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The Color of Earth
By Kim Dong Hwa
First Second, 320 pages, $16.95.
This is one of the most sexually frank and at the same time coyest comics I have ever read. On the one hand it deals honestly and openly with the growing adolescent curiosity about sex and puberty in a manner that would get few Western cartoonists would dare to try, perhaps out of fear that they would then have to make a call to the CBLDF.
On the other hand, it’s all delivered in endless double-entendre, with the characters talking about flowers and persimmon seeds and whatnot, but you know what they’re really talking about — nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
The story is about a young girl named Ehwa, who lives in a rural Korean village with her mother, her father having passed away several years ago. It’s not clear what time period the story takes place in, but I assume it’s early 20th century, since Hwa acknowledges the story is based loosely on the life of his mother in the foreword.
Anyway, Ehwa’s mom runs an tavern to make ends meet and is frequently forced to politely rebuff the unwanted advances of her male customers, who talk trash about her when they don’t think anyone is listening.
One day, however, a handsome stranger comes to town. He’s a traveling artist and he almost instantly captivates the mom. Hwa has a nice sequence here where she shows her interest in him by putting his shoes at the entrance way — one facing into the house, the other facing outward.
As they begin a budding romance (the traveling artist apparently is the Korean equivalent of the Fuller Brush Man), Ehwa begins to learn about her growing and changing body and the strange emotions she has for a young monk in training and also the well-to-do youth down the road. Hwa draws some nice parallels between mother and daughter here, especially in a sequence where Ehwa coquettishly mixes her shoes with the young monk’s without fully realizing the suggestiveness of her actions.
The book spans several years, with Ehwa first discovering the rather significant difference between boys and girls, then getting her period, learning about the clitoris (I told you it was frank) and so on. Her friends and the neighborhood boys seem eager to grown up and at times taunt her with their half-knowledge of how babies are made. But Ehwa remains unsure of her development throughout the book, eager at times to become a grown-up and shy and unsure of herself at others.
It’s usually during those moments that Ehwa turns to her mom for the straight dope, and their conversations are the heart of the book. Her mom is that rarest of creatures in that she lays down the facts of life gently and without any creating any rancor, guilt feelings or anxiety. The two are more like sisters really, especially in the way the mom confides in Ehwa about her relationship with the artisan. Perhaps that’s because there’s no real male presence in their house, perhaps Hwa is idealizing the relationship for the sake of the reader. Regardless, their relationship is one of the most interesting and touching aspects of the book.
I should say something about Hwa’s art, which is deceptively simple. He’s able to get a great deal of expression from his characters with just a few lines, and then he’ll let loose with an elegant, gorgeous two-page rendering of the landscape that makes Ehwa’s village and surroundings come to life.
I enjoyed The Color of Earth a great deal, but I wonder if it will have trouble finding an audience. It’s a bit too adult in its subject matter to be acceptable for younger readers but it’s way of going around Jake’s barn to discuss indelicate matters may annoy older readers. Worse, it may induce snickers in a more cynical and, conversely, immature audience. That would be a shame, since the book has a great deal to offer readers, not the least of which being its ability to deal with a thorny subject matter rarely discussed in comics before, if at all. If Hwa can sustain the notes he’s played for the second and third volumes of Ehwa’s story, it will be quite the accomplishment.