Sugarholic, Vol. 1 | By Gong GooGoo | Published by Yen Press | After the house she lives in with her mother and grandmother is destroyed in a landslide, twenty-year-old slacker Jae-Gyu is sent away from her rural hometown to live with her older brother in Seoul. With little money and even less optimism, she gets off the bus in the big city, only to lose her money and make an enemy (a good-looking but arrogant guy whose shirt she accidentally tears) right off the bat. Things get no better once she finds her brother, who is obviously engaged in shady business and really doesn’t want her around. She does find some refuge in her best friend, Hyun-Ah, whose family moved to the city a few years back, but even that is marred by the re-emergence of Hee-do, a childhood playmate Jae-Gyu bullied repeatedly, who is now an up-and-coming pop star harboring a long-held crush on her. Then to top things off, she gets embroiled in the middle of some kind of dangerous family trouble involving the torn-shirt guy (a martial artist named Whie-Hwan) who insists they pretend they are in love with each other in order to save himself from being sent out of the country.
From the very beginning of its first volume, Sugarholic is the perfect example of the girls’ manhwa formula at work. A plucky, outspoken heroine is thrust into unfamiliar territory with a couple of good-looking but complicated guys, at least one of whom she initially despises. At least two other manhwa series I’m currently reading (both Goong and Comic spring immediately to mind) have roughly the same setup, for the most part. Thing is, despite the formula, each one of them is wholly engaging and a lot of fun, and Sugarholic is no exception.
Jae-Gyu is slovenly and unfocused but also unconcerned with her appearance and utterly without guile, which makes her an extremely appealing heroine. Her relationship with Hee-do (the childhood playmate) reveals some of her particular quirks, for though she’s terrified of the “revenge” she’s sure he’s planned for her the one thing that never occurs to her is to apologize (at least not sincerely) for all the awful things she remembers doing to him. She is also completely oblivious to his feelings for her, both past and present, which admittedly he has never expressed with much skill. Still, the most touching scene in the entire volume is a memory of their childhood in which Hee-do, heartbroken over seeing Jae-Gyu cry, attempts to comfort her by kissing her on the forehead. Hee-do’s awkwardness is nearly pathetic (in preparation for confessing his feelings, he inexplicably finds it necessary to balance his latte on Jae-Gyu’s head, causing an inevitable mess for her and thwarting his efforts completely) yet unexpectedly believable and quite sweet. It’s hard not to root for Hee-do, in all his blundering sincerity, though Jae-Gyu seems indifferent to his adorable personage (which, paradoxically, makes her more interesting and likable as well).
The obvious trouble brewing, both for Jae-Gyu and Hee-do, is the situation with Whie-Hwan who has managed to convince Jae-Gyu (or at least himself) that she actually owes him on some level. Though the volume ends without resolution, it seems likely that Jae-Gyu will find herself going along with his fairly insane proposition, whether by choice or otherwise. Though Whie-Hwan’s backstory is definitely compelling, it’s difficult to like him much at this point in the story, especially when it seems unavoidable that he will end up getting in the way of whatever chances Hee-do (who is much more sympathetic and appealing) might have with Jae-Gyu. That said, he’s also likely to provide some of the story’s best conflict and future plot twists, so it’s valuable to have him around.
Gong GooGoo’s art is very much in the typical style for this kind of manhwa, with the characters’ exaggerated lips, “floofy” hair (as Jae-Gyu describes Whie-Hwan’s), and heavily-outlined eyes, along with its shojo-style backgrounds and panel layouts. There are many who profess a distaste for manhwa art, but I must say I have quite a strong affection for it. There is a solid feel to manhwa art I can’t quite put my finger on that draws me in consistently, and Sugarholic absolutely achieves that feel.
Ultimately, the best recommendation I can give for Sugarholic is that when I finished this volume, I immediately wanted to read the next. The characters are attractive and idiosyncratic, the story is engaging despite its predictability, and above all, it is just a lot of fun. If you love girls’ manhwa, Sugarholic is a must-read.
Volume one of Sugarholic will be available in August of 2009. Review copy provided by the publisher.