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

Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition

FIrefly: The Unification War

Despite the short run of the original series, Joss Whedon’s Firefly went on to be a cult classic and cultural phenomenon that has found continued life across media forms as numerous creators have added their voices to the ongoing story. (Whedon himself has faced a number of abuse allegations in recent years, so readers may like to know that he had no direct involvement with this volume aside from originally creating the characters.) Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition is set alongside the timeline of the original show, combining an original story with a look back at the conflict which forever altered the shape of the Firefly universe.

From BOOM! Studios, The Unification War sees Greg Pak penning a new adventure for Whedon’s iconic characters as they scrape out a living on the fringes of an inter-planetary society divided along lines of resources and ideology. A seemingly simple protection job quickly spirals out of control when Mal and Zoe—captain and first mate of the Firefly class transport ship Serenity—find themselves wanted for alleged war crimes during the Unification War. Stranded on a hostile planet, caught in a web of ever-shifting partnerships and betrayals, and pursued by a fierce agent of the harsh Alliance government, the past they thought they had left behind comes crashing into the present. What began as a simple attempt to earn money and repair their grounded ship soon releases ripples that tear open the wounds of the failed fight against Alliance control and threaten to unleash another round of bloodshed on veterans and civilians alike. Through the eyes of new and familiar characters, Pak weaves together memories with an examination of the moral uncertainty of large-scale conflict and the scars it leaves behind. As best intentions drive everything toward an explosive clash, Mal and Zoe will be forced to reckon with their pasts if they are to have any hope of protecting the future.

The Unification War promises to reveal the untold story of the war that shaped both Mal and Zoe into the characters we now know from the show.  While it does deliver on this promise in part, the flashbacks we actually get are narrow and serve mostly to inform the present-day conflict of the comic’s central story. With plenty of page time for our favorite crew of misfits and filled with the banter that helped set the original show apart, The Unification War is a delightful return to the world of Firefly. Pak, along with a side story written by Josh Lee Gordon, demonstrate a clear familiarity with and love for the series in between section breaks decorated with quotes from the original series. There is a lot to love in the fast-paced and fun story told here—a story of crime and survival that ultimately finds its way into questions of humanity, morality, and the cost of violence.

Unfortunately, the opening promise of The Unification War is ultimately its weakest point. It delivers a fresh look into only a few moments of the war, reckoning more with the effect of the conflict than the actual events. And while there are plenty of strengths to the writing, a few key moments and the ultimate climax of the story feel out of character and out of continuity to what has already been established. The end result is a story that doesn’t quite deliver what established fans will be looking for—while also requiring a little too much familiarity with the larger universe to be fully enjoyed by readers new to the franchise.

Illustrated primarily by Dan McDaid, The Unification War delivers a rough and somewhat line heavy art style that is not out of place in the semi-lawless landscapes of the Firefly universe. With clear storytelling across action sequences and quiet moments alike, the artists serve to bring Pak’s story to life across nearly 400 pages of space-western adventure. Even as the central story transitions to the bonus chapters of backstory for new friends and old enemies, McDaid and the others capture the humor, desperation, and dark twists that this series has to offer.

Even as it deals with some more mature themes, Firefly: The Unification War can comfortably be read by older teens as well as adults. Grounded as it is in the larger universe, this volume will have the greatest appeal to existing fans of the show—but could serve as an entry point for anyone who enjoys science fiction or action and adventure comics with strong characters and themes as well as rich dialogue.

On the whole, The Unification War is an engaging new entry in the Firefly saga. It ultimately falls short on its promise to deliver the untold history of two of the series’ central characters, while also suffering from some unfortunate continuity missteps and a somewhat awkward open-ending. Its strengths are numerous enough that it’s worth the time of any fan looking for another romp alongside the crew of Serenity, and its shortcomings are not so glaring as to ruin the things the comic does well. The end result is a flawed but enjoyable adventure of war, survival, and found family that embraces the complexity, big themes, and fun mishaps that have made the franchise beloved by so many.

Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition 
By Greg Pak, Josh Lee Gordon
Art by Dan McDaid
BOOM! Studios, 2020
ISBN: 9781684156023

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Korean-American
Character Representation: Neurodivergent,

Ronin Island Vol. 3

In this conclusion of the Ronin Island series, Hana and Kenichi have to protect the Island and figure out how to defeat the shogun. The pair and their ragtag group of refugees have made it back to the Island, but the elders deny them entry because they are afraid they are all infected. Somehow, the people on the Island already know about the spores, even though that particular mutation happened just recently. Hana and Kenichi set up on the beach across the straight from the Island and prepare to make their stand against the Shogun, his for-hire bandits, and the byonin. Reinforcements arrive in the form of the Island elder and many of the Island’s soldiers. After the battle that robs the Shogun of many of his forces, everyone, including Hanna and Kenichi, retreat to the island to make preparations for the Shogun’s eventual invasion. Hana and Kenichi must make some difficult choices and sacrifices in order to successfully stop the invasion.

While the original story and concept of the byonin was conceived well before 2020, there is something well timed about a deadly virus that turns airborne and can mutate people into monsters.  The Shogun is a man who has manipulated science into doing his own bidding, and he’s overall an ignorant man who refuses to listen to anyone wiser than himself.  The parallels to real world 2020 are striking, and some readers may need some distance from this year in order to appreciate the story without reality blurring the lines.

There is a strong theme throughout these three volumes of chasing a sense of belonging, and it is unresolved at the end of this story. Hana is still an outcast, and the Islanders still have a deep-seated hatred towards anyone who they claim doesn’t belong. This is in stark contrast to the motto of the Island where everyone is welcome and can find a home amongst their ranks. The growth of Kenichi is understated as most of the story focuses on Hana, but he’s nevertheless made into a leader in the village and must help rebuild everything.  Hana gives herself a task off the Island at the end of the story, and it could make for an interesting story, but this is the end of the Ronin Island adventures.

Ronin Island Vol 3
By Greg Pak
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis  and Irma Kniivila
ISBN: 9781684156238
Boom! Studios, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese, Korean
Creator Highlights: Korean-American

Ronin Island Vol 1 – 2

This story begins on a peaceful island off the coast of Japan, where two young people compete against each other to be stronger, faster, better. One is the Kenichi, the son of a great samurai, and the other is Hana, a Korean refugee and outcast. When a  strange Shogun lands on their shores and demands fealty in return for protecting the island from the oncoming horrors, the villagers try to refuse. It becomes clear that the horrors are forces that they are not prepared to face. A strange plague has created a zombie-like horde bent on destroying the living. Hana and Kenichi go with the Shogun and quickly realize the young man has very sinister ambitions for an army of byonin, the plague infected humans. At the end of Volume 1, Hana and Kenichi take different paths to combating the mutants, Hana alongside the Shogun, trying to be the voice of reason, and Kenichi, cast out of the Shogun’s forces and protection.

Volume 2 opens with the two on separate paths back to the Island. Hana is traveling with the young, arrogant Shogun, and she tries to reason with the samurai Sato. Sato reveals why he is so loyal to the Shogun, despite the foolishness of most of the Shogun’s plans. The Shogun travels with his army of mutant byonin and humans to the island, where he believes he will be able to live in a paradise-on-earth after he’s bent the villagers to his will. Meanwhile, in exile, Kenichi is captured by bandits and has to fight his way out of a pit full of infected byonin. Both are fighting to protect their island from the monsters, both human and plague-ridden. Interspersed in the narrative is a series of flashbacks that provide insight into the childhood and training of Hana and Kenichi, and we see how their rivalry developed by the way each was treated. Kenichi, being born to privilege, was given more luxuries, but forced to learn difficult lessons and undergo taxing training from a young age. Hana was taken in by their sword master and often used as a training partner for Kenichi, but the villagers distain for Hana as a Korean and orphan motivated her to absorb the training that was meant for Kenichi.

Volume 2 provides some much needed backstory to our lead characters, and we get some insight into the Shogun and Sato, but the ancillary characters still have very little depth to them.  In the first volume, villagers, and even the duos master, are given little depth or space in the narrative. In volume two, Hana inspires others to break off from the Shogun and fight with her to protect against the byonin, but they are little more than page filler. Hana and Kenichi are the singular focus and tend to steal the page any time they are there. After two volumes, we still don’t know much about the Shogun’s motivations other than he’s a spoiled, immature ruler who doesn’t understand how to keep people loyal to him. Rather, most of the narrative focuses on the admirable dedication Hana and Kenichi show to the island, both for very different reasons.  

