October 28, 2009
Hee Jung Park – Tokyopop – 2008 – 1 volume
When Tokyopop released all those Hee Jung Park series last year (Martin & John, Fever, Hotel Africa), this volume was sort of the odd man out. In fact, I didn’t even know this had come out, and I was really, really into those other series by the same author. I didn’t find out about this until much later, and by then the other series had been cancelled.
This is a volume of short stories. Normally I’m a little wary of these, because more often than not wind up not liking these types of short story collections (I think reading several short stories in a row makes the flaws in storytelling much more noticeable). This one was quite different. I almost think the stories were all written to go in the volume together. While none of them have anything whatsoever in common, Park is a pretty stylish artist and great at composition and putting together different types of storytelling techniques, so it seems like the stories were written with each other in mind simply because the book fits together so well stylistically.
There are several unusual storytelling techniques used art-wise throughout the book. I liked that frequently, we were thrust into the middle of a story with no preamble, usually during its most emotional moments if the story was particularly short, and part of the fun was trying to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the rather intense emotion on display. One of my favorite stories, the longer “Eoheulli,” starts us off in the middle of a nightmare, and from there it cuts between a flashback to her childhood and a search she is conducting as an adult. The primary focus of the story is a character she calls “big sister,” and while reading the story, it’s almost maddening the way the pieces slowly fall into place and “big sister’s” situation becomes more and more clear.
The techniques are more apparent in the shorter stories. I tend not to like really short stories since normally there just aren’t enough pages to put together something meaningful, but this technique makes them far more interesting. In particular, the very short “Insomnia” does a great job of presenting us a scene that uses the short form to its advantage as we try and figure out who the sleepless character is talking about towards the middle, and the cause of his insomnia becomes clear by the end.
There are a couple more traditional stories mixed in as well. I liked “Crybaby Angel”, which reads like a chidren’s storybook and is about an angel who cries and isn’t allowed to become a “happy baby.” I also enjoyed “Gwangrim is Awesome,” which is a more traditional shoujo high school romance story, but made far better just by virtue of having been drawn by Park.
If you couldn’t already tell, I am a big fan of Hee Jung Park. Not only do I like her less traditional narrative structure, her art is also quite excellent, including her composition and the way she mixes techniques. Some stories forego panel borders in order to be more stream-of-conscience-type narratives, and the last story in the volume (Crybaby Angel) reads exactly like a picture book, with an illustration with accompanying story text on each page. Even without special fancy techniques, each page is extremely well-composed and I enjoyed looking at her very un-traditional panel layouts.
Her stories also have a lot more emotional impact than the average manga short story. The techniques I talk about earlier help, but rather than going for the same bland subjects again and again, I also like that Park writes about a broad range of subjects and people, everything from the usual teenage fare to divorced adults to grieving young people to… well, little baby angels.
I think the only criticism I can level at the collection is that some of the stories are a bit… well, too stylish. Especially earlier in the volume. The first story, “Blood,” is a good example. This story is also hindered by being in black and white (major themes in the story are the extremely pale, colorless love interest and the heroines interest in the vivid color of blood), but I was also completely uninterested in the heroine’s insistence that the love interest have “more vivid color.” Whatever. Sometimes the storytelling techniques work against the stories a bit, too. The stories tend to open with very melodramatic declarations, and while I like to put the pieces together, sometimes the characters are a little too overwrought and verbose and I lose interest. But these were mostly only a problem with a few of the earlier stories.
Most of the volume is quite excellent, and this is probably among the best female-oriented comic short story collection that I’ve seen. I think a few people will probably be put off by its style and melodrama, but it definitely makes for a very unorthodox and rewarding reading experience. It’s also quite a long volume (just shy of 300 pages), so you also get a ton of content and a bunch of stories to go between if you find some not to your liking. Hee Jung Park comes through once again, and once again, I’m going to lament the fact that none of her stories are coming out in English anymore. She really does seem to be one of the greats, and I would love to read more than a volume or two of her best work.