THE COLOR OF EARTH
Written and Drawn by Kim Dong Hwa
Translated by Lauren Na
Published by First Second
One of the real joys of reviewing books is when one arrives without fanfare and manages to knock you out with the quality of its art, storytelling, and dialogue. When I received a copy of this book in the mail, I set it aside and promptly forgot about it for a period of weeks. Nothing about its cover or the brief description of its contents that I read did much to entice me or convince me that its contents would prove to be extraordinary.
This, my friends, is an excellent reminder, of why you don’t judge a book by its cover.
THE COLOR OF EARTH is part one of a trilogy of graphic novels by Korean writer/artist Kim Dong Hwa. The stories and setting are relatively simple; in the beginning, we meet a young Korean girl named Ehwa, 13-years old and just beginning to question her life and the biological processes beginning to alter her body. We’re also introduced to her mother, a warm and gentle woman, owner of a tavern, her way of coping with being a widow. As these tales begin to flow out of Dong Hwa’s pen, what we see is a relationship between a mother and daughter that is starting to evolve. At this youngest age, mother is highly protective of her daughter and of her own heart, which remains broken after the loss of her husband. But as mother begins to educate her daughter on such things as why she is not deformed (seeing boys urinate, she at first cannot comprehend what is wrong with her for lacking the equipment), and why the local men and male children are besmirching the mother’s reputation (they’re projecting their own desires onto the only single woman around), we begin to see that Ehwa is ready to learn more. And her mother is ready to teach her.
As the teaching begins in earnest, and as the mother finds the seeds of a new love in the heart of a traveling salesman, mother and daughter see their relationship become closer and closer to one of dear friends, not just of parent and child. Over the years, as Ehwa undergoes many of the biological and emotional moments that define a more mature womanhood, her mother recognizes this process and deals with them by showing trust and respect, allowing her beloved child to grow and make her own way. And her own mistakes.
This was one of the most realistic and affecting portraits of a parent-child relationship I have seen in any sort of literature in quite some time. Dong Hwa’s crisp, clean art and storytelling style do a magnificent job of not only defining the characters and their physical growth, but also of presenting the male-dominated society they live in (I’m guessing mid-20th century or so). At every turn, I completely felt and bought into the talks between the two women; I saw the clarity in Ehwa’s questioning of her self and her adolescent changes; and I was captivated by how much I cared about these two and their happiness. But after I finished the book, jonesing for the second part of the trilogy, the book went up one more notch for me.
I didn’t do much beyond scanning the p.r. that came with the volume, only noting that the author had essentially taken their mother’s own life at age sixteen and written about it. So Ehwa was Dong Hwa’s mother. What caught me, though, was at the end of the book: an essay by a Korean book critic noting just how amazing the work was in its feminism, particularly in how the author portrayed his mother’s life experiences.
That’s right: this amazing memoir of mother/daughter love came from the pen and pencil of a male creator. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Regardless of gender, THE COLOR OF EARTH was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in reading a graphic novel in quite some time. It’s precisely the kind of book that I enjoy loaning to someone who has never tried a graphic novel before, because it shows just how much power lies within the genre, and that it isn’t just about perverts in spandex beating the hell out of each other. I give this book my highest possible recommendation.
Also from First Second:
ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING is written and drawn by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost, and is just about the perfect gift to give a budding young artist who is thinking they want to make their own comics. Using a basic story (knight goes off to fight a dragon), the authors run through panel creation, motion, work balloons, layouts, depicting the passage of time and place… you name it. It’s quite a clever approach, and one I think would have worked perfectly for me at, say, the age of ten… even though I couldn’t draw a lick. If you’ve got a kid in your life who’s having a birthday sometime soon, you could do much worse than picking up this nifty effort and wrapping it up for them.