Like Water for Kimchi — that’s how I would describe 13th Boy, a weird, wonderful Korean comedy with a strong element of magical realism.
The plot is standard sunjong fodder: Hee-So, a teen with a flair for the dramatic, believes that the handsome Won-Jun is destined to be her twelfth and last boyfriend, the man with whom she’ll spend the rest of her life. Though Won-Jun accepts her initial confession of love — she drags him on television to ask him on a date — he dumps her just one month later, sending Hee-So into a tailspin: how could her destiny walk away from her? She then resolves to take fate into her own hands, launching an aggressive campaign to win him back: she stalks Won-Jun, looking for any opportunity to be alone with him; she joins the Girl Scouts so that she can go on a camping trip with him (he’s a Boy Scout); she even befriends her romantic rival Sae-Bom, defending Sae-Bom from bullies and risking her life to rescue Sae-Bom’s beloved stuffed rabbit from a burning building. In short: Hee-So is a girl on a mission, dignity be damned.
Our first clue that 13th Boy isn’t just another dreary comedy about a girl going to extremes to nab a cute boy is the introduction of Beatrice, Hee-So’s sidekick. Beatrice is a talking cactus (no, really, a talking cactus) who transforms into a handsome, if somewhat androgynous, teen whenever there’s a full moon. I don’t know too many storytellers who could make something as cracky as a lovelorn saguaro work, but SangEun Lee presents Beatrice matter-of-factly, as if every self-respecting girl had a walking, talking man-plant living in her bedroom. If anything, Beatrice functions as a nifty surrogate for the reader, voicing concern about Hee-So’s fanatical commitment to Won-Jun and urging Hee-So to focus her attention elsewhere.
Our second clue is the revelation that one of Hee-So’s classmates has magical powers: Whie-Young can change the weather, make himself invisible, walk through walls, and bring inanimate objects to life. Though Whie-Young’s mother and grandmother have warned him not to use his abilities, he persists, hoping to prove the depth of his feelings for Hee-So. (Yes, 13th Boy is one of those comedies in which every character is head-over-heels for the wrong person.) Those rescues and romantic acts come at a steep price, as each spell shortens Whie-Young’s life; if he doesn’t stop playing Hee-So’s guardian angel, he’ll die a very young man.
If the fantasy elements enliven a tepid premise, the story’s more down-to-earth aspects — especially Hee-So’s relationship with her female friends — give 13th Boy some real emotional heft. Hee-So’s best buddy, Nam-Joo, is a welcome addition to the cast, a tough tomboy who’s fiercely loyal to Hee-So yet takes a dim view of her pal’s romantic obsession. Their squabbles and pep talks have a ring of truth to them, even if Lee contrives some ridiculous scenarios for the girls to resolve their differences. (I don’t know about you, but I never settled a score with anyone by challenging them to a dodge ball game or judo match.) Sae-Bom, too, turns out to be a more interesting, complicated character than she first appears; as the story unfolds, we realize that she has the emotional IQ of a grade schooler but the physical appearance and intellect of a teenager, making her an object of scorn among the class alpha girls. If Hee-So’s motivation for defending Sae-Bom was initially less-than-pure (a fact she readily concedes), she develops a genuine sense of empathy for Won-Jun’s friend — one of our first clues that Hee-So’s boy-crazed exterior belies a more compassionate, less narcissistic nature.
Lee’s crisp layouts and cute character designs are an excellent complement to her storytelling. She uses bold, strong lines to define her characters, shying away from heavy use of screentone; the white of the page plays just as important a role in defining space and volume as the ink, making her designs pop. (Beatrice is a notable exception, as his cactus skin is toned dark grey.) Though Hee-So and Won-Jun have enormous, doll-like eyes, Lee’s grasp of anatomy is solid; her characters have the rangy, slightly awkward bodies of fifteen-year-olds, rather than the hyper-stylized physiques of the Bring It On! gang. Only the backgrounds disappoint, a mish-mash of traced architectural elements and Photoshopped images that seem a little too generic for such a whacked-out story. (Or maybe that’s the genius of the bland background art? I can’t decide.)
I’ll be honest: I went into 13th Boy knowing about Beatrice, which predisposed me to overlook some of the first volume’s groan-worthy moments. And as much as I love Beatrice — and really, what’s not to like about a chatty cactus? — what really won me over was the deft way in which SangEun Lee balanced the series’ magical elements with its more realistic ones, creating a unique story in which magical acts reveal character and everyday acts affect change.
Review copy of volume 4 provided by the publisher.
13TH BOY, VOLS. 1-4 • BY SANG-EUN LEE • YEN PRESS • RATING: TEEN