The Naked Tree is an autobiographical novel by Park Wan-suh that was published in 1985. It was adapted to a graphic novel by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong, in 2023. Booklist has spotlighted the graphic novel in its best of 2023 line-up and it has popped up in other places as a noteworthy title from the past year.
In The Naked Tree, protagonist Lee Kyeonga recounts her memories from the time of the Korean War, when she lost her two brothers, worked in a postal exchange, and became infatuated with a married artist named Ok Huido. Ok Huido is based on the real artist Park Su-geun, who Gendry-Kim writes about in the afterword. The heavy subject matter does not make for a pleasant reading experience, because The Naked Tree transports the reader to a time and place of danger, fear, and uncertainty. Kyeonga’s mercurial attitude and mean-spiritedness, especially towards her elderly, grieving mother, made me completely dislike her until the end of the book. Kyeonga’s memory of her mother’s cutting words towards her after her brothers’ deaths somewhat justified her bitterness. Upon reflection, I understood that during wartime and periods of personal loss, people are simply not at their best and Kyeonga exemplifies that.
The artistic style is unique but sometimes awkward. The faces of the characters are frequently rough caricatures, but occasionally they are drawn with more care, such as Kyeonga’s mother on p. 133. I wished that the whole work was as lovely as that larger, full-body illustration. Other times, the perspective is peculiar, such as when Kyeonga is seen from above gazing up at the falling snow. Gendry-Kim’s talent really shines in depictions of the scenery. Beautiful images of a busy street, a cathedral, the postal exchange (PX) where Kyeonga works, and the trees and houses of Kyeonga’s neighborhood bring the setting to life. Her color reproductions of Park Se-geun’s paintings are marvelous.
While The Naked Tree sparked my curiosity about the painter Park Se-geun, the odd artistic style, unlikeable main character, and melancholy tone did not appeal to me. Nonetheless, the book has its merits. Readers who are interested in civilian memoirs during wartime, and the Korean War specifically, should pick up The Naked Tree.
The Naked Tree By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim Drawn & Quarterly, 2023 ISBN: 9781770466678
Related media: Book to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Korean Character Representation: Korean
In volume one, we are introduced to Miso Kim, secretary of nine years to Youngjun Lee, who decides that she is finally able to leave the working world and focus on herself and her future. This comes as quite the surprise to narcissistic Youngjun, who can’t understand why his secretary would want to leave when they work so well together. He spends a large amount of time trying to persuade her to stay and continue working with him. From promising a promotion, her own secretary, a car, and even his hand in marriage. None of it works, so he tries more elaborate schemes to find out how to woo her. Unfortunately, Miso Kim has a secret. One that she can finally track down once she no longer has to answer to a boss who doesn’t know the meaning of time off.
In volume two, after manipulating Miso Kim onto a surprise “date”, the awkwardness is truly apparent. At least to Kim. Youngjun doesn’t seem to notice and continues to exude confidence and nonchalance throughout. Later, we learn that Youngjun pulled out all the stops to make sure Kim compared all future dates or potential dates with the one he provided as a going away present. We also learn more about Youngjun’s older brother and the mystery of what happened to Kim in her youth that she’s trying to track down. The mystery involves Youngjun and his brother in some way, which makes the relationship between them even more intriguing.
This author ably balances the plot and relationship building. We get little hints at a deeper mystery sprinkled throughout while focusing on the complicated relationship between Kim and Youngjun. It’s not love at first sight either. There are layers upon layers that get revealed slowly. By volume two, I can already see that what is happening on the surface level only looks like a simple romance. I love that there is no info dump that gives us the whole backstory yet. Although I would like to know more than what we’ve been given.
I appreciate that this series has color illustrations that incorporate a variety of textures. I find that makes it much easier to separate characters in a realistic setting (as opposed to a fantasy setting that has access to fantastical elements to make characters distinct). And I just really like color illustrations.
