by Marley; translated by Michael Han
published by Netcomics; $9.99 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
I’ll open this particular review by saying that I don’t care how much manga you’ve read, you’ve never, ever read one quite like Dokebi Bride. Purists might be quick to point out that, originating from Korea rather than Japan, Dokebi Bride isn’t manga at all, but manhwa. Let’s be frank here. Much of the manhwa that has been translated into English thus far can only be meaningfully differentiated from manga because it reads left-to-right naturally and the author almost always has three short names instead of two long ones. While recognizing the distinction, it’s critically defensible (at least at this point) to say that many manhwa are certainly dependent on manga as a tradition if not wholly derivative.
Dokebi Bride is not devoid of manga stylisms and, more broadly, tropes of manga storytelling that have proven to be effective for pacing long-form stories. In fact, in some ways, it’s a textbook example of effective manga with an evocative setting, a rich cultural trove from which to draw story content, elaborate costuming, and well-defined characters that invite reader identification. Yet, even with all of those staples firmly in place, Dokebi Bride regularly transcends the expectation of that-which-seeks-to-entertain and delivers an urgent and complex story that defies simple description.
The opening volume of Dokebi Bride functions as a prelude to the larger story, framed elliptically to show us the heroine, Sunbi’s, peculiar childhood as a ward to her grandmother. The pair live in a dwindling fishing village where the grandmother, Okboon, had once served as shaman and is living out her final years. The circumstances by which Sunbi comes to live with her grandmother are parceled out one morsel at a time across this and subsequent volumes, but she is estranged from her father who lives in Seoul and works as a doctor.
One must credit author Marley with the precision with which she builds and executes her metaphors. Okboon, as village shaman, embodies that village and, as she reaches the end of her life, so goes the village. Or is it the opposite? In the opening chapter, “The Ritual of the Dragon Spirit,” readers are treated to a sumptuous recreation of both the rural, seaside environment and the elaborate dances and costumes that are associated with the calling of the Sea Dragon to bless the fishing season. It is also our first introduction to the dizzying set of rules and regulations that govern the petitioning of gods and spirits that eventually become the life-blood of Marley’s plots. Her depictions of nature, rich and as vital as they are to the story, are miraculously outdone by the sheer bravura of her drawings of the supernatural. It’s not just the characters who are awed by the visual presence but the reader, as well.
As many nice things as there are to say about Marley’s drawings, it is the implications of her story that linger beyond the back cover. Shamanism, the last vestige of the world’s oldest religion wherever one encounters it, stands in for the way people lived for thousands of years before science and civilization explained to them that they were going about it all wrong. As it appears that humanity’s last link to the supernatural forces attached this particular place is to be severed as Sunbi is shuttled off to Seoul to live with her father, we feel a triple sense of loss: one for her childhood as it fades away, one for the village that is destined to dissolve in the face of pressing civilization, and one for the elaborate beliefs that made people feel intimately connected to the particular place where they were born and for which they were expected to become and remain as stewards.
Marley establishes and then follows through on her symbols so effectively that volume one of Dokebi Bride feels, in its own way, perfectly self-contained. Don’t let this fool you. The genius regularly on display in this opening, heartbreaking volume is no fluke and just keeps getting better with each new layer added to the story. If pressed vigorously, I would be more inclined to compare this series to Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III’s Promethea or David Mack’s Kabuki than to anything else out there in the manga/manhwa mesocosm. If you like your comics, by whatever name, startling as opposed to just really good, Dokebi Bride is a must-read.