Quiet and Loud: New English Editions From Korea and Japan

The Color of Heaven
By Kim Dong Hwa
First Second – softcover, $16.99
Black Jack vol. 5
By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical – softcover, $16.95

Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Heaven is about as quiet as comics come; the story consists largely of two women—a mother and daughter—waiting for the return of their respective love interests from far away. The 17-year-old daughter, Ehwa, is waiting for her fiancé Duksam, who has left to earn money as a fisherman in another village, while the mother awaits her own lover, a traveling artist (always referred to as “the picture man”) she met on one of his trips through their village. The pages between Duksam’s departure in the first chapter and return toward the end are filled with melancholy panels of Ehwa looking toward the sea, rhapsodizing about the beauty of things around her like trees and butterflies, visiting the market with her libidinous friend Bongsoon, and commiserating with her mother about their shared loneliness. Very little actually happens, but the light tone and delicate artwork keep everything engrossing.

Ehwa’s fiancé Duksam leaves in the book’s opening scene

The book reminds me, actually, of a painting that hangs in my living room, which I bought in China. It depicts a young girl resting her head on a table, surrounded by plants. I am told that the text to the right (which I cannot read) explains that she has just gotten out of school for the day and is waiting in her family’s greenhouse for her parents to come home as well. Something about depicting this moment of absolute stillness so simply, and the hint of ambiguity in the girl’s expression, compelled me enough to buy the painting, and to hang it everywhere I’ve lived since. I get a very similar feeling from the style of Hwa’s work here.

The Color of Heaven is the third chapter in a trilogy following Ehwa from girlhood to young womanhood. I haven’t read the other two chapters, The Color of Earth and The Color of Water, and in the absence of seeing Ehwa grow up, discover love, and commit to Duksam, the story becomes a sort of abstract exploration on the theme of waiting. While the story may be richer with the context the previous books provide (and on the strength of this one I’ll be tracking them down), the lack of that context universalizes the story, making the many lines of dialogue that offer some variation on “Women are made to . . .” or “The life of a women is full of . . .” go down a little easier. The result is a portrait of young womanhood in turn-of-the-last-century Korea that is beautiful in its poeticism, yet heartbreaking in the constraints it depicts.

Some of the finest moments in the book depict Ehwa and her mother looking to tradition to cope with their long waits, discussing the meanings of seasons, flowers, nail polish, the timing of snow. Throughout, notes explaining the significance of various plants, clothing, and other elements in Korean culture of the day help readers get many of the references that would otherwise go by without notice. Both characters are seemingly aware that these signs don’t really mean anything, but take pleasure in having them to turn to and secret disappointment when negative signs arrive, perhaps believing more than either will admit. It’s all they have to turn to, since the culture of the time offers them no greater agency. When Ehwa expresses a desire to travel herself to see Duksam in his fishing village, her mother tells her, “Even though this land is large and wide, for a woman, this land is very small . . . Even if we tried to fly or run, the only place we could go is within our yard.”

In the discussions of tradition, nature, a woman’s place, and the essence of waiting, the dialogue can verge on the aphoristic, with statements like, “If you’re all done sweeping, put the leaves in the stove and burn them. With each leaf you add to the stove, include a bit of your pain as well.” If lines like that sound corny on their own, they seem very fitting with the tone and themes of the book. When Ehwa admires a butterfly landing on a naked tree, saying, “This lifeless tree looks lovelier with this single butterfly sitting on it, than if it had a full body of leaves,” it seems like an observation that a young girl in the throes of love and longing could make, and is complemented by her mother’s statement, “Seeing you draw meaning from a simple tree and a butterfly shows me that you are really experiencing true love. When you’re really in love, just a small pebble can make you become teary-eyed.”

The stoic simplicity of the artwork perfectly matches the quiet melancholy of the story. Establishing panels feature intricately rendered settings, which then melt away, the emptiness of the following panels speaking to the longing felt by the main characters. It’s a style that emphasizes composition over linework, and some of the most affecting pages consist largely of negative space. Figures are drawn with thin outlines, and just enough detail to suggest an expression, usually surprisingly subtle considering how simple they are. Ehwa and her mother are wonderful together, their hair tied tightly back, usually with a single wavy hair breaking free. They look very much alike, but with subtle differences in facial shape and expressions to differentiate them and show their relative ages. The two are distinct, but it’s easy to imagine Ehwa growing up to look very much like her mother.

One of The Color of Heaven‘s many beautiful quiet scenes.

The only place that the symbolic tone, and to a lesser extent, the artwork fail is in Ehwa and Duksam’s consummation of their marriage, which piles several clichés—candlesticks, clouds, jumping into a pond, bells, mortar and pestle, etc.—on top of one another, all in one sex scene. The mix of realistic and simpler art in some parts draws additional attention to some of the silliness of this representation of sex. However, the contrast with a humorous attempt at rekindling by another couple, a surprising yet sweet reality check by Duksam afterward, and the quiet final words of the mother and the picture man go a long way toward pulling the scene back from the abyss. It’s a forgivable slip in an otherwise very affecting character piece.