This series feels like new adult romance, with the hints of mystery pointing towards a darkness that isn’t present in the first two volumes. I’m not sure just how dark the story will get, so it would probably be best in a teen or adult collection. Either option is sure to find readers who fall in love with it.
What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? Vol. 1-2 By Gyeong Yun Jeong Art by MyeongMi Kim Yen Press, 2023 Vol 1 ISBN: 9781975366803 Vol 2 ISBN: 9781975366827
Publisher Age Rating: Grade 8+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Naerim Shin has been the victim of bullying since middle school. Between her introverted nature, her ‘gloomy’ appearance, and her mother’s work as a shaman, she’s been an easy target, and none of the adults in her life seem to notice or care. She dreads each day going to school, only to return to an empty home, as her mother’s work often is her sole focus.
An upcoming class means 48 hours with no escape from her classmates’ torment, and Naerim can’t help but wish for a knight in shining armor to come to her rescue. But when a group of girls force Naerim to break open a sealed wardrobe in an abandoned church, she ends up accidentally forming a contract with an ancient vampire instead.
The vampire, Fetechou Vlad, is bound to be Naerim’s servant in exchange for her “witch’s blood” in the hopes it will eventually make him human again.
Bloody Sweet is a manhwa (translated from Korean) originally serialized as a webcomic, with the first few installments available for free, and the rest locked behind a paywall. Yen Press’s edition is the first physical release of the english translation, with volume one currently available, and volume two set to release in 2024.
I set out really hoping to enjoy this title, and it definitely had a few things going for it. The art, published in full color, is lovely, and Naerim is a protagonist that is easy to relate to and root for- her struggles with depression, isolation and bullying are unfortunately all too common. Unfortunately, the story’s tone was incredibly inconsistent. Fetechou, the vampire, and really all of the paranormal elements, feel like they’ve been tacked on in a way that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the story. The narrative swings wildly between intense scenes of bullying and suicidal ideation, and awkward, manic jokes about the vampire eating scabs, quoting snack commercials and acting like a puppy.
The story is strongest when it deals with real world elements, focusing on Naerim and the people in her life. She reconnects with a childhood church friend called Hyoyeol, who had been crushing on Naerim for years, and truly admires her as a person for her kindness. Hyoyeol is bubbly and bright. Because he is a year younger than Naerim, they don’t attend the same school, but he has huge potential to be a positive force in Naerim’s life, reaching out to include her and introducing her to others willing to accept her.
At the same time, one of the adults Naerim met at the church has also been hired at her school as a counselor, meant to help address bullying in the school. But whenever the story seems to really be hitting its stride, Fetechou returns with more false, overly cutesy energy and jarring sexual innuendo.
There are intense discussions of bullying, depression, and implications of an attempted suicide. (A bloody boxcutter is shown, as well as self-harm scars on the protagonist’s wrist). However, it is the prevalence of BDSM imagery and awkward sexual remarks (including those related to Naerim’s menstrual blood) that lead me to disagree with the publisher’s age recommendation of 13+. I would bump that up to a 16+ or even perhaps shelve this title with the adult collection. Libraries with a tight graphics budget could probably stand to skip this title entirely.
Bloody Sweet,Vol. 1 By NaRae Lee Yen Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781975366728
Publisher Age Rating: 13+ Series ISBNs and Orde
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Korean, Character Representation: Korean, Depression
A Business Proposal is a comedic story about a sneaky plan, born from desperation, and carried out by two good friends.
The plan is proposed by Yeongsuh Jin, who cannot bear to go on another blind date set up by her father. She offers to pay her friend, Hari Shin, to impersonate her on the next blind date and act in such a way that the date will not want to marry her. Hari accepts the job proposal, because she desperately needs the money to save her family’s business. She has no idea that the blind date, Taemu, is the new CEO at her workplace.
