Books

The Two Worlds of Graphic Novel Umma's Table

Where fiction typically emphasizes plot, Yeon-Sik Hong's Umma's Table emphasizes a rich layering of events that creates the artful impression of memoir-like fiction.

Umma's Table
Yeon-Sik Hong

Drawn & Quarterly

March 2020

Other

Umma's Table features standard cartoon characters: anthropomorphic animals with rounded heads, enormous facial features, and roughly proportional bodies. Emotions are an ever-changing arrangement of minimal lines—worried diagonals, smiling curves, radiating streaks of surprise. But artist Yeon-Sik Hong's hand can also be unexpectedly nuanced.

The graphic novel's prologue includes a two-page spread of the family's new home, with nearly every brick, roof shingle, and fence link meticulously inked. Even the distant hilltops are crosshatched with individual trees. Yet as the narrator looks on, the back of his head is only a round, cat-eared outline without a single line of interior detail, contrasting the finely rendered wrinkles of his winter coat.

Differences between simplified characters and their more realistically detailed environments have been common in comics for almost a century, but Hong employs them for deeper effects that place the nature of his story world into intriguing tension. I want to refer to Umma's Table as a memoir because it reads like a memoir (and is almost a sequel to Hong's actual memoir Uncomfortably Happily). The effect is produced by the language of the first-person narration weaving between the speech balloons.

The main character, Madang, describes moving into a new house with his wife and newborn son, cooking in the unheated kitchen, shoveling snow, ferrying his elderly parents to doctors' waiting rooms, attending community meetings—the bricks and fence links in a realistically mundane yet compelling life. Where fiction typically emphasizes plot, Hong emphasizes a rich layering of events that creates the artful impression of memoir-like fiction.

But reading Umma's Table is very different from looking at it. If Janet Hong (no relation to the author) had not translated the English edition from Japanese (including footnotes in the gutters for signage within images), the novel would "read" very differently. The realism would give way to fantasy.

(Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

The opening pages depict Madang's car in apparent flight as it careens over a map of the landscape (and so understood as a visual metaphor) and also hovers a few feet above the road (less easily understood metaphorically). At first, the image might be dismissed as exaggeration: Madang took that bump in the road pretty fast and it feels like they're flying. But then how did the cow from the pasture end up on top of the car too? As the family unpacks, the bags and boxes also hover and follow Madang as he carries furniture inside.

Rather than contained as prologue hyperbole for the thrill of moving in, the car continues to fly when Madang drives into an otherwise realistic city. Is this a world of magic anthropomorphic cats? Apparently not, since no other cars appear to fly, and if Madang has magic powers, why doesn't he use them to chop vegetables or shovel the relentless snow?

Other quasi-cartoon qualities quietly infringe on the realism too. Do non-anthropomorphic animals speak in this reality? The mice "PEEP" and "SQUEAK" when they are near human-cat characters, but watching the family shiver in bed, they mutter to each other: "TSK TSK," "THOSE POOR HUMANS." If this is the world as warped by Madang's psychological experiences, shouldn't he have to hear them?

Other instances are extreme enough that only a metaphorical interpretation seems possible. When Madang drives away from his parents' apartment, his car rises into the blackness of outer space, and his mother waves goodbye from the globe of her tiny planet, a ring of medical pills orbiting it like a dozen moons.

Later while his son is nursing, Madang wonders: "Did my mother look this happy when she nursed me?" In the next moment, Madang pulls his son away from his sleeping wife's breast to suckle there himself: "Iwan, Mommy's boobies actually belong to Daddy." In the next panels, little Iwan is roaring in cartoon furry, the wife is sleep-murmuring scribbles, and then her hand shoves Madang's blurred and X-eyed face away from her. His body is also impossibly child-sized.

(Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

Was it a dream, a daydream? Did Madang feel the impulse to suckle and then imagine the consequences? It's difficult to know. The narration never acknowledges the event. It's as if Umma's Table is working simultaneously on two tracks, one verbal and one visual. More radically, it's as if the novel takes place in two worlds, one mundanely realistic, the other fantastically ambiguous. Arguably all comics with words work on those two different tracks, and readers are so conditioned to read rather than to view, the tensions go largely unnoticed.

Though the story is dominated by Madang's melancholic narration of realistic events, Hong's visual approaches maintain their own lower but playful register. When cooking, multiple images of Madang appear as if elbow-to-elbow along the sink and countertop, which also reappear across the vertical gutter to create the impression of a continuous space viewed through adjacent, window-like panels. Sometimes even one of the multiple Madangs is interrupted by the gutter, creating a visual complexity in counterpoint to the simple narration: "The kitchen was freezing, but I got through the winter without turning on the heat … which was only possible because I couldn't feel the cold while cooking." That unremarkable ellipse parallels the visually unusual gutter break, downplaying the oddity of the art.

Hong's layouts are equally playful, a mixture of mostly three-row variants, some with curving edges that accent the emotion of a scene, others leading a viewer's eye across the spine of a two-page spread to produce long double rows. Rather than establishing a repeating base pattern, each page wanders through a slightly different maze of panel shapes. The effect is subtle and, like Hong's other visual features, easily overlooked while reading Madang's story.

Fortunately, that story is an equally good one. Its links are intricate too: a pile of dangerous pesticidal waste near the house, worrisome medical tests and fortune-tell prophecies, work deadlines, strange basement bugs, marital arguments over domestic duties, hospital bills, his father's increasing alcoholism, his mother's decreasing condition. Madang weaves between idyllic memories of his childhood and the grounding tasks of his adult life, two worlds in increasingly opposing orbits.

One of the novel's strongest sequences is a visual counterpoint between the child Madang at his mother's breast, and the adult Madang as his mother's hospital bed. The removal of her breathing tubes parallels the snipping of an umbilical cord. Ultimately, the two tracks of Hong's novel coalesce to capture both visually and verbally the painful aftermath and recovery of a parent's death.

(Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

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