Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa strikes me as the Oscar-bait of manhwa; it is a prestige release. You release this to win awards and gain great praise from reviewers and comic experts but never get more than a handful of mainstream sales. It is a historical, slice-of-life comic about a young Korean girl named Ehwa and her journey towards womanhood. It depicts Ehwa discovering her first feelings for a boy which parallels her widowed mother finding a new love. It is quite frank about the physical development and emotional changes of growing up. Overall, I found in enjoyable if very sedate. The characters were engaging and I was slightly amused by their constant use of metaphor during conversation. It was a stark contrast to the very base matters that are often the point of discussion. The character designs are simple but effective and have a traditional ink drawing feel to them. The backgrounds alternate between being very ornate, especially with some of the full-page spreads, to totally nonexistent during conversations. Most people are going to be captivated immediately or quickly turned off by either the slice-of-life nature or the earthy tone of the book. Still it is a good read for people who want their comics to have the weight of more award-winning prose.
Color of Earth touts itself as a unique work and I would agree. It easily pushes itself with its matter-of-factness of learning about one’s sexuality but at the same time tends toward metaphor and innuendo in people’s conversations. As we follow Ehwa she often finds herself at a loss because of the way people phrase things. It goes to show that even though she has to learn these things, it can be hard to get people to give you a straight answer. And unfortunately that is what Ehwa really needs. But like everyone else in life, you learn about things eventually and get it all straight in your head, sort of. The mother and daughter relationship is at the forefront and the most interesting development in this book. As we go along they become more like confidants rather than parent and child. This seems to happen for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they don’t have any men in the house. The art is very classic feeling. It fits the time period of the book and makes it seem more like fine art than sequential at times. I’d say this series is worth checking out just based on having never read anything else like it. I can’t say it is a story I would normally read, but it is has a charm that requires me to finish reading it.
Color of Water flows from the first book (Color of Earth) without missing a beat. Ehwa had two potential relationships that failed to bloom but soon finds herself falling for a young wrestler. Her mother continues her relationship with the traveling calligraphist. If the theme of the first volume was discovering love then the main theme in this volume seems to be waiting for relationships to develop and dealing with long distance relationships. The closeness of Ehwa and her mother grows a little more distant. As with any teenager, Ehwa needs to develop a little more away from her mother and she begins to keep much more to herself. The frank nature of discovering your sexuality continues into this book especially when it comes to masturbation. Overall, the storytelling and artwork remain top notch.
Color of Water starts to take a turn towards self-discovery both in the physical sense and the mental sense. We continue our journey with Ehwa as she feels like the only person floundering in all the new sensations of womanhood. Her friends are marrying or dallying with young men where Ehwa is still toying with the idea of what a man truly symbolizes for a woman. When she first learns of masturbation and her first experience with it are candid but honest. All the while giving her heart away as happens so frequently to a young girl. The naive quality about her is symbolic of her age but it is more symbolic of who Ehwa truly is and what is in her heart. What is a wonderful parallel to Ehwa’s growing maturity is her mother’s new found happiness that makes her seem like a young woman again. This along with the moments of bonding and recoiling between mother and daughter in the book are truly the most magnificent reflection of life. The second book in this trilogy captured me more than the first. It makes waiting for the final act a little hard.
And so ends Kim Dong Hwa’s Color series with the Color of Heaven. The series proves itself to be a classic Shakespearean comedy despite the fact that it is not an Elizabethan play. That means that it ends on a positive note with a wedding of a couple that has been separated. We begin with Duksam having to leave the village after the events in the last book. Now Ehwa must, like her mother, wait patiently for the man she loves to return to her. It is also her mother’s turn to support her daughter. But all is well that ends well. Ehwa resolves any lingering feelings she has for past loves before her wedding and we end with a consummation scene that is mostly symbolic but does not shy away from being tastefully graphic. Overall the series has been consistently solid. The Color Trilogy has maintained its highbrow feel while still having a graceful humanity. With its relatively short but substantial length and its more mature narrative the Color series is a manhwa to show to people who might not necessarily give your standard manga a chance.
The beginning of The Color of Heaven starts very somberly as Ehwa is separated from Duksam and knows not when he will return. The first two books build up to this point of falling truly in love, so the third has a lot of quiet moments of introspection and realization. Also about half of the book involves waiting and waiting. However, that isn’t to say it is boring, much to the credit of the author, the growth between mother and daughter is subtle and beautiful. Ehwa’s mother is a woman who knows through maturity the power of longing and waiting and she imparts many important lessons on Ehwa in this final volume. In fact, much of this concluding story seems to be as much about her mother as it is about Ehwa. But perhaps even more telling is Ehwa’s ability to understand these lessons while still maintaining a hint of her naivete when it comes to the relationships between man and woman unlike her moments in the first two book. What becomes increasingly obvious through various conversations with her friend and mother is Ehwa’s ability to emotionally understand herself and her love but not to physically understand the relationships between the sexes. The finally moments of the book play out between Ehwa and Duksam while being interspersed with her mother and the picture man and also a set of neighbors. You feel her education while not complete has finally gotten to a new plateau. The Color series has been both artistically unique and calmly enthralling and as such is a series that needs to be read and experienced.