Thus begins a series of scenes in which Hari, pretending to be Yeongsuh, behaves in what she believes is a terrible way, in order to push Taemu away, and the unbothered Taemu insisting on marriage. Meanwhile, the real Yeongsuh meets Taemu’s secretary, Sunghoon Cha, and through a misunderstanding believes him to be Taemu. Eager to see Sunghoon again, Yeongsuh calls Taemu and arranges a date. The date reveals that she had the wrong Taemu, and that Taemu had the wrong Yeongsuh. Hijinks ensue.
The writing includes many fun moments in which the reader becomes worried or frustrated for the main character. The storyline is engaging and hilariously tense. Hari’s character is fleshed out a comfortable amount for the first volume. However, a more in-depth description is needed for the other characters, especially Taemu. He is an expressionless workaholic without any backstory for explanation. Taemu’s expresses only that he wants to quickly marry in order to get back to work. Some character history providing a bit of context would have been helpful in creating a connection to the reader. Perhaps, the backstory and connection will come in the following volumes.
With the visuals, Narak creates a lovely, balanced atmosphere. Each page is beautifully detailed in soft, cozy colors and gentle lines. Both the colors and line art give the reader warm, pleasant feelings, even while emanating the feelings of stress felt by the characters.
Adults (18+) will find this book appealing, because the main characters are working adults trying to figure out and manage work life and love life. Many adults will find that content relatable.
A Business Proposal, Vol. 1 By Haehwa , Perilla Art by Narak Yen Press, 2023 ISBN: 9798400900334
Publisher Age Rating: OT NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Yuna feels too Korean in America and too American in Korea. So, she folds 1,000 paper stars and wishes for a world where she fits. The problem is something terrible happens after she makes the wish, and another thousand stars might not be enough to fix it.
Yuna is a Korean American girl who feels out of place at her middle school, including with her own friends. Even the other Korean American kids, like her friend Esther, are more American and accepted at school than Yuna. Esther is a “cool Asian” who speaks to her parents in English and eats school lunches rather than a Korean boxed lunch. Yuna is embarrassed by her mom’s boxed lunches and wants to buy lunch at school like everyone else.
If Yuna can’t fit in as an American, maybe she could be someone else who belongs in Korea. So, she wishes for this change after folding 1,000 paper stars and collecting them in a big jar to make a wish. Yuna and her family return to Korea, but things don’t unfold as she had hoped. They go to Korea because her halmoni (grandmother) passes away, and Yuna thinks she made it happen because of her wishing stars. She blames herself and is full of guilt. Now, Yuna needs to fold another 1,000 paper stars by midnight to wish Halmoni back to life before her soul is gone forever. She lashes out at her parents and younger sister, especially when her sister gets some of the star paper wet. With less than four hours left until midnight, Yuna is desperate to finish enough stars to wish Halmoni back.
A Sky of Papers Stars is clear and organized in its art style. There is a regular font for the parts in Korean, a bolded font for English lines, and italics for the characters’ thoughts. The present-day artwork is bright and colorful with outlined panels. Several scenes set in the past are lighter and resemble pastels or sepia tones. Some have lined panels, and some fade out or blur around the edges. These distinctions make it clear between the past and present. The colors help you feel Yuna’s mood and what she’s thinking about. For instance, there’s a burst of red and orange in the background when Yuna yells at her mom about the homemade lunches, or there are cool, pale shades of blue when Halmoni is on her mind. Jen Wang’s Stargazing is an example of a middle grade graphic novel with a similar writing and art style.
A Sky of Papers Stars includes two central themes: wanting to belong or feeling out of place and grief after the death of a family member. The story and writing style are clear and straightforward, even with the flashbacks to Yuna’s distant memories of Halmoni or Mom reminiscing about her own school lunches. These themes may not be new, but they’re still a much-needed aspect of coming-of-age narratives, especially for marginalized youth who feel separation or alienation from other kids.
