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Off the Shelf: Manhwalicious

Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle! As always, I’m joined by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.

After last week’s special MMF Edition where we discussed the first-ever Korean manhwa chosen for the Manga Moveable Feast, we thought it might be nice to take a look at some of the series that were not chosen in this week’s column.

MICHELLE: So, I think the both of us have been having a very manhwa-licious week here! Last week we talked about The Color Trilogy as part of the Manhwa Moveable Feast, and this week we’ve got three other series to discuss, all of which, I must say, I liked a lot more than our last topic of conversation!

MELINDA: So did I, Michelle. I voted pretty eagerly for a couple of these for last month’s Feast, so it’s a treat to have the chance to discuss them with you now! So, we’ve got three series to talk about. Where would you like to begin?

MICHELLE: How about with Run, Bong-Gu, Run! by Byun Byung-Jun? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this one since I finished it. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is a simple story of a boy and his mother who travel from a seaside town to Seoul in search of the father/husband who went to the city in search of work and who hasn’t been heard from in some time. While there, they meet a kindly old man and his granddaughter, rescue a bird from a building, and bemoan the difficulties of life in the city.

While low on plot, Run, Bong-Gu, Run is high on atmosphere, with a dreamy yet deliberate way of portraying the actions of our protagonists as opposed to the near faceless mob of Seoul-ites who go whizzing past them. Our smalltown heroes have not lost the ability to see others in pain, be they homeless humans or endangered pigeons. They manage to do a fair amount of good on their visit simply by noticing those around them and providing what help they can offer.

MELINDA: It’s true there isn’t much to the plot of this little manhwa, and for me that’s definitely part of its charm. I love the simplicity of the story and its characters, and Byun’s manner of presenting them. I like, too, that it’s not just the smalltown visitors doing good, either.

The old man they meet there is as kind and helpful as they are, and obviously has been helping out the woman’s husband while he’s been in the city. There’s this big, faceless city, but once you get down to the individuals, they are just people like anyone else, and I love that about this story. I think it’s significant that the old man is first seen in the story panhandling on the subway. That person–a begger on the subway–is the easiest for most of us to brush off in our lives as someone on the outskirts of our own experience. Yet he turns up later as a fully-realized character.

In a way, Byun portrays Seoul exactly as I think of big cities in general. They can seem intimidating–as though they might swallow your individuality whole–but when you really spend time in one, maybe even live in it, you realize that a neighborhood is a neighborhood, no matter where you live in the world. A city is just a dense collection of small towns with no official dividers between them.

I like your description of the atmosphere as “dreamy yet deliberate.” That’s the perfect way to describe Byun’s artwork and writing style. And it’s nice to see it used for a warm, simple story like this one. Run, Bong-Gu, Run! lacks the sheer bleakness of Byun’s melancholy anthology, Mijeong, and though some of those stories perhaps have more to them, this one is much more soothing for the soul.

MICHELLE: Yes, the old man is different from the other passers-by, and is able to be helpful when he, arguably, needs more help than anyone. Maybe his concept of a “neighborhood” is broader than most. :)

In regards to this manhwa’s artwork, I’ve been pondering the significance of why it shifts into color when it does. The first few pages are done in a purplish sort of greyscale, then there’s one small panel of Bong-Gu’s mother in color, and then only he and the beggar’s granddaughter, Hyemi, appear in color for a few panels. By the end of the book, it’s suggested that she becomes his first love, so I wonder if the sputtering start to the colorful parts of the story represent Bong-Gu’s memories of when they first met. “I remember… my mother was on the phone and then there was this girl digging in a garbage can,” and then as they begin to interact more with their surroundings, gradually the backgrounds fill in with color and movement, as well.

MELINDA: I thought about that, too, and had similar questions about whether the story might be a memory. I also thought that perhaps the color represented the things most significant to Bong-Gu, whether in memory or in the present. For instance, his mother is on the phone, which is mostly in black-and-white, but there is something about the way she says “No,” that feels heavier or more significant to Bong-Gu, as does his own voice a few frames after. Then, of course, he meets Hyemi and everything turns to color.

