originally written 18/04/2010
The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa is a beautiful and frank volume about the growing up a young girl named Ehwa in rural Korea. I didn’t realize until halfway through that Kim Dong Hwa, famous as a writer/artist of manhwa (the Korean equivalent of manga), was a man, which is quite a feat considering it’s a sensitive book that talks quite unabashedly (but also with candor and understanding) about the mother-daughter bond and female sexuality in a non-exploitative way. While the afterword suggests that the Color of Earth trilogy stands out “in the Korean comics market, which is dominated by books whose stories are based on a male worldview,” I would go so far as to say comics in general are still dominated by a male worldview; if you look at how female sexuality is treated in this universe versus that in Love and Rockets, you see something entirely different. For all the gender politics—Ehwa’s mother is a widow who runs a tavern and is exposed to the chauvinistic gossip of her clients—the humor and universality of this book is what makes it endearing.
The art is simple but beautifully rendered, and the characters range from the cartoon-like to express emotions of embarrassment and surprise, to the lyrical. I’ll admit I was attracted to reading it in the first place because the drawing of Ehwa on the cover looked like Mulan from an English translation of the original poem about Fa Mu-Lan. Little Ehwa first realizes the differences between boys and girls when two village boys tell her she’s deformed for not having a gochoo (chile pepper) between her legs (later the boys tell her to look for her “persimmon seed” which creates a whole new set of embarrassing problems for her!). As she grows older, she realizes the special relationship her mother is developing with the wandering scholar/artist who visits them and has her own awkward first crush on a young trainee monk. The book ends with her becoming a young woman, off to more adventures in The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven.
I think it’s a lovely book and a good meditation on the power and universality of good graphic novels.
I’ve also recently read Star Trek: TNG: Intelligence Gathering, which was beautifully drawn but rather dull, story-wise. I also read two more volumes of Love and Rockets, namely Human Diasporism and Love and Rockets, New Stories vol.1, which was just weird. Batman: Gotham Underground was a fairly good read, with competent art, and featured the Penguin, the Scarecrow, and a huge host of costumed freaks.