If you’re interested in expanding your library’s collection of middle grade graphic novels, this one is definitely worth considering. The Korean and Korean American characters are well-represented, and the book explores significant coming-of-age topics like identity, loss, and grief. If you believe a reader would benefit from When You Trap A Tiger by Tae Keller, they would probably benefit from A Sky of Paper Stars too.
A Sky of Paper Stars Vol. By Susie Yi Macmillan Roaring Brook, 2023 ISBN: 9781250843890
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Character Representation: Korean-American,
What does it mean to live? How do we define our identity? Where do we call home? Many of these questions permeate the lived experiences of an artificial intelligence (A.I.) being in Made in Korea, a science fiction thriller replete with philosophical questions, written by Jeremy Holt and illustrated by George Schall.
The story begins when a married couple, Bill and Suelynn Evans, order a nine-year-old female “proxy” they name Jesse, to adopt as their very own daughter. No sooner does she arrive than she starts to observe the world around her, dowloading and digesting all sorts of data—absorbing every book in the house, playing with stuffed animals, and interacting with classmates in school. But pretty soon, her creator, a programmer of artificial intelligence systems from Korea, comes tracking her down. As events escalate so do the stakes when a group of social misfits coax her into partaking in a series of daring, violent, anti-establishment stunts. What intention does this stranger have in store for Jesse? What secrets lie within this adopted proxy? What makes her so uniquely special?
This science fiction thriller explores the unique curiosities and wonders of life through the lens of an adolescent A.I. as she navigates the rocky terrain of adolescence. She attempts to understand who she is and how she fits into society and the rest of the world. Carefully arranged panels capture Jesse’s role as the quintessential stranger in a strange land. Most striking are the emotional nuances of her mannerisms and facial expressions as she learns to navigate multiple dimensions of intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender, and identity.
While the conclusion addresses some questions, others remain ambiguous and somewhat rushed. Six standalone short slice-of-life stories by various creators fill the back matter of a world populated by proxies and humans, touching upon themes of family ties. Overall, Made in Korea presents a rapidly unfolding plot between the worlds of the ordinary and the extraordinary while injecting philosophical musings and social issues that include exploring the theme of nature vs. nurture, meddling with the natural order of life, and negotiating the complicated notions of home, self-identity, and self-perception. A drama thriller with substantive ideas revolving around life and humanity makes this graphic novel a thought-provoking addition to science fiction collections.
Made in Korea By Jeremy Holt Art by George Schall Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534320116
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary
The Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, is based on the personal experiences of the author, who grew up during a time where South Korea was under a totalitarian government. It begins with Hyun and her mother arguing over her choice to go to school. Her mother wants her to give up school and continue to work in the family restaurant. Hyun ducks out to end the argument and attend her first day of school. Once off the bus, she is surrounded by protestors and police. Tear gas is exploding all around her, people pushing their way through the cloudy air to escape arrest. Hyun makes it to class and the teacher informs her that they need to stay away from Communist activities and not participate in protests.
Hyun wants to remain above the fray and avoid politics. She decides to join the folk dance team. They perform a dance for the school, which ends up turning political. She meets a young man on the team named Hoon who begins introducing her to new ideas. He runs the school newspaper and hides political messages in the articles. Hoon develops a crush on Hyun and the feeling turns mutual. He begins drawing her further into danger. She must decide how far she is willing to go.
The simplicity of the black and white artwork draws you into the horror of the situation. When Hyun first gets on campus, she experiences a moment of contentment. She is on a bus, headed to school, with a smile on her face. The minute she steps out, she is greeted with chants for the President to step down. The scene pulls back to reveal riot police with shields moving towards the protestors. Scenes shift to different angles, adding to the tension and chaos of the scene. There are two scenes of torture in the book. One is brief with the person having scrapes and bruises on their face. The other, while only a few pages seem as if it goes on forever. Part of it is left to the imagination as we see the objects he has been beaten with. The other act is quite cruel with the person’s face being smashed into the ground.