On the other extreme, what could be less quiet than Osamu Tezuka’s two-fisted surgeon, Dr. Black Jack? I often liken Tezuka to Jack Kirby, in that both were frighteningly talented, absurdly prolific, and—if one judged solely by their published work—apparently completely insane. To my mind, Black Jack is just about the perfect encapsulation of what Tezuka is about. Even his most grandiose, serious works available in English—things like Buddha and Phoenix—mix deep themes of spirituality and humanism with ghost stories, sci-fi adventure, sometimes-childish humor, and just plain weird stuff.

Black Jack defends the physician who saved his life against the insults of a stuck-up hospital director (reads right to left).

It’s hard not to view Black Jack as something personal to Tezuka, who studied medicine and earned an M.D. while beginning his career in comics (he never practiced medicine), and revealed himself throughout his work to be deeply class-conscious. A running theme in Black Jack is the disdain that the doctors Tezuka depicts often have for laymen, patients, and even other doctors who went to the wrong school. This element shows up a little more in vol. 5 than previously, especially in the story “Hospital,” which opens with a doctor’s procession shouting, “Stand back! On your knees! Director Wanigawa is making his rounds!” Doctors displaying this kind of elitism often serve as foils for Dr. Black Jack’s disrespect for authority.

Black Jack is such a badass
that his scalpels are made
by a swordsmith.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Black Jack is a brilliant but unlicensed surgeon. He works outside the law and charges exorbitant fees for the risk he takes in treating a patient. However, he has a strong sense of justice, and it’s amusing how often he actually doesn’t charge for one reason or another.

The whole concept is absurd, but completely delightful. The series is much like House, M.D. (in fact, it was noticing the similarities in the two that got me interested in House, a show to which I have since become addicted) in the way that the medical problems Black Jack’s patient’s present force them to confront some contradiction or hypocrisy in their lives, or touch on some larger issue, often metaphysical and/or controversial. Many of the side elements—like Black Jack’s assistant, a twin born inside her sister and transplanted into a doll-like artificial body by Black Jack (she’s named Pinoko, get it?), causing her to look like a toddler, though she’s 18; or Black Jack’s rival Kiriko, a practitioner of euthanasia whose zeal for his work verges on the mentality of a serial killer—are totally ridiculous, and take Black Jack far outside the bounds of the normal medical drama.

And yet, that’s the fascinating thing about Black Jack: Tezuka had an M.D., and clearly knew what he was talking about, as several long speeches and detailed surgical drawings that wouldn’t look out of place in medical textbooks will attest, but he was never afraid to simply throw out all of his medical knowledge when the story demanded it. Individual episodes in vol. 5 slip in and out of fiction very comfortably, as in the story “Country Clinic,” where Black Jack comes into conflict with a small-town doctor over his diagnosis of a patient. The story includes a page in which Tezuka’s usual style of humor referencing the medium comes into play, the country doctor bouncing off the panel borders, swinging his arms, and head-butting Black Jack in the first and third panels, while a text definition of Graves’ Disease fills the second panel, along with an arrow pointing out the thyroid on the human body. It’s what happens when the author is both an expert in the subject and a master storyteller, and lets the two coexist.

The art is often just as simple as in The Color of Heaven, in some ways moreso, but the storytelling is completely different. Where Hwa employs sober, squared-off panels, Tezuka, prefers off-kilter diagonals, adding even more kineticism to his already crazy panels, with their pulsing figures, rocketing cars, and huge sound effects. It’s completely cartoony, sometimes with the realistic backgrounds of other Tezuka comics, but usually reserving realism solely for the surgical scenes, where their contrast with the rest of the stories lends them an unsettling quality, even as the procedures themselves are usually utterly silly.

Critiquing an individual volume of Black Jack is a little harder than talking about the series as a whole, since they’re not terribly different from each other, with some stories better than others. Some highlights of vol. 5 include “Pinoko’s Mystery,” in which someone claims that Pinoko’s familiar origin is untrue; “The Last Train,” which includes some of Tezuka’s wildest page layouts; “99% Water,” in which Kiroko shows the consistency of his beliefs by trying to euthanize himself when he is sick; the aforementioned “Country Clinic;” and “Wolf Girl,” in which Black Jack’s apolitical stance comes up against border politics.

The concept of Black Jack is simple enough that any volume works as an introduction, but the first three contain the key episodes explaining the backstories of Black Jack, Pinoko, and others, so they’re probably the best place to start. There were also Diamond Exclusive hardcovers of the first three (each with a story not present in the softcover editions), and I liked those enough that I wish the rest of the series were in hardcover, too. However, I do like the design of the subsequent softcovers, divided into quarters of different colors and opened up, as if in surgery, to reveal some Tezuka medical drawings. It’s a great metaphor for the series: simple construction with some unexpected realism inside. This is a classic, and it’s wonderful to see Vertical give it the presentation it deserves.


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One Response to “Quiet and Loud: New English Editions From Korea and Japan”

  1. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 9, 2009: Something had to give Says:

    […] [Review] Various titles Link: Brendan Wright […]

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