House of 1000 Manga
One Thousand and One Nights

by Jason Thompson, Jul 17th 2014

One Thousand and One Nights

"You don't need to write what really happened. Why don't you write the ending as you wish it to happen instead?"

Poor manhwa. While Japanese comics have enjoyed fame and success in North America and elsewhere, Korean comics have generally been overshadowed by the popularity of their neighbors across the perhaps-controversially-named Sea of Japan. There are dozens of English-language books on manga, but only one or two on manhwa. There are magazines and blogs and conventions devoted to manga, many of which cover manhwa at best in passing. To use a comparison: Korean and Japanese food are different, and it's not wrong or racist to prefer one over the other, but how lame would it be if there were nothing in America but Japanese restaurants, nothing but books on sushi and washoku, and restaurant critics acted like soft tofu and gogigui didn't exist? Of course, I'm guilty too; I could redo one thing about my book Manga: The Complete Guide (apart from updating it, of course) it'd be to add a section on manhwa.

One Thousand and One Nights, drawn by Han SeungHee and written by Jeon JinSeok, is one of my favorite manhwa. I picked it up as soon as I saw Han SeungHee's art, those beautiful bishonen (I don't even know the Korean word for this), the lavish drawings of palaces and palm trees that transport you to a historic world. Originally published in Korea in Wink magazine and printed in America by ICE Kunion and Yen Press, it's a adventure-romance loosely inspired by the famous Middle Eastern collection of stories by the same name—"a truly bizarre rewriting of the Nights for female Korean teenagers," according to someone on Wikipedia who obviously knows more about the Arabian Nights than about the Boy's Love genre. It's not exactly Boy's Love, it's not exactly boy's comics or girls' comics, and this genre-shifting unpredictability is one of the things that keeps you reading after you get past the fine art and the sexy ephebes with their jewel-like eyes.

Hundreds of years ago in Baghdad, there lived Sehara, a beautiful young scholar, who loved stories from faraway lands. Sehara lived with his half-sister Dunya, making a living as a scribe, buying foreign books from an old Chinese merchant and translating them into Arabic. His half-sister loved him more than anyone on Earth; in fact, she wanted to marry him, which was not unthinkable at the time. But unfortunately for the two siblings, the Sultan of Baghdad, Shahryar, had gone mad. Each night the Sultan married a different beautiful woman, and each night he killed her. The wise emir (prince) Jafar tried to stop the Sultan's madness, but was sent to prison for opposing him.

When Shahryar picked Dunya for his next bride, Sehara knew he had to save his sister. When the soldiers came for her, Sehara disguised as a woman and took his sister's place in the Sultan's harem. The handsome Sultan was angry to discover the ruse, and ordered Sehara to be lashed. But before he could be executed, Sehara asked the Sultan to spare him long enough to tell Shahryar a story. All night, Sehara told his tale, and in the morning he gave himself up to the Sultan's mercy…but by then the Sultan was so fascinated by Sehara's stories, he could not kill him. And so he gave him another night to live and tell a tale, and then another.

Over many nights, Sehara changes from a prisoner to the royal bard, whose stories calmed the Sultan's anger. He learns the story behind the Sultan's madness: Shahryar had once been a noble king, bravely fighting the barbaric Crusaders from the West, but his former queen, Fatima, had betrayed him with another man, causing him to become a woman-hating madman. ("A woman is only good for one night of sex. If you spend more time with her than that, she will begin to devour your soul!") Or perhaps, as Sehara begins to suspect, the truth is even more complicated: "I'm not convinced that Sultan Shahryar hates all women because of the deception and betrayal of one woman. He must have an even deeper wound!" Over time, Sehara's desire to save his sister turns into a desire to save the Sultan, to find the source of his insanity and turn the monster back into a human being. As early as volume 2, Sehara has the chance to flee with his sister, but decides he wants to stay with the Sultan. ("You don't know him…! He just needs to find peace of mind and return to his old self! This country needs a strong leader to keep the Western armies at bay!") Can Shahryar regain his virtue with Sehara's help, while saving the kingdom from rebellion within and invaders without? Love flowers between the two men, with the fate of an empire hanging in the balance…

The story of the redemption-by-love of a tyrannical, serial-killing misogynist: well, in this way it's faithful to the original source material, so whatcha gonna do? But as the story goes on, it turns out it's not just about tales from the Arabian Nights: Sehara's stories are based on legends from China, Greece, Egypt, India, Korea and all parts of the world, all of them drawn with unique costumes, architecture and landscapes:

