Call it the changing of seasons or a trick of time zones, but for English speakers, the slowly cooling summer of Japanese manga may yet be the spring of Korean manhwa. These comics have been on North American bookstore shelves almost as long as their Japanese counterparts have, though they’ve received less attention from the reading public, and few scholars have ventured to explore the distinctions between the two approaches. Often, titles and series seem selected for publication on the basis of how closely they emulate the look and feel of popular Japanese comics, so manhwa shoulders the burden of seeming so much like manga, but inevitably lesser. This unfriendly reputation has perhaps obscured our view of the form’s more distinct works, like peering at shapes through a pouring rain.
It’s easy, however, to recognize the uniqueness of a contemporary manhwa like The Color of Earth, the first installment (originally published in 2003) of a trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a specialist in romantic sunjeong, or manhwa for girls. The book is formally and thematically distinct: an epic poetic narrative, stretched taut between lyricism and explication, and wholly devoted in its first volume to feminine sensuality as an extension of the natural order. The story is both explicit and bashful, occasionally in the same panel; the book’s detailed environment serves as the habitat for its more cartoony characters and as source for their dozens of nature-heavy metaphors. Yet The Color of Earth is also simple in tone, as encapsulated by its cover art, depicting a young girl with folded arms glancing away from the reader, her mysteries all her own. Only on close examination does one notice her hand drawing up the hem of her skirt to bare one knee, perhaps involuntarily, perhaps not.
Taken broadly, Kim plays his narrative out in a straight line. Set in a rural village roughly two generations ago, the story follows Ehwa from age seven to age fifteen as her body and emotions develop, mostly under the watchful eye of her widowed mother, a tavern owner who’s recently seen her own “ten-year drought” end with the periodic arrival of a traveling pictograph artist. As the narrative moves the girl steadily along the path of maturity, each chapter focuses on a specific lyrical subject or theme. Beetles act as symbols of both strength and submission; mountainous tiger lilies are lovely and elusive like a shy young boy; and gourd flowers, which open at night, away from nature’s society, represent a woman’s longing for her lover. And naturally, there are flowers that symbolize Ehwa: Hollyhocks resemble fairy dresses for the little girl, and cold-blooming camellias represent unrequited love in the winter. As a monk remarks, “A woman can be a hundred different kinds of flower in a lifetime.”
The interrelationship of bucolic imagery and personal longing never lets up. Page 1 depicts a phallic tree trunk jutting upward with insects mating on top. When Ehwa’s love interest, Young Master Sunoo (a handsome, educated lad with sophisticated attire, which all but assures his status as a well-meaning heartbreak on legs), departs the village, he does so by train, a mighty shaft of modernity that crushes flowers beneath its wheels, evaporating solid desire into a lingering scent. A tavern conversation between men regarding sparrows as a symbol of sexual inadequacy segues into a discussion of gourd flowers, including a helpfully footnoted pun melding the gourd image with the notion of a henpecking wife. Ehwa’s mother then reimagines the image into a sparrow’s futile attempts to drink from a gourd bottle, representing her own inaccessibility to her flirtatious clientele.
Often, the text slows down to allow a character to recite the meanings behind various items, plants, or climate patterns, but this has the effect of pitting the fluidity of Kim’s metaphors against the rigors of narrative storytelling, giving the impression of a heavily annotated vignette compressed into a single, uneasy unit, a hazard of exploring the poetic potential of the comics form while maintaining aspects of conversational realism. One wishes that the grace of the art, the studies of movement, and the subtle facial workings of a woman reflecting over a tryst were given primacy. As it is, Kim sometimes knocks his characters around with the gale force of flower petals and persimmon seeds.
Still, when persimmon seeds are imbued with this much biological force, the characters’ actions in the story do eventually make sense. The impact of the comic is also that of accumulation, creating a layered understanding of relationships between people. The author fixes this understanding on the shared secrets of women—mothers and daughters—and quietly applies the construct to a political purpose, casting the growth of Ehwa and the romantic-sexual fulfillment of her mother in unfailingly positive terms. Their grasp of the purpose of those flowers and seeds unites them as surely as do Kim’s ink strokes, which gradually make the daughter look more like her mother. May there be more manhwa as grandly individual as this one and more artists like Kim to compose poetry dug from the ground of the comics form.
Joe McCulloch blogs on comics at joglikescomics.blogspot.com. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Comics Journal and Comics Comics.