MICHELLE: But poor Bong-Gu! In the midst of all this watercolor-y loveliness, why does he have to look so… unpleasant all the time? I swear he often looks like a squinty middle-aged man, and both children have an unfortunate tendency to develop huge teeth and peeled-back lips for some reason. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough for some symbolism there.

MELINDA: Hee! I think the reality probably has less to do with any kind of symbolism and more with that just being the way Byun sees children. Maybe he’s gone of of his way to make sure they aren’t too “cute,” but I suspect our tastes have been shaped by reading a lot of deliberately pretty manga.

MICHELLE: Probably that is true. I was wondering if it happened in their most selfish or peevish moments, but I’m not sure. Hyemi’s doing the lip thing at the end while they’re just playing, after all.

Moderately ugly kids aside, I really did like Run, Byong-Gu, Run! and agree with you that it’s soothing for the soul.

MELINDA: So let’s move on to a series you’ve read a lot more of than I have, Dokebi Bride. I’ve only read the first two volumes, which I have in print, and though I’ve read through a couple of additional chapters at NETCOMICS’ website, I’m not all that far in. I really love the premise, though. This series has two elements that are fairly bullet-proof for me, characters who see spirits and a surly female lead.

MICHELLE: I appreciate Sunbi’s surliness, too, since she obviously has many good reasons to be angry, but what I like most about these two volumes is her grandmother—and the glimpses we get of her as a young shaman when divine spirits were more active in the world (as opposed to the nastier ones that plague Sunbi)—and her devoted canine companion, Solbang. I love Solbang so very, very much and I’m not even a dog person!

MELINDA: Oh, Solbang, Solbang… I’m getting sniffly just at the mention of his name. So, I should probably explain the premise a bit more for readers, shouldn’t I?

The series involves a young woman, Sunbi, who has inherited the ability to see and communicate with the world’s supernatural beings–a talent that seems to be passed down through the women of her family. Her mother died when she was young, after which her father left her to be raised by her shaman grandmother. After her grandmother’s death, she’s got nowhere to go but to her father and stepmother, but new knowledge about her mother’s fate on top of the reality of her own powers make Sunbi’s situation a fairly miserable one. She was ostracized in her home village, thanks to her grandmother’s work as a shaman, and things aren’t looking any better for her in her new environment.

Sunbi is constantly tormented by demons, but the fact that her true anger is aimed at her father says everything, doesn’t it? He’s the real evil in her life, as far as she’s concerned, I think. Though I still haven’t read very far into the series, I suspect the author is going to use the story’s supernatural elements to better illuminate the issues in her personal life and, if the early volumes are any indication, to great effect.

MICHELLE Dokebi Bride is a weird series in that all of its six existing volumes feel like setup to something that hasn’t actually happened yet. Sunbi’s circumstances do change, but it’s not like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer situation where demonic foes serve as a metaphor for the trials of growing up. It’s fairly frustrating, actually, considering the potential on display in these first two volumes.

MELINDA: Oh, how disappointing to hear! This series is still ongoing in Korea, right? Do you suppose we’ll eventually get to the real meat of it all?

MICHELLE: I’m not sure whether it’s still ongoing. There does seem to at least be a volume 7, as Amazon has a listing for it, but I’ve kind of lost hope that we’ll ever really gain any true insight into what Sunbi’s thinking and feeling. It’s still an interesting series, and you have yet to meet a really terrific character, but it’s unfortunate that it seems to have lost its focus. But who knows, perhaps what seem now to be detours will turn out to have been relevant after all.

MELINDA: I admit I’m still looking forward to reading the rest, so I guess I’ll live on in optimism. :)

MICHELLE: I didn’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm! It’s definitely worth continuing for that new character. He’s my second favorite after Solbang.

MELINDA: So let’s move on to our last series, JiUn Yun’s Time and Again, about a couple of exorcists for hire in China during the Tang Dynasty. This was probably my favorite new manhwa series of last year, though its first volume just barely debuted before the year was out.