* the story of Princess Turandot, who requires her would-be suitors to answer three riddles, and kills those who cannot answer them correctly ("As more and more men die, the princess's beauty grows…")
* the story of a mute concubine from a foreign land who ends up in Korea, where he becomes acclaimed as a spiritual being, the "son of the dragon king," under king Heon-Gang Wang (c. 886 AD)
* the unlikely, incestuous love triangle between Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra's brother, Ptolemy XII
* a swan maiden-esque story of a woodsman who finds an "angel" bathing in the woods and makes her his wife
* the homosexual love between the philosopher Socrates and "the prettiest boy in Athens," Alcibiades
* a tale of brotherly love from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

All countries and places get exoticized here, as the story skips around in space and time. Han SeungHee's art is spectacular, the men (and occasionally women) are gorgeous, and each tale is different, although it always somehow relates to the main plot back in Baghdad and the main theme of love. I've almost never read a manga or manhwa that was structured like this, departing from the main plot for side-stories a volume or more in length: what's unbelievable is that it works. Each volume is fresh, a new experience; you never know where you'll end up next, but you know it'll look fabulous.

One other nice thing about having many short stories wrapped in a frame story is that you don't know whether the short stories will end happily or tragically. Although the violence and sex are more suggestive than explicit, the tales are emotionally raw, with murder, jealousy, passion, forbidden love, and occasionally rape (usually offscreen). Blood splatters, chakrams and scimitars clash. Both men's and women's bodies are objectified, but on the whole there's more Boy's Love fanservice than straight fanservice, with scenes of olive-oil wrestling and fingers going into inappropriate places. Since I don't know male Korean names from female ones, Han SeungHee's bishi art made me not realize at first that Jeon JinSeok, the author, was a guy. At one point he writes in his author's notes about writing BL, basically summed up as, "I think it's fair…I think it's a reflection of women's buying power…It's nice that nowadays men's bodies can be exploited too."

An uncharitable reader might say that JinSeok, as a man, couldn't/shouldn't write Boy's Love, but actually, he's surprisingly good at it. The same reader might also question JinSeok and SeungHee's right or ability to tell an "Arabian" story…but hey, they're Asian (East Asian) and the Arabian Nights are Asian (well, West Asian), so can't we all chill out about who owns what and just play with one another's toys? Probably aware of these issues, JinSeok uses One Thousand and One Nights as an exploration of cultural exchange. When Sehara tells Zhao, the Chinese merchant, about how his sister has the hots for him, Zhao says "In China, manly love is now frowned upon, but marrying within the family is." "That's the exact opposite here!" Sehara replies. Actually, this is a huge oversimplification—same-sex love did happen in the Medieval Middle East and was actually a common topic of poetry, and while cousin marriage is accepted in some Arab regions, sibling marriage has always been taboo—but the point is made, different cultures are different. JinSeok tries to do his research about Middle Eastern culture, with much talk of Allan and the Koran, definitions of "caliph" and "emir" etc., but the story is still basically a fantasy, with beardless main characters and other historical inaccuracies (for one, in Medieval times the Crusaders never got nearly as far East as Baghdad). Regardless of some slip-ups, JinSeok, like Yoshiki Tanaka in Heroic Legend of Arslan, makes his Middle Eastern heroes basically sympathetic and human. In one author's note JinSeok mentions his opposition to the Iraq War, an issue which come to the forefront towards the end of the manga, when, surprise! Sehara's storytelling ability transcends time and he tells a story of 2006 Iraq, with suicide bombers, and American soldiers casually gunning down Iraqi civilians. Unfortunately, the Iraq story, with its cameo by Osama Bin Laden and its scene of the one good American lecturing the suicide bomber ("Hey kid, how old are you anyway? At your age, you should be dreaming about the future!") comes off as merely ridiculous. Within the context of One Thousand and One Nights, the present-day story is just another exotic setting, but to modern readers with even a passing knowledge of the Middle East, it's a reminder that it's easier to write a fantasy story set somewhere far away in the distant past, than to write convincing fiction about present-day issues.

Ambiguously gendered, ambiguously cultured, this Boy's Love story written by a man, set in Ancient Iraq drawn by a Korean artist in a (arguably) Korean-Japanese style, makes great reading. It helps that SeungHee's art is so crazy good, transporting us to each new Silk Road location. Exotic settings can be a bit like costumes, letting people explore feelings and ideas that might seem inappropriate or silly in their boring everyday clothes. After all, even the story of Aladdin, one of the most archetypal Middle Eastern fairy tales, was originally set in China.

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