Banned Book Club Review

By | Monday, May 25, 2020 Leave a Comment
Banned Book Club
I've said before that it's a good idea to keep an eye on Ryan Estrada because he's often involved in something interesting. He's helped prove that true once again with the just-released Banned Book Club.

Ryan has led an interesting life. He's set himself on fire, slept in a typhoon, kayaked across the ocean, and thrown away a million dollars. Many of these he's created comics about. But it turns out that his wife, Kim Hyun Sook, has done some amazing things on her own... and somehow forgot to mention them to him until they'd known each other for fifteen years! And that's where Banned Book Club comes in.

The story covers Hyun Sook's first weeks of college in the early 1980s. After meeting some fellow students, she was invited to a book club but was surprised to discover the books they discussed were all ones that were banned by the Korean government. Although she was initially trying to be a model student, she kept finding more and more ways that the government was corrupt and became more and more active in protest movements. Things got more and more dangerous for her and her friends with a growing number of confrontations with military police.

The main story is history. It took place decades ago. But as the Yeogno and the Yangban story the masked folk dance team performs early in the book illustrates, people often need to use history as a way to hide their political messages. "Why do you think Shakespare wrote about long-dead kings? Because he could get away with making points about the people he wasn't allowed to condemn directly. And many people still use Shakespeare that way today... You can learn a lot about history by figuring out what people wanted to hide."
panels from Banned Book Club
I don't think they're trying to hide any political messages against the current South Korean government in Banned Book Club. But I do think that, with the international trend of swinging wildly towards authoritarianism from the past few years, there are a lot of useful messages here that can and should be paid close attention to. "They want us scared and innocent, right? Give them what they want, and we're invisible." This might prove to be damned useful advice in the near future.

Ryan, to his credit, opted not to illustrate this story, instead choosing Korean artist Ko Hyung-Ju. It's very much a story of and about Koreans, particularly Hyun Sook, so Ryan seems to stay out of the way as much as possible here. As far as I can tell, he was mostly just facilitating the functional/practical aspects of crafting the narrative in a comic format. But with Hyung-Ju serving up art duties, the story is about as Korean as it can be while still being published in the US. While I'm not familiar with how much comic-making experience Hyung-Ju had prior to this, the narrative flows very smoothly and his characters all manage to remain visually distinctive despite many of them being cursorily pretty similar.

This is a really powerful book. Certainly on its own merits given how little Korean history we typically get here in the US, but also in relation to the increasingly dictatorial approach the federal government has been taking since 2017. What should Americans be on the lookout for and why? Where might that lead? Why aren't we taught much about Korea in school in the first place? Why does Trump seem to hold up North Korea's Kim Jong-un as a model of leadership? Why is it that wearing a scientifically-proven-to-help mask discouraged by right-leaning politicians during a pandemic?

"In times like this, no act is apolitical." Go read Banned Book Club.
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