January 16, 2011

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Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators

Written and Illustrated by Choi Kyu-sok, Catel, Lee Doo-hoo, Vanyda, Park Heung-yong, Mathieu Sapin, Byun Ki-hyun, Igort, Lee Hee-jae, Herve Tanquerelle,Chaemin, and Guillaume Bouzard
Fanfare Ponent Mon

What happens when you gather 12 artists from South Korea and Europe as part of a government-sponsored cultural exchange? The answer is contained within this anthology made up partly of manhwa pieces and partly of observations on their trip to Korea by a host of French cartoonists (and one Italian). Each gives their own perspective on South Korea, the looming specter of North Korea, and what it's like to experience this country, either as a visitor or as a native.

I knew I wanted to pick this one up as soon as I'd heard about it, because I like anthologies, I found Fanfare's other offerings to be solid books, and I definitely want to read more Eastern comics that are not in the mold of the typical manga/manhwa story. It certainly is solid. All of the stories are very good, even in translation (a credit to the three translators who worked on the title). They capture the feel of Korea well, I think, especially the small touches that might be missed if you were reading or watching a travel special. The stories from the Europeans reminded me favorably of Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage, while those from the Korean half of the collaboration would be right at home in any Western indie anthology.

The problem I had, however, was that while each creator did bring their own perspective, the general style was too similar. Most of the stories involve a street-level perspective of Korea, and the European plots all revolve around seeing Korea for the first time, drawn in a sketchy, rough style typical of most autobiographical comics. The stories are quite good, but they don't bring a sense of life or variety to the anthology. Swap the order or change the names of the creators, and it wouldn't make a large difference. Rather than getting 6 different perspectives, it feels more like the same theme retold by six people.

That's not to say the stories are lacking in quality or are not to my taste. I like simple autobiographical cartoonists. But I feel like an opportunity was lost by not seeking out more diverse styles within the French cartooning community or asking them to take some different approaches rather than variations on a travelogue. What we get is sort of like asking Bryan Lee O'Malley, Hope Larson, and Faith Erin Hicks to all be part of the same collection after visiting a foreign country. I'd definitely read it, but leave feeling like there was a commonality in the art that was enough to hurt the overall impact on the anthology for the reader.

The South Korean contributions have a bit more variety, but they, too, don't seem to change enough between them to make this anthology sing as much as I wanted it to. There's a commonality in body shapes and shading that suggest the collator had a definite bias when asking for artists to participate. We get away from the standard manhwa, but instead fall into another trap--picking six manhwa creators who all share an "alternative" style that just doesn't change enough for my taste within the same anthology.

I'm probably being a bit too picky in this review. I like the idea of a gathering of creators from very different worlds, and their observations are keen and often quite personal. The problem is that when I got this book, I wanted 12 unique takes on Korea, and I feel like I only got maybe three or four. Had I better understood the nature of the project going in, I think I would have liked it better. That's why I want to make sure anyone who reads this review first understands that so that their expectations are clear.

In terms of the stories themselves, I think my favorites were Catel's discussion of her thought processes while in Korea and Byun Ki-hyun's story about a person who rooms with a human-sized rabbit. The former story lets us into the thinking of a creator who's always on the lookout for new material (with her best-known creation making comments along the way) while the latter uses the traits of a rabbit to talk about a young woman with personal issues. I also enjoyed the "Cinderella" story that involved a bit of amateur larceny and guilty feet. Overall, the Korean stories stand out a bit more for me, because while the art was similar, the stories were not. Unfortunately, after awhile, the travel tales tended to blend for me.

I didn't like this one as much as my friend Ed did (it's funny we read this about the same time) and I would only recommend it with conditions. For example, if you are looking for what else is out there in the manhwa world after things like Bride of the Water God, this isn't a bad place to start. I also think those who like to read travel stories would enjoy the tales of European travelers a bit more than I did when reading several similar tales in a row. Overall, this one's just a bit too similar in tone to make a good anthology worth recommending to all. There are 12 stories, but too few different viewpoints for me. Your mileage, however, may be totally different and closer to Ed's perspective than mine.