From the stack: Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators

I don’t know if it was editorially composed to be this way, but Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) puts its least successful pieces first, allowing the stories to build in ambition and interest as the anthology progresses. The order leaves the reader with the strongest possible impression of the collection and only a scant memory of the introductory blandness. It’s a smart choice.

Choi Kyu-Sok opens the collection with “The Fake Dove,” a reminder that pretense is an international language. In it, a manhwa artist tries to live among the homeless for an assignment. It’s exactly what you’d expect – halfhearted, privileged guilt tempered by winking cynicism. “Feel bad about their plight, but you can still complain about the way they smell.”

Catel’s “Dul Lucie” has a promising idea – the creator’s attempts to show South Korea through her trademark character’s eyes. Unfortunately, it ends up being a shapeless blend of travelogue and authorial excuse-making. It’s not without charm, though, and I’d like to read some of Catel’s other work. (This chapter is among those that suffer from sometimes awkward, seemingly rushed translation; happily, none of the really good pieces fall victim to that fate.)

Things start to perk up with “Solego’s Tree,” by Lee Doo-hoo. A gifted artist finds that masterworks can have unintended consequences in a simply structured, beautifully drawn little parable.

Alas, it’s back to the bland with Vanyda’s “Oh Pilsung Korea!” A French brother and sister (whose father is Korean) bemoan the fact that they aren’t seeing “the real Korea” during their visit. Putting aside the fact that they haven’t made any specific efforts in that direction, I always find the notion of finding the “real” anywhere kind of presumptive. If the story had been about the impracticality of expectations or the travelers’ accountability, there might have been something here.

I liked “Cinderella” by Park Heong-yong, a tale of boyhood mischief that morphs into something stranger but still welcoming. I found Mathieu Sapin’s “Beondegi” twee in the way I generally react to “normal person gets dragged into wacky misadventures by a free spirit” fiction. Byun Ki-hyun makes a conscientious effort to illustrate the ways women are underestimated and overlooked in “The Rabbit,” blending elements of fantasy into a realistic urban landscape. The results aren’t especially memorable or persuasive, though.

The anthology really takes off with Igort’s “Letters from Korea.” It displays the sharpest point of view of any of the stories up to this point, and the creator clearly filtered his experiences into a coherent, thematically resonant narrative. He recounts his experiences with artisans of various levels and types, from someone who crafts handmade notebooks to a legendary animator to the people who merely leave notes to loved ones on the border with North Korea. It’s a story with interesting things on its mind, representing a meaty kind of travel experience that’s well worth sharing.

Utterly different and even more glorious is “The Pine Tree,” by Lee Hee-jae. A large family gathers in their rural hometown for the funeral of their patriarch. It speaks clearly and eloquently of the power of tradition and the enduring bonds of home as it articulates, moment by moment, the experience of the wake, the funeral, and the landscape where they’re set. I’d love for someone to publish more of Lee’s comics if they’re even remotely close to the quality of this piece.

We’re back to travelogue with Hervé Tanquerelle’s “A Rat in the Country of Yong,” but what a travelogue it is. Tanquerelle forgoes conventional detail for wordless, anthropomorphous charm. It’s such a treat to see Tanquerelle visually frame the experience of going someplace utterly new in classic, children’s-book fashion. The experiences aren’t exactly novel, but their rendering has such endearing freshness and such a warm point of view that I doubt most readers will care.

Chaemin snaps us back into the real world with “The Rain that Goes Away Comes Back,” a glimpse at what the Korean equivalent of josei must look like. As with “The Rabbit,” Chaemin shows the challenges and choices working women face. Unlike “The Rabbit,” Chaemin doesn’t need to rely on obvious metaphor. Her protagonist, an unmarried woman working at a social service agency, makes eloquent points about the pros and cons of solitude and makes anxiety about the future palpable, while keeping it at a recognizable, human scale.

Things close out on a totally whimsical note with Guillame Bouzard’s “Operation Captain Zidane.” Bouzard, in a hilariously self-parodying frame of mind, paints his trip to Korea as a ridiculous bit of subterfuge tied to the World Cup. Bouzard neatly and winningly satirizes politics, nationalism, and manic sports fandom in this smart and frisky closer to the book.

While Korea isn’t as consistently successful as its predecessor, Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, there’s more than enough excellent material here to make it worth your time. Its high points are extremely high, and they’re varied in tone and approach. It’s about two-thirds of a good-to-great anthology, which is a totally acceptable rate of return.