January 1, 2010


by Kim Dong Hwa; translated by Lauren Na
First Second  (publisher)

Review by S. F. Winser

Take a 50-odd year-old male, Korean-comic-book artist (manwha rather than manga). Add a story about a widowed mother and her pre-pubescent daughter. Interweave themes of sexual exploration and puberty in a male-dominated society. Call it 'The Colour Trilogy'. Sit back and wait for the horror.

Let's hear it for menstruation! Yay!

Except... Well... Kim pulls it off. This is a graphic novel about first crushes, wet dreams and – yes – even menstruation. And it's not just a sweet way to tell a story like this. It's simply a nice, sweet story. Full Stop. (I almost wrote 'Period' but even I backed away from that pun).

The story itself is simple. A young girl in 1900's rural Korea grows up with her widowed mother. Her mother has a sweet love affair with a traveling calligraphy artist. The daughter gets a crush on a novice monk. The monk gets a crush back. The girl and the monk start going through puberty. And that's pretty much it. There are no surprise serial killings, alien battles or even little lost orphans, starving on Christmas morn. It's a simple set of circumstances traced through small, artistic moments.

I've been a fan of graphic novels for quite some time. I thought I was beyond being surprised by the versatility of the medium. But this is a beautiful work. The artwork is delicate and evocative. For audiences used to western graphic novels and Japanese manga, there are subtle stylistic differences – all of which just make this feel like an exploration into a new world. But the interaction between the mother and daughter characters is the heart and soul of a book that already has heart and soul dripping off the pages. The author credits his mother with the inspiration for the story and all I can say is that they must have had some very, very frank talks when he was younger. The book deals honestly and openly with icky and literally sticky subjects in a way that can only be called tender. Even charming.

This isn't a kid's book. Though I wouldn't stop younger readers from picking it up – they may even learn something - it's very much a story for adults. I am already in a battle with my library manager for who gets to read books two (Colour of Water) and three (Colour of Heaven) first. She is currently winning. I am, however, recommending it to everyone who has young girls. Young children. Hell, if you ever went through puberty: this book is the only exploration of the theme of pubescence that made me sigh, smile, and say: 'Oh, wasn't that nice'.

Arguably, that makes it entirely unrealistic in an 'aliens battle against hordes of serial-killing orphans on Christmas morn' kind of way. Puberty isn't nice. At least, mine wasn't and I'm doubting very much that yours was. But, for an hour or two, 'Colour of Earth' made me believe that it could be. That it should be. And that, even if I have to fight hordes of alien Christmas orphans, I would try to make sure that my kids have an experience more like that in 'Colour of Earth' than real life would like them to have.

Puberty should be love and blossoming spirits and flowers. And when it's not, we should think that it could be.

'Color of Earth' made me believe puberty could be cherished rather than obliterated and forgotten until teams of psychologists can dig out the memories with powerful drugs and expensive therapy. As is normally the case.

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