Banned Book Club is an inspiring and educational piece of graphic non-fiction from writers Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada with manhwa-influenced visuals from artists Ko Hyung-Ju. It tells the story of the 1983 student protests about South Korea’s authoritarian Fifth Republic from the perspective of Hyun Sook herself, who begins as a young, timid girl that just wants to study English literature, and ends up joining the revolution via extracurricular activities. (I will be using Kim Hyun Sook for the character and Hyun Sook for the creator.)
However, between dodging cops, dealing with her friends being arrested, and sexual harassment from her once respected literature professor, Kim Hyun Sook finds self-actualization and also learns a little bit how the world works. I mean why would a regime ban books with fascist enemies if deep down, they didn’t see a little of themselves in these books. Banned Book Club is also a strong narrative argument for the power of literature, including fiction and nonfiction, to effect change and use things like imagery and metaphor to expose the truth about the world. In that case, maybe this comic is just a tiny bit metafictional.
Hyun Sook, Estrada, and Ko Hyung-Ju do an excellent job harmonizing the words and visuals in Banned Book Club to create a certain feel on different pages or get a point across. For example, there’s a flurry of word balloons when the members of the book club get in an argument when one of their members are jailed. On the other hand, they drop out the dialogue for more tense, action-driven scenes like when Hyun Sook takes multiple buses to deliver a package from the club to one at another university as part of her “public relations” duties.
This variety in storytelling keeps Banned Book Club interesting, and I love how Hyung-Ju’s characters wear their emotions on their sleeves. He also uses shadow and differences in line thickness to show when they’re afraid, embarrassed, or more relaxed. The relaxed emotion doesn’t pop up that much in the story, but it’s on full display during the club’s 2016 class reunion when they band together to protest another authoritarian South Korean president. This epilogue adds perspective to the events of the previous chapter and also is just a damn good testimonial to the power of protest. I mean, imagine if Americans went out and protested Trump every weekend of his impeachment hearings…
Hyun Sook, Estrada, and Hyung-Ju aren’t afraid to whip up a little controversy in Banned Book Club with the club member Jihoo reading the writings of North Korea’s authoritarian dictator Kim Il-Sung under the guise of a book of love poems. (Of course, he’s the one club member who actually gets arrested.) Jihoo gets some gentle ribbing from his friends for reading “government propaganda”, but it’s a testimonial to their dedication to freedom of speech and the press that he doesn’t get censured.
The pages where he reads Kim Il-Sung’s overwrought, loaded writing shows that the freedom to read extends to books that one doesn’t agree with. But it’s also connected to the freedom to critique books. I have to give kudos to Hyun Sook, Estrada, and Hyung-Ju for using this consequence-infused scene to add ambiguity to the club’s activities. They weren’t just reading Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky and trying to save South Korea; they were also reading North Korean propaganda to compare it to the techniques their government were using. It’s an example of the book club just wanting to have freedom of inquiry at university instead of being stuck reading, thinking, and publishing (In the case of the school newspaper.) what the government approves.
Banned Book Club has its fair share of dark and tragic material like any time a member of the club is hauled in for questioning by the government. Hyung-Ju use thick cross hatching to show the pain and stress the club members are under, which is contrasted with Hyun Sook and Estrada’s dialogue for the guard, who talks about catching “bad guys” to his son on the phone. It’s the banality of evil in action showing that authoritarianism is propagated by its yes people.
Kim Hyun Sook, Ryan Estrada, and Ko Hyung-Ju turn in the next great historical non-fiction comic in Banned Book Club as they portray a pivotal time in South Korean history from a ground-level point of view. They also explore the relationship between politics and art through three-dimensional characters with even Hyun Sook’s father getting a spotlight when he tells the backstory of why he decided to start a steak restaurant and letting his daughter know that it’s okay to have dreams that aren’t in line with societal norms. Finally, Banned Book Club is a wonderful showcase for the connection between the visual and verbal, which is what the comics medium does best.
Story: Kim Hyun Sook, Ryan Estrada Art: Ko Hyung-Ju
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.2 Overall: 9.1 Recommendation: Buy
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