Made in Korea

Made in KoreaWhat 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

Banned Book Club

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

Uncomfortably Happily

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, vol. 1-6

17-CoverLaon 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