Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Manhwa creator Yeon-Sik Hong and his aspiring picture book author wife are stagnating in the bustle of Seoul. On the spur of the moment, they decide to rent a house on a mountain in the Jukyeop forest, and to get back to nature while being better able to concentrate on their work. With their three cats, they move out to near-total isolation and learn not only to appreciate nature and solitude, but also that sometimes the problem isn't where you are – it's what you've been telling yourself.
Yeon-sik Hong's Uncomfortably Happily, originally published in two volumes in South Korea and here given the omnibus treatment by Drawn & Quarterly, is the sort of autobiographical piece that makes you think about your own life. Not in a deeply reflective way, but rather in that it is ultimately relatable if you've been living on your own trying to make responsible life decisions and act like an adult. It covers the two years in Hong's life when he and his wife Sohmi Lee decide to leave their apartment in Seoul for an isolated house in the countryside. When the story opens, Hong is a disillusioned manhwa creator, writing a comic series that he doesn't really care about on a contract basis. His wife isn't employed, but instead is trying to polish her picture book manuscripts for a major competition. Both worry about money, about inspiration, and quite a bit about Hong's motivation, which is flagging. The country sounds like the ideal place to put everything back into perspective without breaking the bank and without the distractions of the city.
The house they find is outside of a small village in the Jukyeop Forest, which Hong mentions has been a nature preserve for four hundred years. While they do have a neighbor, he's a seasonal resident, so the two of them are largely alone on their mountain. This proves both exhilarating and frightening: there's so much nature and beauty that they feel overwhelmed with it, but also being by themselves, Hong has no distractions to blame for his lack of progress, and he ends up fielding (or flat-out avoiding) the same nit-picky phone calls from his desperate editor as before. In other words, their surroundings may have changed, but Hong and Sohmi remain the same.
At least they do at first. One of the greatest strengths of this 500+ page volume is the slow evolution of Hong himself. While he never quite comes to terms with either his editors or contract work, and the way that they prevent him from creating his own original graphic novel, he does slowly begin to understand his own negativity and procrastination. We see this most clearly with regards to his wife's work – when she wins her competition, Hong is forced to really evaluate his own position. He realizes that just because he sees things one way that doesn't mean that everyone will, an idea that has been seeded throughout the book but never put into words before this point, roughly three-quarters of the way through. He recognizes it when he hears an editor praise Sohmi's art as “quirky” where he saw it as flawed, but it's something he's been experiencing from the beginning of the story. Not only does his editor's preferred method of relaying her changes to his script come into it – he sees her insistence on phone conversations as intrusive rather than helpful – it's also about how he views the mountain he lives on as opposed to hikers who litter the trails and park in his yard. This ultimately becomes the most significant factor in not only his understanding of his own worldview versus those of others, but also in terms of how he lives his life. This truly becomes clear when he tries to get a councilman from the nearby village to do something about summer littering: he tells the disinterested man that there's a risk of polluting a local pond, which has been identified as Seonnyeo Pool, the site of the folktale about the heavenly maiden and the herdsman. (As a note, this is story is the basis for Yu Watase's Ceres: Celestial Legend and exists throughout the world.) While Hong feels very strongly that this pond should be preserved in pristine condition, the councilman just sort of shrugs it off, along with the problem of people parking and littering in general. Hong is enraged, but it's ultimately futile; like with Sohmi's illustrations, his opinion turns out not to be the one that counts.
The illustrations in the book help to show this. Varying between beautiful forest scenery that is both detailed and sparse – oddly it's the details on the trees that can make the rest of the scene seem so blank – the closest comparison would probably be with the work of Shigeru Mizuki. Like Mizuki, Hong uses a very cartoony style for himself and Sohmi, along with the other people in the book, but shows much more realism when it comes to backgrounds and the natural world in general. It makes it feel as if only the world is real, while the humans are just visitors in it, which emphasizes the way that Hong and Sohmi feel when they are alone on the mountain. The countryside imagery nicely juxtaposes with city scenes, where the closeness of the buildings make Seoul seem claustrophobic in the extreme, almost as if everything is leaning in on Hong when he has to visit. If you're not a city person, you'll recognize the feeling, especially when Hong first returns to Seoul after having been on the mountain for a while.
Being so rooted in daily South Korean life, there are aspects of the story that will seem strange or off-putting for some readers, such as several mentions of eating dog meat or the fact that when Hong and Sohmi get a dog, he is kept strictly outside, even in winter. Animal people will also notice that the two male cats are drawn as unneutered; this may just be to show that only one of the cats is female, or it may reflect that attitude that neutering male animals emasculates them. (That Hong and Sohmi love their pets is never in question, however.) The use of coal to heat the house may also strike some readers.
For the most part, however, Uncomfortably Happily is a very easy book to find yourself in. Whether Hong is talking to multiple versions of himself, getting angry at the uselessness of trying to make things better, or simply being happy that he and Sohmi are together in a beautiful place, there's something recognizably human about the story. Translator Hellen Jo comments that identified strongly with what she sees as specifically Korean elements of the text; perhaps we can all recognize elements of ourselves within it regardless of where we're from. In its own quiet, unassuming way, Uncomfortably Happily holds up a mirror of our insecurities and efforts to be successful.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Relatable for those struggling with adulthood, themes are excellently seeded throughout the text, art mingles the cartoony with realistic nicely
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