Himawari House

Born in Japan and raised in the United States, high school graduate Nao has moved to Tokyo for a year to reconnect with her Japanese heritage. At Himawari House, a shared house for students, she befriends two fellow Japanese-language students: Hyejung from Korea and Tina from Singapore. Himawari House follows a year in the lives of the three young women, delivering a spirited, heartfelt slice-of-life story about friendships and identities that bridge cultures.

Stories about study abroad experiences often have a travelogue quality, but Himawari House emphasizes everyday life and relationships, never exoticizing its Japanese setting. This graphic novel centers on Nao, Hyejung, and Tina’s friendship, their bond a source of strength and humor as they navigate school, work, family, and romance. The three women have each come to Japan for different reasons—introspective Nao wants to rekindle her Japanese identity after a childhood of blending in with her white American peers, sensitive Hyejung desires independence after losing her sense of self to family obligations and a manipulative boyfriend, and fun-loving Tina craves direction and validation while working a demeaning waitressing job.

Himawari House celebrates connections forged across personal and cultural differences, whether that’s navigating a multicultural identity, communicating honestly with family members who hold different values, or pursuing romance across a language gap. The graphic novel interweaves profound questions of love, purpose, and identity with the mundane episodes of a year living away from home for the first time. We follow the characters as they work low-pay jobs, learn to cook, nurse crushes on celebrities, and find catharsis through a night of karaoke with friends. The threads of their stories capture the emotional intensity and sheer adventure of a being a newly independent young adult.

Creator Harmony Becker makes smart storytelling choices to reflect the diversity of the Asian and Asian diaspora cultures she portrays. Expressive monochromatic artwork blends Japanese manga conventions with a North American aesthetic, mirroring Nao’s bicultural heritage. The text itself is multilingual; speech bubbles with dual translation and missing or blurred-out words, paired with Japanese sound effects, represent the jarring experience of being immersed in an unfamiliar linguistic environment. Becker also uses phonetically-written language to represent the different dialects of English spoken in Himawari House, peppering conversations with Japanese, Korean, and Singlish vocabulary and sentence structures. In an afterword, the author explains that she chose to write dialogue phonetically as a celebration of Asian and Asian diaspora language, pushing back against the white tradition of reproducing Asian accents for pejorative comic effect. The effect is a story that feels authentically multilingual.

Just as Himawari House explores gaps and connections between cultures, the graphic novel itself bridges a divide between American comics about Japan, which have often centered a white audience, and Japanese manga aimed at a domestic Japanese audience. The result is a funny, sensitive, culturally rich coming of age story that will appeal both to young adult and adult readers.

Himawari House
By Harmony Becker
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250235565
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: East Asian
Character Representation: Japanese-American, Korean, Singaporean

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

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

Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption

A palimpsest is a document in which writing has been removed or replaced by new writing. This definition is at the forefront of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s debut graphic memoir Palimpsest, and not only in title. Sjöblom explores her own adoption from Korea to Sweden, uncovering documents filled with half-truths and lies coming from individuals and agencies that seek to obfuscate her journey to discover her biological origins. At times maddening and endearing, Sjöblom’s story is a Sisyphean undertaking that navigates bureaucracy and exposes the shady roots of international adoption.

Adopted in 1979 to Swedish parents, Sjöblom recounts growing up in a society where she doesn’t quite fit in and where the narrative of international adoption confronts her at every turn, a narrative which espouses the virtues of Westerners “saving” vulnerable children. Without an origin beyond her adoption date, she takes pride in anything that has to do with Korea, like a shirt made in the country and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. That pride is squashed by the xenophobia, racial slurs, and just plain meanness she encounters in adolescence, but it prompts her to seek out her origin. Unfortunately, after inquiring with the Korean adoption agency that sent her to Sweden, she is only met with minimal information and dead ends, at many points being told to drop her inquiries and “let the past be past.”

