Korea has a flourishing comics or “manwha” culture that’s becoming more and more accessible in the West as manwha titles are translated in greater numbers. Youn In-wan’s Deja-Vu is a great introduction to manwha: it’s not only a terrific work that draws on Korean history and culture, but also a showcase for the talents of no fewer than six Korean artists, complete with artist biographies and notes on how the stories were created.
The four parts of the title story take up most of the volume. In the first part, “Spring”, a disgraced warrior in ancient Korea meets a young woman and falls in love with her. Fate seems to be against them, but the warrior declares “When I die and my bones turn to dust, my love will not waver! My love will live on!” And so in the following chapters the warrior and the woman he loved are reborn and meet again, lifetime after lifetime: as a Japanese military doctor and a Korean prisoner of war in 1944; as a blind woman and an aspiring singer/dancer in America in 1995; and finally in the 23rd century, in a world where the human race has mysteriously vanished. In each lifetime, they meet, fall in love, and share the joys of one particular season. Each part is illustrated by a different artist: here’s the lovers getting to know each other from “Spring” by Yang Kyung-il:
…here’s the imprisoned Korean poet Yon Tong-ju (a real historical figure, although the story about him is fictionalised) from “Summer” by Yoon Seung-Ki:
…here’s Susan’s dramatic entry from “Fall” by Kim Tae-Hyung:
…and here’s a thematic statement from “Winter” by Park Sung-woo (whose style may be familiar from the extremely good-looking Black God):
It’s in “Winter” that the story really pulls together. Twice as long as the previous chapters, “Winter” has enough room to expand; where the others were basically impressionistic mood pieces, “Winter” has a tense plot and a lot of thoughtful reflection on fate, free will, and the nature of humanity. Since the story is about reincarnation, the lovers can’t really remember what happened before, but they do have a sense of connection and a desire to frustrate the destinies that seem determined to keep them apart.
Deja-Vu also includes two unconnected short stories by Youn In-wan, again illustrated by two different artists: “Utility” with art by Byun Byung-jun, and “Ocean” with art by Lee Vin. “Ocean”, like “Deja-Vu”, is a love story; a young man who gets lost easily stumbles across a woman who demands that he take her to see the ocean. “Utility”, by contrast, is a macabre little slice-of-life that sits oddly beside the other stories in the book. It begins with a young boy tossing a chick off a tower block balcony to see if it can learn how to fly before it falls, and it gets darker and more gruesome from there. It could be seen as a palate-cleanser, I suppose, between the fated romances of “Deja-Vu” and the sweet gentility of “Ocean”; it says something about Youn In-wan’s versatility that he can shift gears between sweeping epic romance and gritty mundane unpleasantness with such ease.
Deja-Vu is not flawless: the dialogue is sometimes overblown, even beyond the melodrama I expect from an epic romance; it’s impossible to tell whether this is an artefact of the translation or a problem in the original text, but either way it breaks the flow. And “Ocean”, which in isolation would have been charming enough, feels a bit flimsy after “Deja Vu” and “Utility”. Those caveats aside, I greatly enjoyed Deja-Vu. It’s clever, sensitive, and consistently good-looking, with Youn In-wan exploiting the unique strengths of each artist who draws from his scripts. There’s an afterword by CLAMP, the legendary Japanese manga circle, in which they compare Deja-Vu to “a necklace comprised of many colours of jewels”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.