Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 4th 2008
Elvis Spillane is a young man trying to break into the film industry, along with his friends Ed and July. The life of a twentysomething slacker has its ups and downs, but that's nothing new to Elvis, whose unusual childhood was spent growing up in rural Utah, raised by his mother and grandmother in a bed-and-breakfast called Hotel Africa. While spending time with his friends, Elvis reflects on his childhood memories: the travelers who passed through the hotel, the ways they touched his life, and how he might have touched theirs.
Hee Jung Park says it took ten years to publish the first volume of Hotel Africa. As it turns out, the gestation period was worth it—this is a unique work that successfully blends short story, memoir and personal drama. And who knew that a foreigner could create such a striking portrait of the American heartland? In fact, it barely even feels like a comic; the writing and characters are so well-developed that it reads more like an illustrated version of a modern literary novel. Fortunately, it won't take as long to finish as a novel, although readers will probably still be wanting more by the time they get to the end. That's where the advantage of being a serialized work comes in: unlike a typical novel, Hotel Africa has more volumes to come.
But before thinking too far ahead, let's look at the content of this volume. The first few pages are quick to introduce the main characters, and from there it slips into flashback mode and tells a brief tale of Elvis' childhood. That's basically the formula for each of the 24-page chapters in this book—show a brief scene from the present day, and then tie it into a memory—but it turns out to be an amazingly powerful formula. By picking out key moments in the characters' lives, each chapter is able to deliver maximum emotional impact, while also revealing more about them: the long-term hotel guest who became like a father to Elvis, the relationship between July and the nanny who raised her (a genuine tearjerker of a chapter), and even something cute like Elvis' first boyhood crush. These scenes from childhood are all touching in their own way, and by connecting them to the characters' present-day adult lives, the series also comes with a sense of continuity.
However, as with any short story collection (even one with a recurring set of characters), some efforts turn out better than others. The chapters that involve passing travelers at the hotel aren't quite as impactful as the ones that involve the main cast—sure, they still tackle those big, heart-stirring issues like love and family and death, but when it involves characters that only show up once, it doesn't connect quite as powerfully. The present-day storyline has its weaknesses too: it only takes up a few pages of each chapter, and because of that, we see little development between Elvis, Ed and July. About midway through there is a chapter that eventually explains how they met, but the three friends would probably benefit from getting into a more involved storyline instead of just deferring to Elvis' childhood memories every time.
Park's artwork isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but it is certainly beautiful, combining touches of old-school shoujo with stylish, modern lines. Each character design is unique, with Elvis's dark skin and dreadlocks being the most distinctive of all: in fact, his biracial background is brought up a couple of times in the story, adding even more depth to the character. The renditions of the Utah landscape are also a strong point in the artwork; the rugged rock formations and wide expanses are as striking as any fantasy world in the comics medium. The layouts and visual storytelling are a bit less dramatic, though, with stately rectangular panels leading the way. There are some departures from the norm—Chapter 9, "Geo's Story," is drawn in an entirely freeform layout—but with story and character being uppermost, the panels try to avoid being too flashy or confusing. Even within these prim and proper rectangles, though, the artwork is still a beauty.
More beauty can be found in the eloquent writing style of the series—this may be one of the few times where there's a lot of text on the page and it's not a bad thing. Whether it's because the text translates really well, or just that Park is a superb writer, the dialogue and narration in this book is a step above most other comics and manga. Sound effects, meanwhile, don't come up very often (this is about as far removed as it can get from the action genre, after all) but most of them have been translated into English. One still finds the occasional Korean sound effect in the art, but it doesn't really affect the reading experience.
This volume's $12.99 price is justified by its premium treatment: a surprising 16 pages of glossy, full-color art at the front, plus a larger-than-normal print size and over 250 pages of content in total. Clearly, this is not your average commercially-produced work, and the unique publishing format confirms that.
When creative types try to create stories about foreign cultures, they often end up fudging things along the way—but with Hotel Africa, we have a Korean telling a story of an American life ... and actually succeeding. The secret of her success? Focus on the characters and their stories first, and let the world develop around them. The rugged Utah desert and the humble furnishings of Hotel Africa are simply backdrops for something much more powerful: the forces of love, family, and friendship. These themes are universal to all cultures, and the story's unique setting makes it all the more fresh and striking. It was a ten years well spent for Hee Jung Park, because the end result is a collection of stories that truly touches the heart.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ An emotionally moving collection of stories about childhood, packed with memorable characters, powerful emotions and gorgeous art.