In the beginning, I found the title hard to get into as I had no familiarity or understanding of Korean history. The title Banned Book Club made me believe the story would be about how books changed the lives of students living in a brutal dictatorship. It was this aspect that I kept hoping would appear. After 94 pages the story began to take shape and I could see clearly where the author was going with the narrative. The theme became about how a young girl learns how to stand up and find her voice living with a government who wants to shut down any opposition or free thought. I highly recommend this book and suggest that readers learn about the Gwangju uprising to deepen their understanding. This graphic novel is most appropriate for older teens, but probably will be more appreciated by adults who are interested in historical events.
Banned Book Club By Hyun Sook Kim Art by Hyung-Ju Ko ISBN: 9781945820427 Iron Circus Comics, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: OT
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: South Korean Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator
Yeon-Sik Hong is tired of living in the city and dealing with the noise, pollution, and the demands from his editors. So he and his wife, Sohmi Lee, find a small house atop a rural mountain and move to the country for the quiet life. And so begins their memoir of a time and a place unlike anything they’ve ever known before. With their dogs, cats… and chickens… and tourists. And…. well it turns out that living in the country isn’t as quiet or peaceful as they thought it would be. They face problems with money, other people, failing health, but more importantly Yeon-Sik is forced to face some of his own personal demons.
Reading Uncomfortably Happily is like starting out on a trip with someone you love. There’s a lot of work up front to get packed and get ready, but once you’re past that, it’s smooth sailing. Well, until you make a wrong turn. Or the place you’re going to is closed. Or the weather turns bad. Or… well all of those little things rear their head and make a journey less comfortable than what we imagine it’ll be. And that’s what this book is like.
You start with the cover image, where the couple looking happy and everything is great. But that’s deceptive, as Yeon-Sik shows every detail of what he and his wife go through with leaving the city and their journey of living in the country. Yeon-Sik doesn’t show us just the big “traumatic” moments, like where the dog kills off the chickens a couple at a time or the problems he has with his health, which are rather significant. He shows us the little bumps in the road as well. And that’s what makes this story: the little moments along the way. The paying of the bills, making trips into the city, almost freezing to death,and everything in between. It’s these moments that help the reader understand where the author is coming from, because who among us hasn’t felt those small bumps in the road that feel like a mountain when they happen? More important, though, Yeon-Sik is forced to face some of his own problems and realize that maybe he caused some of them himself. Yeon-Sik realizes that a lot of his health problems were brought about because he couldn’t give up control—control of being the breadwinner, control over time frames, control over life. As a result his health begins to fail and he is constantly sick and under the weather, even to the point where he can’t work. It’s only when his wife, an artist in her own right, begins to earn money, begins to take charge, that he realizes he has to give some, too. It makes a compelling story, bumps and all.
Yeon-Sik’s artwork seems to be heavily influenced by Japanese creator Osamu Tezuka’s legacy, but at the same time Yeon-Sik is forging his own style. The people are highly stylized, with simple shapes and features, and this even extends to some of the animals, such as the dog that, in some scenes, is dancing on two feet. A great deal of attention is often paid to their expressions, particularly the eminata –the droplets of sweat, radiating lines for stress, etc. Yeon-Sik though never goes full on chibi or manga style, it’s his own blend of what he finds works, which at times does create some issues. He’s not always consistent with the way the animals are portrayed and while it’s done to indicate different transitions—the dog being attacked, the chickens being dead—it might leave some readers wondering if it’s still the same character as before. The full body view of the two main characters, Yeon-Sik and Sohmi, are also not always consistently drawn, sometimes lapsing into a gingerbread shape. It doesn’t affect the reading of the story, it’s just a very odd juxtaposition sometimes. Yeon-Sik also follows the example of Tezuka for the backgrounds, as they are often more detailed than the characters which can be enjoyable to look at during the course of the book.