Obviously this is incredibly unfair, and thus began a years long investigation involving Internet message boards, multiple adoption agencies, orphanages, city archives, the police, and visiting Korea. Sjöblom recounts how the officials involved with her adoption are of no use in providing actual information and much of the legwork to seek out details falls to her and her husband. Through verbatim email exchanges and demanding lines of questioning Sjöblom excels creating an incredible sense of empathy. Her search for her biological parents and how her adoption came to be is frustrating, but the trail is rife with hints and just enough breadcrumbs to make this story an intriguing mystery to be unraveled. Sjöblom ultimately receives some closure, but it is filled with doubt and perhaps some misgivings. Upon finding her birth mother, Sjöblom writes “I just feel a big emptiness,” and throughout the book readers will encounter and connect with these same feelings of dissatisfaction: not in the book itself, but in the drama that is life, and through reading, Sjöblom’s life by proxy.

Visually, the book is nothing short of stunning, but in a plain and understated way. Using spare earthtones and a simple drawing style, Sjöblom’s art is muted in comparison to what’s at stake in the text. Tense emotional moments are not portrayed with anguished faces or images of dread. Instead, Sjöblom invokes feeling in quiet ways, like the reddish blush of a cheek with a single cartoonish teardrop. Her work is precise and delivers.

Palimpsest is an important book and given its perceived narrow interest, is one that libraries must consider adding to their collections, particularly for adults. This is a book primed to punch well above its weight. It is not a comic just for adoptees with similar stories. The book takes a broad stroke exposing the underbelly of semi-illegal international adoptions and the poor-by-design recordkeeping that leaves adoptees second guessing their true origins. Even more paramount is how it dismantles adoption myths of Western parents “saving” children from impoverished countries. While in some instances that story can be true, Sjöblom writes how with any adoption a family bond is broken, regardless of the new family connection that comes to be. When viewed through the lens of the current situation on the US-Mexico border, it puts the practice of child separation into an even more harrowing light. Timely and in fitting mode for telling this type of personal story, Palimpsest should be read by any person who considers themselves to be a kind and caring human.

Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption
By Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
ISBN: 9781770463301
Drawn and Quarterly, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

Gothic Tales of Haunted Love

This satisfying anthology of 20 original tales begins with a well-written and well-researched foreword by romance comic historian Jacque Nodell offering the contemporary reader background information about the history of the gothic romance genre generally and, more specifically, the comic book renditions of the 1970s, accompanied by samples of cover art. As Nodell points out, the visual elements of the gothic tradition are well-suited for comic book renditions. The gothic romance tradition features “isolated and eerie locations, inherited crumbling manors, family secrets, ghosts, secret identities, and passions heightened by mysterious circumstances.” Tales in the genre “ultimately revealed to be merely a diabolical plot by a person who either abhors change, or who uses the illusion of the supernatural to satisfy their own greed.”

But not in this anthology! The supernatural and gruesome elements of the stories are embraced by the contemporary comic book authors and illustrators without discomfiture or explanation. The protagonists are all agents of their own autonomy…some victims but just as frequently, villains. Even more exciting is the celebration of marginalized people. This anthology presents a diversity of culture, gender, sexuality, race, language, and setting. One tale is told totally in Vietnamese and, rounding out the collection, a reprint of a 1973 story is bilingual: English and Korean. The authors and illustrators of the collection also come from diverse backgrounds.

Plot twists abound in this collection of vengeful, heartbreaking, and touching stories and artwork. Various comic book elements, including the effective use of black and white, vibrant and pastel colour palates and creative panel and page layouts, add to the allure of this anthology. Each story offers a fresh approach to the gothic romance genre in the portrayal of the horrors awaiting the characters (and readers) on the page.

The stories are also to be celebrated for their pragmatism and truth telling. The story “Green, Gold, and Black,” for example, does not shy away from the horror of slavery. Here the wife, incapable of conceiving children, drowns the children of slaves who have been raped and impregnated by her husband. Several of the stories remind me of inverted renditions of the horrific folktales Bluebeard and Mr. Fox. Others explore historical truths such as “Goldblind,” written by editor Hope Nicholson and illustrated by Scott Chantler in which the bleakness of the environment and the quest for gold is heart-rendering.

Highly recommended for library collections, comic historians, and readers interested in romance comics, gothic romance, and diversity in all aspects.

