[15 December 2009]
No one gets through life unscathed: loss and suffering are as much a part of human existence as joy and celebration. But we each deal with the pain in our own way, often performing some kind of ritual which we believe will help us through the dark hours and days when the loss of a friend or relative feels as raw as an open wound. No one can judge another’s grief or dictate how they should work through their feelings.
Even so, the ritual chosen by Jackie, the central character in June Kim’s first graphic novel 12 Days, will seem extreme to many. She mixes the ashes of her lover, Noah, into smoothies and consumes them over a twelve day period, hoping that by the end of the twelve days the pain will subside. We learn at the end of the story that there is a precedent in ancient Greece for this method of mourning (Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus is said to have become her husband’s “living urn” by drinking his ashes) and also that the novel is based on a real-life story told to the author, but neither fact is required to follow the emotional journey of the characters.
Both Noah and Jackie are female, and that’s important because Jackie is actually working through two losses. First, Jackie lost Noah as a lover when Noah opted for a heterosexual marriage rather than continuing her same-sex relationship with Jackie, then she lost Noah permanently to death in a car accident. Noah’s half-brother Nick becomes a regular visitor to Jackie’s apartment during the mourning period and as they work through their feelings about Noah as well as each other (Nick and Jackie have something of a past) things get complicated, not in the least because Nick reminds Jackie so much of Noah.
Ambiguity is the ruling principle of writer-illustrator June Kim’s storytelling technique in this novel so the potentially confusing names are not an accident. She draws most of the characters as almost gender-neutral and the story is told in a non-linear fashion so that you have to piece the chronology together as you read. In addition, there’s very little action in this novel and the characters seldom articulate their feelings directly: you must infer what they leave unstated, which is nearly everything of importance. This creates a sense of stasis which is appropriate for characters in a period of mourning but also places greater demands on the reader than the typical manga: 12 Days is rated for ages 16 and up primarily because of the mature themes rather than for sexual or violent content.
Kim’s elliptical and non-chronological approach to storytelling can be exasperating (at times she seems determined to make the story as difficult to understand as possible) but if you are willing to persist you gradually learn significant details about the characters and their families which make their present behavior explicable. Overall the result is a mature exploration of a topic far-removed from the simplified serials which constitute much of the U.S. market for manga.
If the narrative presentation 12 Days sometimes seems unnecessarily complicated, I have no such complaints about the art which already shows a mature command of the medium. Kim’s varied background (she grew up in Korea, studied Japanese in Seoul and visual arts in New York City, and currently works as a commercial illustrator based in Brooklyn) is evident in her art which combines a number of influences to good effect. Most of the time she draws the principal characters in a realistic, detailed linear style with sudden shifts into a cartoonish super-deformed style when they are in the grasp of strong feelings or reverting to childhood memories. Some of the backgrounds are realistic and detailed while others are screened or are simply left blank, and Kim uses a variety of frame sizes and shifts in perspective to create a sense of drama even when the characters are simply sitting around talking, or not talking, about their feelings. Sometimes, as with the non-chronological presentation of the story, the blend of artistic styles feels forced but usually it works well to convey the mood of a particular scene.
Dialogue is typed rather than lettered, an odd choice which contrasts with the very careful presentation of the art. Although the characters speak like assimilated Americans most of the time, when Jackie is revealing her most personal feelings she speaks in a sort of poetic prose (“Her long limbs that coiled into my dreams”) which adds another level of sensibility to the story. If you’ve ever shopped for notebooks in a Korean stationery store you’ll be familiar with the style. All in all, 12 Days is a very interesting OEL (original English language) manga and indicates that June Kim is a talent to watch for the future.