Overall, this is an enjoyable read to see how someone else lives and to better understand what it’s like in another country. But more importantly, it helps the reader see how alike things are despite our differences. Recommended for fans of Buddha by Tezuka and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong ISBN: 9781770462601 Drawn and Quarterly, 2017
Laon is a gumiho – a mischievous nine-tailed fox spirit of extremely ambiguous gender. (If, like me, you’re more familiar with Japanese than Korean mythology, think kitsune.) After Laon loses a bet to powerful Queen Mago, the gumiho is stripped of … her? his? … tails and ears, and cast down to Earth. Specifically, to Seoul, South Korea. Laon is desperate to regain – you know what? I’m just going to say “her,” since that’s what they use most in the books – her tails, but darker forces are also looking for them – and for Laon.
What’s a gumiho to do? Well, Laon finds unlikely assistance from the staff of Rumor and Truth Monthly, a tabloid magazine. Jaded reporter Tae-ha is still bitter over the disappearance of his girlfriend, Young-yoo, four years earlier – and his own inability to remember what happened the night she vanished. He’s eager to make a deal with Laon: Tae-ha will help her recover her tails, and she will then use her power to help him find the missing Young-yoo. Meanwhile, the rest of the tabloid’s staff – including Young-yoo’s brother – have their own motives in dealing with Laon.
Of course, finding the tails won’t be easy. The city is swarming with demonic creatures that Laon calls “hwan,” capable of possessing or killing humans. Queen Mago isn’t above sending an assassin after Laon. Strange forces are drawing together under the auspices of a new religious cult. And if that doesn’t make things tough enough, the tails have taken on human hosts and made plans of their own.
This series is the first manhwa I’d read, and the Korean cultural references were fascinating. The books contain everything from political jokes to popular hangover remedies, all helpfully explained in the endnotes.
Of course, these volumes contain a lot more than that: gore, nudity (pretty much female only, but lots of it), incest, sexual violence, prostitution, suggestions of pedophilia, and general squickiness. (If a little girl is molested by a demon that’s taken on the form of the girl’s mother after brutally murdering said mother, what category does that go into?) Oh, and panty shots. You will not believe the number of panty shots.
Laon herself (himself? itself?) is an interesting character. She is quick-tempered and petulant, with the appearance of a schoolchild, but is actually a being nearly one thousand years old and in possession of formidable powers, even sans tails. Her strangeness is well-presented: Laon doesn’t have human values, isn’t familiar with human culture, and has a distinctly un-schoolchild-like tendency to devour her enemies. She makes for a convincingly otherworldly character, as do the agents of Queen Mago who are sent to find her. The gumiho’s oddness also makes for a humorous juxtaposition with the all-too-human issues that plague the staff of Rumor and Truth Monthly: unrequited love, an awkward office romance, and the magazine’s precarious profit margin.
The art is lavish and detailed, from the characters to the cityscapes to the food. The action sequences are easy to follow, which is saying something given how weird some of them are (e.g. Laon jumping in and out of the pictures on billboards). The creepy and gross bits are creepier and grosser thanks to the skillful artwork.
The plot can be disjointed at times. This complete six-volume series never makes clear the reasons for Queen Mago’s actions, and there are some other loose ends as well. Still, the story is coherent enough to easily follow what’s happening from one moment to the next. There are some intriguing mystery elements, too, as Laon searches for her tails and various other characters try to help her or trip her up.
The biggest appeal factors I see for Laon are the Korean cultural references (not a dominant part of the series, but quite present) and the action, served with a side of humor and sex. Not for the faint of heart or stomach, but could be a fun series for those who are neither.
Laon, vol. 1-6 by YoungBin Kim Art by Hyun You Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780759530539 Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780759530522 Vol. 3 ISBN: 9780759530546 Vol. 4 ISBN: 9780759530553 Vol. 5 ISBN: 9780316131957 Vol. 6 ISBN: 9780316132114 Yen Press, 2010-2011 Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen