Comics’ rise to respectability in recent decades has as much to do with the inherent value of the medium as the gravity of subjects that comprise its landmark works. Fun Home, Maus, Persepolis, Louis Riel: these are visceral documents of troubling histories, immersing readers in moments of suffering and resilience in remarkable ways. It is as a timely addition to this graphic-historical canon that Grass, Korean cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s English-language debut (in a translation by Vancouver’s Janet Hong), arrives.
Grass tells the true story of Granny Lee Ok-sun, who was abducted by the Japanese army and forced into sexual slavery for the duration of the Second World War. The book alternates scenes of Lee’s present-day life in a group home for survivors with vivid scenes of Lee’s childhood poverty, her adolescence in captivity, and her early adulthood – “liberated” yet abandoned penniless alongside her fellow “comfort women” to fend for themselves in China.
As a girl in a poor family, Lee stays home doing chores while her brothers go to school. As a young teen, her parents sell her into servitude at the hands of a tavern owner, with a promise that he would one day enroll her in school. It is from this indentured life that she is stolen by the Japanese army; thus follows Gendry-Kim’s harrowing account of Lee’s wartime experience in captivity that is the core of the work.
Gendry-Kim is an accomplished cartoonist, with several books behind her in Korean as well as in French translation. In Grass, her black-and-white cartooning is a perfect match for the difficult subject. At times she uses a clear, fine-lined style, humanizing the faces of little Ok-sun and her siblings or herself as an artist grappling with this story. But she moves to heavier brushwork, using darker or murkier strokes, to show the age on Granny’s face and hands or to slow the pace around a troubling moment with occasional, almost abstract landscapes.
Grass engages directly with questions about who this story belongs to, and why and how it should be told. And Gendry-Kim’s meta-narrative of the cartoonist as a character in her own book masterfully links this violent history to the global instability of our shared present, showing how systemic inequalities in peacetime are entwined with wartime atrocity. Like the best entries of the graphic-historical canon, Grass is at once the singular and personal story of one woman’s life and a book about the power and the necessity of seeing and sharing the human stories around us.