Archie And Veronica? Not Hardly

When I discovered that the number two spot on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged” list for 2011was held by a comic book, I was surprised.  As a child of the 1960s, when I think comic books, I think of “Dennis the Menace” or “Superman” or “Life with Archie.”

Not a coming-of-age story about a young girl in rural Korea at the turn of the twentieth century.

Kim Dong Hwa’s “Color Trilogy,” which includes “The Color of Earth,” “The Color of Water,” and “The Color of Heaven,” is not your run-of-the-mill comic book series.  It’s “manhwa,” the Korean word for graphic novels.   But the idea is the same.  A story is told using panels of pictures, many of which contain dialogue bubbles.

“The Color of Earth” was released in Korea in 2003 and in this country in 2009.  It is the first of Kim Dong Hwa’s works to be translated into English.

The book has garnered a great deal of critical acclaim.  Booklist, in a starred review, called it “richly literate and imaginative.”  Publishers Weekly declared it “a work of great humanity.”  School Library Journal compared it to American coming-of-age stories such as “My Antonia” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”  And the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) put it on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list in 2010.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic.

Primarily because of the book’s subject matter.  “The Color of Earth” is a frank tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening.  The story begins when Ehwa, the protagonist, is seven years old.  The opening illustrations show two boys watching male beetles battle over who’ll get to mate with a female beetle.  Unaware that Ehwa is nearby, they compare the female beetle to Ehwa’s widowed mother Namwon, a tavern keeper in their small village.  Then the boys proceed to urinate off the riverbank while Ehwa watches.

No kidding.

As the years pass, Ehwa learns a little bit about love.  And a lot about anatomy and physiology.  Much of this education comes from her kind and patient mother and her new boyfriend, a traveling artist known only as “Picture Man.”  But the vulgar patrons of the tavern and a young monk-in-training named Chung-Myung have lessons of their own to impart.

Definitely not the kind of stuff I remember from the Archie comics.

And definitely not literature aimed at young readers.  Graphic Novel Reporter warns that “The Color of Earth” is “emphatically not for children.”  School Library Journal contends that it’s too mature for middle schoolers and recommends it only for readers in tenth grade and above.

I heartily concur.

But the main complaint I have with this novel has less to do with its sexual content and more to do with the fact that it absolutely bored me to tears.  Yes, the art work is amazing.  Hundreds of intricate, delicate pen-and-ink drawings, all in black-and-white except for the cover art, are stunning.  The illustrations can’t, however, make up for the fact that the story itself is almost completely without plot.  I didn’t care one whit about any of the characters.  And the trite comparison of a maturing young girl to a blossoming flower is used so often that it’s laughable.

Maybe “The Color of Earth” didn’t work for me because it’s a “girl book” written by a man.  Maybe I disliked it because I favor faster-paced stories. Or maybe the novel’s purported attributes were simply lost in translation.

But I don’t regret having read it.  And I’m glad the Putnam County Library has the entire trilogy in its collection.  Because that’s what the freedom to read is all about.

(September 23, 2012)

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