Reviews: From Murder in Hollywood to "Perfect Beauty" in Korea

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

June 30, 2009 -- When the classy publisher NBM has new books, it’s always like Christmas around the Comics Cave. One present comes from South Korea, and the other is from our old friend Rick Geary.

Geary’s “Treasury of Murder” graphic novels combine three of my favorite things: History, journalism and comic books. His historical research is always remarkably thorough, and his journalism impeccably objective. Artistically, Geary’s trademark faux-woodcut style is not only charming, but brings clarity to the storytelling and is entirely appropriate for the subject matter.

This month’s release, the latest volume in the “Treasury of XXth Century Murders,” is Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor ($15.95). Taylor was a director during the silent movie era – but was a lot more, and a lot less, than that. After his death, information about his checkered past came to light, including his real name, William C. Deane-Tanner. Also, despite his Lothario reputation in Hollywood, he had a long-time male lover.
Geary explores the circumstances of the sloppy investigation, the thwarted prosecution and the various suspects. Those included an actress rejected romantically … and her mother!

Whodunnit? As usual, that’s up to you. Geary never fails to impress, and Famous Players is just another reason why.

Which brings us to our second present, a book of short stories by South Korean artist Byun Byung-Jun, known for Run, Bong-Gu, Run! (2007).

This anthology, Mijeong ($19.95), is open to personal interpretation, which ought to make it a favorite for college lit classes. My take is that it’s the work of an artist of incredible artistic talent whose storytelling skill is still developing.

The general theme of the various stories is the impact of dramatic events on youth. Rape, murder, suicide, assault and other indignities are commonplace but not dwelled upon; Byun’s focus is on the psychological after-effects. And the “urban” part is important, too; Byun’s stark and bleak cityscapes are more than background but just short of being another character. Think how much Gotham City contributes to Batman’s appeal and you’ve got the idea.

As opposed to the stark photo-realism of the backgrounds, Byun’s teen characters are softer and sometimes cartoonish, with the exaggerated eyes of traditional manhwa (Korean comics). Given that the adults are drawn in photo-realistic style (and are generally unattractive), it’s almost as if Byun is suggesting that faces are created by the events of a person’s life, with pristine, angelic faces attesting to the innocence of youth.

This is particularly evident in the first (and titular) story, about a mysterious, mystical teenager (who, unfortunately, indulges in a sophomoric monologue about “sadness”). It’s also evident, to much better effect, in "Yeon-du, Seventeen Years Old" – an arresting story of rape, murder, suicide and degradation that nevertheless musters moments of genuine hope. "Song for You" delivers a similar message of finding internal peace amid cruelty, although its use of color and lack of urban setting makes it seem like it belongs in another book.

But I don’t want to suggest that Mijeong is grim from start to finish. There’s humor in stories like “Courage, grandfather,” about a love triangle involving a cat. And “Utility” is a gallows-humor masterpiece, with the most fully realized characters in the book debating what to do with a dead body, in a very Trouble With Harry vein.

Overall, I feel that Byun is an extraordinary artistic talent fairly bursting from his studio, whose skills in story construction and characterization are just catching up. Two stories in Mijeong are about manhwa artists like Byun himself, which strikes me as the simple self-absorption of youth.

Interestingly, Mijeong isn’t Korean – it’s a Chinese word meaning “perfect beauty.” Artistically, Byun does occasionally reach perfection. But Byun’s perfect story is probably a book or two down the road.

I’ll be here for it!

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at
capncomics@aol.com.

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