parts of the drama tree were chopped up so much across the first five volumes that it was hard to get into Pamela's story until it was very nearly too late. I felt like I was seeing her conflict clearly for the first time in this volume, and it really interested me. It's a shame that Park didn't make things a bit clearer from the beginning. I don't think it would have taken anything away from the big reveal in this volume at all, and might have even made it more powerful.

Pamela's journey through hell is really well done. Park turns up the creep factor, using her skills as an artist to full effect. The demons we see are horrifying and crafted with amazing detail and skill. Even those that are more human-looking have an air of creepiness, and her take on Charon is both darkly humorous and starkly horrific.

The resolution of the final confrontation, however, is the best part of things. As with all good characters, Pamela grows by the choices she makes here, and with amazing dexterity considering how (maddeningly) dense she was in most of the series, especially towards the end. There's one last deception that she misses, but I think that one's understandable. In the end, she is at peace, even if it may not have been the peace she thought she wanted.

Belial, too, gets to show he's more than just an evil demon. Despite his claims, he cannot help but be affected by his time interacting with humans. But will he end up charting a new course? That's up to the reader to decide.

I've mentioned before that Park's art on this series is something to behold, and that continues here. I already commented on her demons, but there's also images like the city of Dis, where a large number of the damned souls are given individual bodies, actions, and facial features that make a reader stop and linger over the details. Other parts of Hell are similarly detailed, as are lines in an old man's face or the patterns on past characters' fashions as they show up in a cameo. A lesser artist might have skimmed on things, but not Park. I'd definitely read another manhwa by her, just to see more of her art.

While I was frustrated by the often-confusing origin story and the trailing off of the one-off stories of Pamela's patrons, I was happy with how Tarot Cafe ended. It felt like a logical progression based on where Park was taking the story and I didn't feel like any of it was forced to meet a series deadline. Pamela and Belial end up in a very satisfying place, I think, for both reader and fictional character.

Overall, I think those interested in trying manhwa as a genre could do a lot worse than starting here, though I think Bride of the Water God would be ideal. The series is short enough to allow them to sample without having to buy too many volumes. The story is a bit muddled in places but has a good overarching plot that ends in a satisfactory way. Plus, Park's art is some of the best I've ever read in a comic, Western or Eastern. If you opt to visit the Tarot Cafe, plan to linger a bit and enjoy your visit--the view alone is worth the price of admission. Having a pretty good (if slightly flawed) story is just a bonus.

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