Hotel Africa Vol. 1 by Hee Jung Park, Tokyopop, $12.99.
Fever Vol. 1 by Hee Jung Park, Tokyopop, $9.99.
Several months ago, back before Tokyopop entered the “going under for the first time” phase of their corporate career, much ado was made of the company signing a multi-book publishing deal with Korean author Hee Jung Park, dubbed by ICv2 to be one of the country’s “top female creators.” Here’s what TOKYOPOP Editor-in-Chief Rob Tokar had to say in the initial press release:
“Hee Jung Park is a phenomenal talent as well as a manga superstar. Along with her bestselling sequential art, her work has been collected in art books and gallery shows around the world. “Inventive”, “unusual” and “sophisticated” are words that often arise in discussions about Ms. Park’s manga classics and we are both excited and proud to publish them.”
A quote like that is just setting itself up for a fall, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing: I haven’t had too much luck with manhwa. While I understand there are some highly regarded titles out there, most of the Korean comics I’ve read have been noticeably sub-par — mediocre at best, sloppy and excruciating to read at worst.
So I was curious, would Park’s work prove to be the exception? Would it be the work that finally woke me to the splendor that is manhwa?
Sadly no. While I can partly see what makes Park’s work appealing, it’s an appeal that’s largely lost on me.
Let’s start with Hotel Africa, since it’s one of Park’s earliest works and Tokyopop had such faith in the series that they printed it in a larger trim size and included color pages and whatnot.
I’m not sure why they bothered, however, because the book is sentimental hogwash of the very worst kind. It ostensibly takes place in America and its lead character is African-American, but it has no knowledge of or interest in American history that I can ascertain. It’s the sort of book you might imagine someone who’s never lived or visited the country, or knows about racism or the treatment of Native Americans or really has any basic understanding of human behavior whatsoever might produce. And Park’s general ignorance towards her subject matter makes it no less offensive.
The central character is Elvis (oho!) a young, lithe, black male who lives in a nondescript city with an equally lithe and young woman and man, both of whom appear to be sexually interested in our hero.
Each chapter begins the same way: some drama involving one of Elvis’ roommates starts the lad reminiscing about his childhood, spent in the Utah desert at the (you guessed it) Hotel Africa. Elvis lived there with his mom, grandmother (both, it should be mentioned, white) and a vagabond American Indian named (ahem) Geo, also lithe and handsome and mysterious in a New-Age sorta way. (ooooo!)
Despite living in the middle of nowhere, lots of people keeps showing up to the hotel, all with problems that are conveniently solved by the end of each chapter.
Never one to let realistic emotions stand in her way, Park ramps up the melodrama and sentiment as much as possible, to the point where it smothers the book.
More problematic though is the American setting and its characters. Park doesn’t seem to care too much about keeping any sort of chronological coherence, but an early flashback tells us what a big Presley fan Elvis’ mom was. That would set the early part of the story in the late 50s or perhaps early 60s. We could be generous and say 1970. Even so, imagine what a young single woman in the southwest, having an out-of-wedlock child, with a man of a different ethnic background, would have to endure at that period of time. Whatever you imagine, it’s more than conceivable than anything Park dreamed up here.
No doubt Park thought the Western setting would allow her fairy tale story a bit of leeway, since most of her young Korean readers are as familiar with the country as she is. On these shores, however, such liberties come off as not merely laughable, but intensely annoying.
Having forced myself to get through Hotel Africa, I dreaded picking up the first volume of Fever, one of Park’s more recent works.
Thankfully, it’s a much better work. Park’s art is more assured here and even stylish at times. Her storytelling and characters are a bit more sophisticated and she thankfully pulls in enough on the melodrama so that I didn’t feel the need to gag. Plus, it’s set in Korea.
Which is not to say that it’s a complete success. Park’s characters still come off as a bit shallow, and Fever jumps between characters and plot lines so often that it can be a bit confusing at times to figure out what’s going on. Her characters resemble porcelain dolls at times and, again, they act out in ways that bear little resemblance to real people and live in a world free of consequences (one teen stabs another with a pencil yet is merely expelled — not jailed or sent to a treatment center).
The plot involves a group of angsty teen-agers, one of whom is dealing with the recent suicide of her best friend. A mysterious place named “Fever” becomes a focal point for most of these youths though why or how is left to future volumes to explore. This is all set-up and while there were parts of the book that I thought were well executed, ultimately I didn’t find myself caring enough about the characters or the plot to want to pick up volume 2.
But (and that’s a big but) if I were a 12-year-old girl who wore black a lot and filled her journal with poetry I would probably take to Fever like Homer Simpson to a donut. Ultimately, Hee Jung Park is giving her readers exactly what they want. Whether it’s what they need is a question best saved for another time.