Gothic Tales of Haunted Love
Edited by Hope Nicholson, S. M. Beiko
Written by Nika, Samantha Beiko, Cecil Castellucci, Colleen Coover, Kitty Curran, Barbara Guttman, Janet L. Hetherington, Cherelle Higgins, Megan Kearney, Sanho Kim, Hope Nicholson, Svetla Nikolova, Jacque Nodell, Amber Noelle, Hien Pham, H Pueyo, David Alexander Robertson, Sarah Winifred Searle, Femi Sobowale, Chris Stone, Katie West, Larissa Zageris
Art by Allison Paige, LAB, Nika, Dani Bee, Scott Chantler, Colleen Coover, Kitty Curran, Willow Dawson, Caroline Dougherty, Ray Fawkes, Barbara Guttman, Scott B Henderson, Megan Kearney, Sanho Kim, Maia Kobabe, Dante L, Svetla Nikolova, Hien Pham, Rina Rozsas, Sarah Winifred Searle, Ronn Sutton
ISBN: 9781988715070
Bedside Press, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

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

Witch Buster Vol. 1-2

witchbuster_vol1-2Tasha Godspell arrives in a new town only to find himself immediately thrown into jail. There he meets a young girl named East, who tells him the townsfolk are suspicious because of an ongoing war between humans and witches. East then proceeds to break out of jail, fight off the Witch Hunters with her golem—in this case, a gigantic mecha robot—and escape. Tasha responds by berating the Hunters for handling the girl’s capture so poorly—he should know because he’s one of the best Hunters around!

Tasha goes on the hunt with his partner, Halloween, who happens to be a sword-wielding Jack-o’-Lantern with an attitude. Halloween’s cooperation with Tasha is unique, as only witches tend to have Supporters. The pair locate East with the intention of arresting her, but she provides Tasha with information that might prove worthy of her release: she knows the location of the Red Witch, who Tasha has been hunting, and she’s willing to work with anyone to stop the Red Witch’s evil plans. With the help of two other Hunters—Xing Bairong, an infamous girl chaser who steals all of Tasha’s money, and Taras Doberg, an egotistical jerk—Tasha and Halloween set out to find the lair of the Red Witch, located in a war zone. It turns out that the Red Witch is Aria, Tasha’s little sister; years ago, he failed to protect her and she turned into a witch, killing their father in the process. Now she’ll do anything in her power to sway Tasha to the side of the witches, with the end goal of turning him into her Supporter so they can be together forever.

In the second volume, Tasha’s bag—with Halloween in it—is stolen by a young thief who attempts to lose Tasha many times, only to be tracked down again and again. When she gives up, Tasha informs the girl that Halloween is more than a puppet and reveals himself to be a Witch Hunter. Excited, she tells him that her name is Monica and she’s experiencing a strange problem: one month ago, young people in her village began to die of old age! Monica has the ability to see black “threads” connected to other people, and when someone’s threads begin to turn red, she knows they are going to die. Meanwhile, Xing and Taras hear rumors about this city and suspect that a witch is involved. When they arrive, they detect the presence of a witch… right next to Tasha. Could Monica be a witch? And if she is, could she actually be a good witch?

While this is a fast-paced read, the beginning is a bit confusing. Characters revealed early in the story are not fully explained; it is clear who Tasha and Halloween are, but East doesn’t even have a name until the end of the first volume. The dual identity of the Red Witch as Aria is not especially clear and, at several points, I thought they were different people—perhaps Aria is a servant of the Red Witch? I initially confused Aria’s guardian and teacher, Varete, with the Red Witch when she was introduced at the end of volume one. Librarians may need to encourage teens to push through the confusion and stick with it until they figure out who is whom.

Witch Buster’s original name in Korean is Witch Hunter. I am not certain why Seven Seas changed the title of the manhwa, but continued to call Tasha and his colleagues Hunters instead of changing their job title to Busters. This book will probably appeal to fans of series like Soul Eater and D-Gray Man, and it’s a good choice for western readers new to Asian comics, since it is published left-to-right instead of the right-to-left format of most manga. The only content that might cause some controversy is the typical fan service shots—Xing is a woman chaser and many of the girls’ clothes are short and revealing. While Witch Buster is not an essential purchase, the fact that the series is released in two-in-one omnibus editions does save some money and space in small collections. I recommend purchasing this title if you can’t keep manga on the shelves and you need a new series for your teens.

Witch Buster Vol. 1-2
by Jung-Man Cho
ISBN: 9781626920224
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 14+