The Color of Earth
By Kim Dong Hwa
While publisher First Second has released a good deal of European comics in their short history, they don't seem to specialize in works from the Asian market quite yet, so given the general excellence of their offerings, this book from Korean creator Kim Dong Hwa is very notable. It's the first entry in a trilogy that, as Hwa notes in an introductory text piece, was inspired by his mother's life, providing a sentimental look at her youth, and especially her physical and emotional maturation as she experiences puberty and learns about love.
As the book starts, Ehwa is a young girl in rural Korea at some point in the early 20th century. She starts to learn about adult matters early on when she is unable to join some boys in a pissing contest and worries that she is deformed because she doesn't have a gochoo (a chili pepper, which makes an obvious euphemism). She gets straightened out by her mother, but in addition to curiosity about the human body, she also wonders about the things she hears about her mother, who men call promiscuous. As a widowed tavern owner, Ehwa's mother interacts with men constantly, and flirtatiousness appears to be part of the job. But little Ehwa doesn't understand why people say the things they do about her.
As Ehwa gets older, she learns more and more about life and love, developing a crush on a young monk who is also learning about the changes of adolescence, and her mother takes up with a traveling salesman/artist who charms her on a visit one night and leaves a paintbrush with her as a signal that he will return. There are occasional discoveries of physical changes, and slow assimilation of knowledge about sex and reproduction, all rendered in a highly poetic manner. In fact, while this aspect of the book is quite beautiful, it can get to be a bit much at times:
Ehwa and her mother have seemingly endless discussions about which flowers they are most like, and all the discoveries of maturity are glorious and fascinating, leading to much uncomfortable discussion about the door women have where babies come from, or the persimmon seed hidden within a woman's body.
The book does seem to view the past through rose-colored glasses, as if everything at the time was wonderful and peaceful, with little in the way of hardship or unhappiness. We do get hints of darkness in the gossip about Ehwa's mother, and it's not clear whether her lover reciprocates her feelings or if she's just an enjoyable stop along the road for him. And while it's an especially joyful view of childhood and adolescence, not everything is roses; Ehwa's friends come off as somewhat manipulative and obnoxious, and the poor monk gets shafted when she turns her eyes on another village boy. Maybe the next two volumes will continue this trend, giving a mostly happy view of childhood and showing that life doesn't stay easy throughout.
For this volume at least, Hwa's art captures the beauty of the countryside wonderfully, filling pages with lovely renderings of fields, trees, and flowers. It's a pastoral paradise:
And the character work is lovely as well, with a cartoony look to the figures that conveys emotion especially well. Hwa also does a great job of detailing Ehwa's maturity, with her starting out around six years old and growing over the course of the book to about the age of fifteen. The change in size, shape, and face are all realistic, selling the growth really well, even within the cartoony limits. Hwa uses an interesting style similar to Japanese manga, but different enough to seem like it comes from a separate culture. The eyes especially seem unique, often depicted as wide slits and sometimes even abstracted to the point that the irises look like a series of horizontal lines:
It's an interesting choice, and it definitely works to fit Hwa's mood, making the women seem beautiful and mysterious, even as they are narrating their innermost thoughts.
It's easy to see why First Second picked up this series; it's a wonderful, revelatory glimpse into a foreign culture that illuminates some cultural specificities while demonstrating that matters of the heart are universal. Gorgeous art and heartfelt emotion round things out for a fascinating look across the globe and into the past; I'm eager to read the next volumes and see the rest of Ehwa's story.