The first volume was published just as COVID-19 was becoming worldwide news. Now, this second volume hit shelves in the height of the pandemic. The publishing business plans out storylines years in advance, but this is another one of those coincidences of storylines hitting just at the moment they are most topical. The hysteria, lack of solutions to the byonin, the evolving nature of the plague, and the character’s evolving understanding of it  is extremely similar to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. 

Milonogiannis’s illustrations are reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series with a little less finite detail in the facial features of characters. The action sequences are enjoyable and easy to follow, and her use of a different color palette to indicate flashbacks is helpful for keeping track of the narrative shifts.

Overall, this is an interesting story to draw parallels, but there needs to be a bit more depth and development of more than just the main characters for this series to be worthwhile.

Ronin Island Vol 1
By Greg Pak
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis
ISBN: 9781684154593
Boom, 2019
Publisher Age Rating:

Ronin Island Vol 2 
By Greg Pak
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis
ISBN: 9781684155576
Boom, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese, Korean
Creator Highlights: Korean-American

Almost American Girl

Robin Ha writes in the Acknowledgements page at the end of her graphic novel, Almost American Girl: “So you can only imagine how thrilled Mom was when I finally told her I had been working on this memoir for over a year and found a publisher for it. After realizing there was no turning back on this project, Mom insisted that I at least leave her out of my story completely. I told her that would be impossible. She was the driving force behind it. If she hadn’t wanted me to write this story, she shouldn’t have brought me to America in the first place. Mom was so upset with me that she avoided me for months.”

This acknowledgement is a bittersweet moment for this reader after spending time with Ha’s journey as a young teen, first in South Korea and then in the southern United States, powerless and bewildered and, at that time, totally dependent upon her single mother. Ha could not have articulated, in print and illustration, her story without her mother’s presence whom, at the beginning of Ha’s tale, was considered a superhero to her daughter. This memoir effectively and beautifully illuminates Ha’s early experiences as well as contemporary issues of immigration, the sense of belonging, parent and child relationships, the stress resulting from social hostility toward single parenthood, bullying, and, in balance, highlights the power and impact of art in determining self.

Ha’s artistic ability is the grounding for her as she presses forward counter to new step siblings that are obstructive at every junction, not understanding much of the language at school or the school culture, and being able to make friends. She also no longer has access to the volumes of manga and manhwa she and her friends devoured. This is a time of extreme tribulation and only subsides when circumstances allow her and her mother to move to a more accommodating part of the country where she finally connects with others who are much more compatible with her. Ha’s command of the written word is a testimony to this blossoming journey of self awareness and growth as an individual and artist. The comic drawing class she is encouraged to join becomes her escape from her seclusion and gloom.

Ha’s art illuminates the locations in both Korea and the United States, her realistic characters are actualized and individualized, and is permeated with a soft color palate with splashes of bright color when she is experiencing excitement or other strong emotions. Ha’s illustrations extend a glimpse into the frustrations and alienation caused by the paucity of comprehension of unfamiliar language and society. The varied employment of panels successfully carries the transitions the reader experiences from Ha’s ordinary life to that of her fictional world and back again. The chapters are all delineated by a solo snapshot page filled with dense colours that offer a glimpse to the episode to follow. This is an emotional ride for all those involved, characters and reader.

Highly recommended.

Almost American Girl
By Robin Ha
ISBN: 9780062685094
Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Korean American
Creator Highlights: Own Voices

Mech Cadet Yu, vols. 1-3

Mech Cadet Yu, from writer Greg Pak and illustrator Takeshi Miyazawa, is a love letter to mecha action series. Hotshot pilots control machines of war under orders from more mature commanding officers. Gundam, Voltron, Pacific Rim, and Macross fans, take note of this series, as it is aiming for your heart. This story of four plucky teens who manage to stave off an alien invasion is collected in three trade paperbacks: Volume 1 from June 2018, Volume 2 from October 2018, and Volume 3, which is scheduled for April 2019. This review is based on the contents of the single issues.

Stanford Yu is a teenage janitor working under his mom Dolly’s supervision at Sky Corps Academy in Los Robos, Arizona. While handy with machines, he is forbidden from endangering himself in the cockpit of a robo mech. “You can still make a difference here on the ground… and you’re gonna be safe,” Dolly tells him. Robo mechs are humanoid, robotic creatures, complete with sentience and free will, though they can be piloted by those they deem worthy. Robo Mechs are used by humanity to battle the Sharg, a spiky and violent alien race. A chance encounter with a rogue robo mech leads to an unlikely friendship for Stanford, as he is haphazardly recruited into the Mech Cadets with his new iron giant he dubs Buddy.

