Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Art of Seyeong O

Nearly everyone in publishing these days knows the term manga-an overarching term for Japanese comic books covering everything from little kiddie gotta-catch-em-all plots to wonderfully developed stories and art for sophisticated adults. Now it's time to meet manhwa, manga's lesser known Korean equivalent. Like with Manga, much of the material imported to the U.S. so far is geared towards kids. But ComicsLit, always one to mine the best in comics, brings us the grown up version for the first time. Seyeong O is one of Korea's most acclaimed practitioners of the art form, and the collection Buja's Diary brings together thirteen of his strikingly powerful short stories.

Some tales are set in the countryside in what we might think of as third world conditions (The Little Alley Watcher) while others focus on the hustling, bustling almost chaotic lifestyle of the ultra-modern city of Seol (Escape). Stories like "The Snake Catcher Brothers Dream" are fables with a simple message while others like "The Secret of the Old Leather Pouch" mine very deep feelings of honor, tradition and family history. Despite the serious nature of many of the stories, O is not above using humor. "Observe" takes a comical look at a very vain man on his commute to work, all told through pictures without the assistance of dialogue or narration. At the heart of every story lies O's discerning eye for character and dialogue. But aside from these just being good stories they also work as unique portraits of Korea's present-day culture, giving a broad sense of the history and issues important to its people. O displays equal levels of skill and range in his artwork; all black and white, the styles range from realistic watercolors to cartoony charcoal drawings, each one chosen to accent the individuality of the piece. He's also willing to take risks with experimentation in layout, developing a fresh rhythm and pacing to the panels on the page that make remind me more of techniques in film more than anything I normally see in comics. The volume ends with a short but thorough essay by Han Chang-Wan, helping place O within the context of manhwa and Korean culture as a whole.

With each piece so different, the editors at ComicsLit seemed to choose the material to show the depth and range possible within the media. If this one volume is any indication O and the rest of the practioners of the form still have entire worlds to show us within the universe of mahwa.

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