In First Second’s first six years, the publisher has had great success with original works and with importing and representing great European works. Now they’re looking a little further East, and publishing their first Asian work: Korean artist Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Earth.
And it seems like this new effort will be rewarded with just as much success, as Color of Earth is a remarkable book.
In a few sentences worth of introduction, the artist explains that this is the story of his own mother’s girlhood, “little gems from my mother’s life at sixteen.” He must have had a very close relationship with his mother, as the book is incredibly personal, as if she were the one writing and drawing her own story.
It actually begins when young Ehwa is much younger than sixteen, when she’s just a little girl and overhears older neighbor boys watching two beetles mating and comparing her widowed, tavern-owning single mother with one. Then she stumbles across two boys her own age, having a peeing contest to see who can pee farthest. Noticing their “gochoos,” she’s embarrassed and assumes that she must be deformed, since she doesn’t have one.
Her mother sets her straight on gochoos and who’s supposed to have them and who isn’t, and, in fact, sets her straight on a great deal. Dong Hwa’s narrative follows Ehwa’s gradual discovery of various elements of gender identity and sexuality, covering milestones like her learning where babies come from, having a few birds and the bees type conversations and, perhaps most (temporarily) traumatically, her first period.
While her mother kindly explains various aspects of the physical things she’s going through (and shares some beauty secrets), Ehwa’s emotional blossoming is something she keeps more to herself. When she meets a young monk and develops her first romantic feelings for a boy, it’s something of a secret of hers. By the end of the book, she has crushes of varying intensity on two different boys, has become an object of desire for a third, and has a bit of a romantic rivalry with another girl.
Dong Hwa continuously employs nature and agriculture metaphors for the changes overcoming Ehwa—fitting for the early 20th century, rural setting—so the titles and much of the talk revolves around blossoming and flowering. The most fascinating aspect isn’t necessarily the changes Ehwa experiences, but the way her relationship with her mother changes.
As her mother takes her first lover since her father died, and notices Ehwa maturing, their relationship becomes gradually more like that of one between friends and confidents rather than mother and child. While the balance between the two shift a little, their level of intimacy and affection for one another doesn’t.
Dong Hwa uses a thin, delicate line to construct his images, the highly emotive but slightly abstracted characters moving across highly detailed backgrounds in which every blade of grass or tree leaf is drawn will be comfortingly familiar to readers of manga and manhwa, while the pacing is unhurried in a way that should make the reading experience an easy one for those Western readers who are still manga-shy (I assume there are some of you out there, right?).
The book is the first part of a trilogy. First Second plans to release The Color of Water in June, followed by The Color of Heaven in September. I can’t wait.
For more on the book, including a preview, click here.