The three arcs of Mech Cadet Yu each have their own feel. First are the chapters where the mechs and personalities are new, dynamic, and impressive. Robo mechs are frequently shown towering over the humans who bother at their feet, beholding their cool rocket-powered takeoffs and landings. Stanford acts partly as an audience stand-in as he meets and befriends his fellow mech cadets Olivia Park (ruthless overachiever), Francis Olivetti (wimpy but loyal friend who often needs bailing out), and Maya Sanchez (who has few discernible traits of her own). Together, they hold their own in a surprise encounter with a giant Sharg and build trust as a team. Captain Skip Tanaka is the grizzled but spirited team leader willing to give the mech cadets a chance to prove themselves, while Sgt. Schatz and his robo mech Bronto are a tragic example of the lasting grief felt after losing a friend.

In the second arc, the team are seemingly grounded to janitor duty just as a Sharg invasion hits their base. The action does not pale for a moment, instead taking place in corridor chases and last-second saves on a human scale. The third and final arc sees the team taking the fight to the Sharg fleet in outer space, culminating in rival last-ditch efforts that each require their own sacrifices in order to work. Throughout all of the arcs are orders from a couple of generals, consisting of Olivia’s father General Park and his co-commanding officer, General Felix. They are stern figures of authority, but their orders and treatment of the mech cadets is always grounded in utilitarian, calculated thought processes. For example, there is a Suprarobo that could take on all of the Sharg with ease, but in order to power it, the other robo mechs must sacrifice their cores. A few would die to save many. The mech cadets hold fast to their conviction that there must be another solution, one that would honor their bonds to their mechanical friends they love. Don’t these generals realize they’re in an action/adventure comic book and that the power of friendship can solve anything?

All the robo mechs are visually unique, with their own color palettes, silhouettes, and font color when pilots speak through their radio systems. Miyazawa’s designs mesh well with the coloring of Triona Farrell, Jessica Kholinne, and Raul Angulo, as well as the lettering of Simon Bowland. Sound effects are often lettered in thick fonts that fill their panels, conveying the robot-on-robot and robot-on-alien action that takes place in each arc. Indoor, outdoor, and outer space settings each have their own visual feel, almost like progressing through levels of a game. The mech cadets start out playing war games with Captain Tanaka with foam bullets, leap into the robotic fray, defend themselves with broomsticks, then take to the final frontier with all the skills they’ve learned.

“I know how much this is to ask of you. I never had to take on a mission this hard at your age. But you’re better than I ever was. You’re ready for this,” Olivia’s father tells her, and the story is always perched for her to kick the most butt. At the series climax, her stern general father has no choice but to shout into a cloud of destruction and hope his daughter is the cause rather than a casualty. Stanford’s bond with Buddy defines his piloting style, going so far as hopping out to make on-the-spot repairs. Francis is trained but clumsy, if not a little cowardly, and finds value in the story just by surviving and getting some hits in along the way. In the case of Maya, she lacks any defining scenes, always acting as a duplicate version of someone else’s motivation. If Olivia is standing up for Stanford in a fight, she’s there, too. Her red robo mech seems to get more page time than she does, appearing in group shots but not determining the path of the story. When the cadets’ parents radio in to tell them to stand down, Maya’s parents have nothing specific to relay to her other than a generic, “You have to come back! I don’t want to hear any backtalk, young woman!” In writing this review, I had to remind myself that Maya was a core character of the series, which really belongs to Stanford and Olivia, with Francis as comic relief.

If that lack of characterization sounds like a setback, it’s only because the rest of the cast feel so lived-in by comparison. Mech Cadet Yu is a blue-collar sci-fi adventure where janitors have as much to teach as engineers and generals. The only dangling thread at the story’s conclusion is when an animated series will come out of this and entrance a new generation of children with giant, colorful, Earth-saving suits of armor – with a diverse crew of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic men and women. Also, for better or worse, they get the job done without falling in love with each other. Content-wise, there is an occasional “hell” and “damn,” and aliens are violently beaten, shot, and exploded into shrapnel and green ooze, but this is still recommended for young readers and up.

Mech Cadet Yu
by Greg Pak
Art by Takeshi Miyazawa
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781684151950
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781684152537
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781684153374
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12