Reviewby Casey Brienza,
One Thousand and One Nights
The Sultan Shahryar has decided that he wants to go see the ocean. And so, accompanied by the beautiful weaver of tales Sehara (and his loyal bodyguard Maseru), he does just that. After rolling about in a field all day, Shahryar and Sehara bunk down at a local inn. There they meet the young runaway Aisha and her tutor Alex. Turns out that Aisha had been betrothed against her will to someone she does not love in order to save her from the Sultan's now legendary—and deadly—predations. For the first time realizing the grievous error of his ways, Shahryar renounces his monstrous behavior, while Sehara helps the lovers evade capture and escape. Then, after they both return to the palace, Sehara tells Shahryar a story about a time when Socrates was in love…
Unlike mainstream American comics, which are typically produced collaboratively by a specialized cohort of creators, Japanese manga—and those Korean manhwa drawn from the Japanese model—typically have (at least theoretically) only one. Unfortunately, most individual creators, being human, are not equally skilled at all of the myriad tasks that go into the creation of sequential art. More often than not, the artwork is lovely, but the story is poor. Or vice versa.
So on those rare occasions when there is collaboration, the result can be sheer magic. And sure enough, One Thousand and One Nights is an enticingly exotic, creative marriage made in manhwa heaven. Though inspired by the classic Persian story cycle of the same name, this is no mere comic adaptation—the series thrums with its own exquisite aesthetic and sensual sensibilities. Story writer JinSeok Jeon imbues its narrative with an amateur scholar's fascination with folklore, history, and cultural practice, while artist SeungHee Han brings that narrative to life with her distinctively high-class art style and sexy character designs.
Modeled after the original Arabian Nights cycle, the manhwa consists of two parts: 1) the overarching, unifying frame story and 2) numerous tales within the main tale. The frame story follows the familiar formula; a gifted storyteller distracts the Sultan night after night from his murderous appetites. The novel conceit of this manhwa, however, is that the aforementioned gifted storyteller is not a beautiful and brilliant woman named Scheherazade but rather a mild-mannered but virtuous man named Sehara who disguises himself as his sister in order to protect her from Sultan Shahryar's predations. In the process, he hopes to dissuade his liege from killing innocent virgins…and he is also, in spite of himself, falling in love.
Which, as one might expect, Shahryar eventually starts to reciprocate. Cue the yaoi fangirl squeals. In this volume, he takes a major step toward repentance when he comes face to face with the harm his lust for vengeance has done to a pair of innocent lovebirds, and while protecting them from his own guards, he lands himself in an apparently “compromising” position with Sehara. The two also engage in a bout of shirtless Turkish wrestling while coated in olive oil, har har. Jeon develops the story of their burgeoning relationship beautifully; he has clearly put a lot of thought into every aspect of it. The reader sees their personalities evolve and deepen over time, and there are moments of both passion and gentle humor.
Volume five represents a nice balance of frame story and tale within a tale. Some of these tales, incidentally, are borrowed from the original Arabian Nights, but others are not. This one is not. It cannot, for that matter, even be characterized as “Oriental”! The latter half of the book takes the reader to Ancient Athens and the world of the philosopher Socrates. At a time, of course, when Socrates fell in love. Or, rather, a beautiful but vainglorious boy falls in love with Socrates. The tales within a tale thus far have not been particularly homoerotic; this is a marked change of pace for One Thousand and One Nights. Clearly, the creators have decided that this is what sells and are going with it full steam ahead. The “Socrates in Love” tale will continue into volume six.
Fortunately, Han's artwork is eminently suited to the proverbial bishounen in love. She has previously published boy's love manhwa in Korea, and she has mastered the style. Her work resembles that of Ichiko Ima or Saika Kunieda, veteran mangaka who have crossed over from josei into BL. Fans of Fuyumi Soryo, a popular shoujo creator who has recently taken up work on the seinen side of manga production, may also see echoes of her fluid, confident draftsmanship in Han. Han, for her part, lays out her panels with perfect assurance, and although she does not dwell overmuch on the many historic backgrounds of the piece, her character designs are gorgeous. Sehara in particular (see the cover) looks like an adorable kitten.
The one downside to One Thousand and One Nights is the poor picture quality of its English-language edition and its hideous cover design (a holdover from ICE Kunion that Yen Press has tragically preserved). Was it done on PowerPoint? Fortunately, the manhwa's considerable assets mean that many readers will be too busy drooling all over the pages to notice that they look like jumped up photocopies.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ A new take on an old classic that captivates both with its cultural depth and its abundant eye candy.