I had some specific issues with the first volume, particularly what I felt was some spotty character development and panel layouts that didn’t flow in an intuitive way, but reading ahead in Yen Plus let me know that these problems would be temporary. Now, three volumes in I can say, wow were they. This series has definitely remained a favorite for me.

I know you’ve just read the first volume, so I’m anxious to hear what you think of it.

MICHELLE: Well, I’m definitely intrigued by it. I thought it was a little odd that, after a couple of chapters spent introducing exorcist Baek-On and his bodyguard of sorts, Ho-Yeon, we suddenly get a chapter in which they do not appear at all. Somewhere I believe it’s mentioned that this third chapter was actually the first to be serialized so maybe it simply took a little while for Yun to figure out where to take the story. That said, the fourth chapter is another in which the protagonists barely appear and I absolutely loved it to pieces.

If you don’t mind me dwelling… so far, we’ve seen that Baek-On is not above accepting money for jobs that are not altogether savory. In the first chapter, he basically lets a grudge-bearing ghost get her revenge on his living clients. In the second, he fails to inform a couple, desperate to extend the life of their son, of the full ramifications of their actions. In this fourth chapter, Baek-On briefly appears in order to fashion a talisman to help a governor “get rid of [a] concubine.” Next, we see the tragic, romantic, and thoroughly awesome story of a concubine and her guard, as well as the enemy horde that claims their lives. Afterwards, I now must wonder, “Did Baek-On cause this to happen?!”

As horrible as it would be to desire an affirmative answer, I nonetheless cherish a hope that the series will continue to play with ideas as morally ambiguous as this.

MELINDA: Well, I’ll try to speculate with you without spoiling you terribly. First, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in terms of moral ambiguity, though I will say that I think Baek-On is too aware of the consequences of malicious acts on his karma (and that of those around him) to deliberately do anything harmful at this point in his life. However, he is keenly aware that most of the things he’s asked to fix are actually caused by the people themselves and completely out of his control, and I don’t think he cares very much about people’s fates in those circumstances. I think he actually really dislikes most living people, if you get right down to it.

Over the next two volumes, you’ll see a lot more of Baek-On and Ho-Yeon, and some of the hints dropped about their characters in the first volume begin to be really developed. By then, Yun has really found a balance between the traditional tales she wants to revisit and the overarching stories of the characters she’s created. Both Baek-On and Ho-Yeon are very damaged people, which of course is what makes them so interesting.

Also, there are some moments of humor I think you will particularly love.

MICHELLE: I’ve gotten a sense of tragedies in their pasts, and also have encountered some humor early in volume two—I love how Ho-Yeon (twice) keeps Baek-On from slapping a particularly irksome customer—that I like a lot. It kind of reminds me of Silver Diamond, actually, which is definitely a compliment.

MELINDA: I like the fact that, despite the period setting, Yun doesn’t try too hard to keep her characters from sounding modern. That might seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s part of what makes the humor work so well, and I rather enjoy the clash in tone.

MICHELLE: Oh, definitely. I was thinking that, even though this takes place in the Tang Dynasty, I really wouldn’t call it historical fiction because there’s zero emphasis on the period as it affects what’s going on with the characters. The same thing is true of Inuyasha—the time period has an impact on what sort of clothes people are wearing, but there’s no commentary on it at all.

MELINDA: Yes, I think the setting is there to facilitate the re-telling of a lot of old stories. But she always twists them in her own way, so that’s never really what the series is about.

MICHELLE: Although I couldn’t get volumes two and three read in time for us to talk about them, I am determined to finish them in the next day or so, so look for a review on my site if you’re interested to see how my opinion evolves as I continue reading.

MELINDA: I can’t wait to read them!

Keep an eye on Michelle’s blog to see what she thinks of volumes two and three! And join us again next week for another edition of Off the Shelf!

MICHELLE: Y’all come back now, y’hear?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melinda Beasi, Melinda Beasi. Melinda Beasi said: New blog post: Off the Shelf: Manhwalicious […]

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  3. […] final note, don’t miss last night’s installment of Off the Shelf, where Michelle & I discuss three manhwa that didn’t make the MMF last month, Run, […]

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