Mijeong Review

Posted by on December 11th, 2009 at 10:15 AM

Mijeong; Byun Byung-Jun; NBM; 240 pp, $19.95; B&W & Color, softcover; ISBN: 9781561635542MijeongCover

If Bret Easton Ellis was a Korean cartoonist – and about twenty years younger – he might have produced a short-story collection like Mijeong.” – Andrew Wheeler

Mijeong is the second English language publication by Korean manwha artist, Byun Byung-Jun, following the success of Run, Bong-Gu, Run last year. This one-man anthology features seven short stories from early in the artist’s career, mostly from 2000-2003. In addition, the book also includes a three-page essay, written by Kim Nak-ho, a “comics specialist” and “editor of a webzine devoted to graphic novels,” which goes methodically through the book, adding his comments, analysis and opinions of each story. Mr. Nak-ho’s conclusion – that while Mijeong is uneven, its stories are evidence of tremendous “creative potential” and hopefully “foreshadow a project of even greater scope” – is a fair and accurate assessment of the book.

The opening story, which shares the title of the collection (Mijeong means “pure beauty” in Chinese), is little more than a sequential love poem (it’s even prefaced by an extract from the poem “Futile Questions” by Choi Seung-Ja). What little story there is depicts a guardian angel following a despondent young woman through the city, lurking in the shadows until a fateful incident forces him to reveal himself. The story (which was inspired by the film “Wings of Desire”) has a mono-emotional tone of despair which feels immature and melodramatic. For example, at one point the narrator complains that “I’m always alone, melancholic. Nobody understands my sadness. The smells here resemble me. Dismal and painful smells.”

This mood of depression permeates the rest of the collection. As the first story bleeds into the second, the same young woman now reveals the reasons for her aimless wanderings. “Yeon-du, Seventeen Years Old,” the longest and most ambitious story in the book, tells the miserable tale of this young woman’s rape followed by the murder of her close friend, through a series of painful flashbacks as she wanders the streets of Seoul with an old man who she calls “Sir.” The characters in this piece are so emotionally distant, so deeply depressed, that their self-destructive behavior almost feels inevitable right from the beginning. Unfortunately, with such opaque characters, there is little for readers to connect with or even relate to, and as a result, the story lacks any real emotional resonance.

Despite Kim Nak-ho’s dismissal that “the story doesn’t entirely meet our expectations,” the third story is actually one of the book’s standouts. “Utility” is a Tarantino-esque tale about a disaffected group of classmates arguing over how to dispose of a body. While the story lacks much of the absurdist pop humor present in, say, Pulp Fiction, the casual way the characters discuss their morbid task as if they were having a class debate contains similar elements of dark comedy, and despite having been co-written by Yun In-wan, “a well-known writer in the world of manwha for teenagers,” the piece shows off Byung-Jun’s keen understanding of visual storytelling.

In “A Song For You,” Byung-Jun employs a drastically different artistic approach, using minimalist compositions enhanced with muted watercolors (this is the only color story in the book) to create a starkly moving tragedy. Once again, the story is weighed down by emotionally distant and deeply alienated characters, but the stylistic shift in artwork provides a welcome touch of aesthetic beauty which elevates this story by contrast to the earlier pieces.

The best story, “202, Sinil Villa,” for which Byung-Jun won a “promising young talent” award in Japan, starts off like a typical autobiographical piece featuring the young cartoonist secluded in his studio, lamenting the demise of a past relationship. But halfway in, the story veers off into an unexpected and delightful tangent, as the artist lets his imagination take flight. The twist ending in this particular tale is satisfying both for its unpredictability and its self-deprecating tone.

“Courage, Grandfather!” the book’s penultimate story, shows Byung-Jun at his most playful. The story’s narrator is an elderly cat named “Grandfather,” who is desperately in love with his young owner, and stricken with jealousy over her wandering affections. This unusual perspective is a clever technique even if Byung-Jun doesn’t fully pull it off. Struggling to explain the actions of its lead characters, the story drifts away from the cat’s perspective at certain points and focuses instead on a series of unlikely coincidences to justify the odd relationship that evolves throughout the tale.

The final story, simply titled “A Short Tall Tale” is another standout, although, like “202, Sinil Villa,” its strength comes from collaboration (this story was “inspired by” Yang Seung-Chan). The visuals show the cartoonist talking on the telephone to an unspecified woman, perhaps a girlfriend or former lover; the specifics are never made clear. He is telling her a myth about three celestial beings in love with the same human woman, and the lengths each goes to win her heart. The artist recounts this story while wandering through his studio, smoking a cigarette, and the divergent nature of the visuals and the narration “encourages the reader to lend his attention to the relationship between the hero and his invisible girlfriend, rather than to the story being told.”

The variety of art styles on display in this book reveal a restless artist, forever pushing and experimenting with form and technique. From the beautiful watercolors in “A Song For You,” to the many photo-referenced urban scenes (obsessively recreated with a variety of pens and brushes, as well as digitally-added screens, patterns and grayscales), it’s clear that Byung-Jun is immensely talented. But his artwork suffers from repetition (virtually every story features cold cityscapes and equally distant young characters wandering these sterile streets). Byung-Jun also tends to over-rely on photo references in this collection. In panel after meticulously rendered panel, the artist depicts every insignificant crack in the sidewalk or hair on a character’s head. His clothing is an assault of wrinkles and folds. The artwork is frequently beautiful, and certainly demonstrates an artist with impressive skill and devotion; however, the overwhelming amount of irrelevant detail actually detracts from the often wistful, melancholic nature of the stories.

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In the end, Mijeong feels like a statement by a vastly talented artist desperate to create a great work, but unsure of what he wants to say. In his brief acknowledgements at the end of the book, Byung-Jun is painfully aware of the unevenness of the book. “I’ve been drawing manwhas for some time now, but I feel like I’m going in circles,” he writes. “I see no progress, except for that of worries. My second collection of stories, Mijeong, totally reflects my current state of mind: eternally hesitant, I feel like I’m stuck in an impasse.”

This overly harsh critique leaves a bitter aftertaste. Byung-Jun is right, in a sense, that these seven stories lack in compelling drama (Kim Nak-ho cites Byung-Jun’s “lack of plot twists that might captivate the reader” as his chief criticism of the book); however, this negative attitude could prove damaging to the elusive artistic development he craves. Rather than “eternally hesitant,” Mijeong feels like the work of a perfectionist, an artist with profound ability but struggling to say something equally profound about the human condition.

Further Reading:

Andrew Wheeler’s review at Comicmix

Rob Clough’s review at High Low

Melinda Beasi’s review at PopCulture Shock

Greg McElhatton’s review at Read About Comics

Lee Newman’s review at Broken Frontier

Alan Cranis’ review at Bookgasm

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