The Color of Earth
The Color of Water
The Color of Heaven
Written & Illustrated by Kim Dong Hwa
Translated by Lauren Na
Published by First Second
Ambitious. Kim Dong Hwa’s trilogy tracks a mother and daughter in the time of pre-industrial Korea as the younger comes of age, following her from the age of seven until her wedding night ten years later. Young Ehwa is, as the books allude consistently, a flower coming into bloom. Hwa based the story loosely on stories his own mother told him of her childhood, which perhaps supports the incredible air of authenticity that permeates the entire saga.
The Color of Earth begins with Ehwa finding two local boys engaged in a contest to see who can urinate farther than the other. Surprised by the anatomical differences between herself and the boys, Ehwa asks her mother if she is deformed and begins her slow awakening. Hwa manages to balance the inevitable base sexuality of this process with a gentle, poetic touch. A first period, a first wet dream, masturbation, a widowed mother’s sex life and repeated allusions to sexuality are all handled head on, yet softened by Hwa’s poetic language and insistent allusions to flowers and seasons.
It’s boldly sexual, yet steadfastly determined to be allusive and suggestive, a dichotomy that sometimes limits Hwa’s ability to drive home the physical nature of sexuality. Yet he’s consistently able to get to the emotional core of each moment. Ehwa’s belief that she’s about to die when she has her first period is palpable, yet quickly turns to joy and laughter when her mother explains the truth.
In the latter portion of the trilogy, the obsession with marriage and attracting a man may seem chauvinistic, yet it’s hard to argue that such as the custom of the time. Hwa does little to blunt the social expectations of the time, keeping the authenticity throughout. The book’s only slight failing is in Hwa’s limited ability to draw people. The backgrounds, particularly in the detailed double-page rural vistas, are jaw-dropping, detailed and impeccably realized landscapes. Hwa’s supporting characters are rendered with a solid eye to their comic personalities, yet Ehwa and her mother – both beautiful women – becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish as Ehwa enters adulthood. Yes, they are mother and daughter and should look somewhat similar, but one is also twenty years older yet looks essentially identical. Similarly, the comparisons of women to flowers – evolving across three full books – eventually become repetitive and lose some meaning.
As The Color of Earth finds both women in similar straits, waiting for loved men who must earn their fortune elsewhere, The Color of Heaven allows Hwa to explore the differences between Ehwa’s youth and enthusiasm against her mother’s experience and expectation. The respectful relationship balances love and understanding against youth’s need to press against boundaries and an aging person’s jealousy of youth and beauty in those who can’t fully appreciate what they have.
The Color trilogy – The Color of Earth, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven – manages to revisit an era of Korean history with an eye to historical detail, while maintaining a universal understanding of mothers, daughters and the evolving relationship between the two. The entire saga is beautifully, poetically human, particularly in its confusion and misunderstandings, and stands about the better comics of the year.