by Kyungok Kang; translated by Jennifer Parks
published by Netcomics; $9.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Narration of Love at 17 (NL@17) is the first-person story of Seyoung coming to terms with what is both her first love and first romantic disappointment. Seyoung is a 17-year-old high school student and member of the drama club. In the opening pages, we learn Seyoung has developed romantic feelings for her childhood friend and classmate, Hyunwoo. When she confesses her love to him, Hyunwoo thinks this is just another one of Seyoung’s pranks and laughs her off. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the courage to correct his misconception. This event serves as both prologue and catalyst for the series.
Volume one of NL@17 is divided into three story arcs. The first story revolves around the lead actress part in the next drama club production. The female star of the drama club, Hyemi, is initially cast as the lead, but she has to drop out when she gets a part in a TV special. Seyoung is then given the lead role. Because she has to learn the lines and master the role quickly, Seyoung is privately coached by Yunho, the captain of the drama club. This allows them a chance to get to know each other better and serves as the beginning of their friendship. When Hyemi’s TV shooting schedule changes and she can resume the lead, Yunho leaves the decision to Seyoung, who gives back the part to Hyemi without any real struggle.
The second story is about a day Seyoung, Hyunwoo, Yunho, and Hyemi spend together hanging out downtown. The relationships between each character begin to come into clearer focus. For example, Seyoung sees that Hyemi has a romantic interest in Hyunwoo.
This story also contains my favorite part of the book, a great two-page throw-away joke. The group decides to see a movie, and they chose a horror film called Deadline. It’s the gruesome story of a comic artist living in constant terror that her psychotic editor will brutally murder her if she misses any of her deadlines. In the audience are four comic artists who are completely terrified while watching the film. The rest of the audience is absolutely bored. I know it’s a cheap joke, but it’s done to perfection and I laughed out loud while reading it.
The final story is about Hyemi giving Hyunwoo and Seyoung a tour of the TV station. During the tour, she asks Seyoung to do her a favor and play a small part in the TV special she has a role in. Seyoung agrees. The next day Seyoung seeks out Hyunjung, her class monitor, for advice and consolation about her feelings toward Hyunwoo and Hyemi. Thus begins the friendship between Seyoung and Hyunjung.
The first volume is more plot-driven and lighter in tone. This is necessary as we are just getting to know each of the characters. The second volume is more serious and character-driven. Since we are now familiar with each of the major characters, we can move on to more emotionally and psychological complex stories.
Volume two is divided into two story arcs. In the first story, Hyunwoo and Hyemi officially become a couple. Seyoung also learns what Hyunwoo thinks of their relationship. The focus of the story is Seyoung coming to grips with the reality that she and Hyunwoo can’t now, and may never, be a couple. The story ends with Seyoung realizing she doesn’t want to be the background character in someone else’s life; she is going to take center stage in her own life.
The second story is focused on the deepening of the friendships that Seyoung is forming with Yunho and Hyunjung. The three spend a day at an amusement park together. Later that week, Seyoung and Hyunjung agree to study for finals together.
NL@17 does a great job of illustrating a young woman waking up to her own life and self. I get the sense that up until the prologue, Seyoung has been living on autopilot. Seyoung thought that her childhood best friend would naturally become her high school sweetheart and maybe even her husband. When Hyunwoo doesn’t return her romantic feelings, suddenly her preplanned route dead ends. Seyoung becomes aware that she needs to take more responsibility for who she wants to become, what she wants to do with her life, and even who will be a part of the life she is shaping. Singer/songwriter Mark Heard has a couple of lyrics that describe Seyoung well, “Young dreamers explode like popped balloons/Some kind of emotional rodeo/Learning too slow and acting too soon” and “Head full of this kaleidoscope of brain freight/Heart full of something simple and slow.”
What makes this series so enjoyable is that author Kyungok Kang paces these stories so well. The rhythm of each book reflects the natural flow of life. NL@17 is a slow and quiet tale punctuated by moments of intense emotion and drama. Kang captures that chaos of being a teenager well — the storm of emotions, finding release in irrational acts, self-doubt, etc. She does it with a subtle touch, using humor effectively to keep the series from becoming melodramatic. Yet the humor never undercuts the emotional integrity of the book. It’s a delicate balance and Kang shows great finesse.
Even though this is a Korean comic, the art is classical Japanese shojo. Kang’s style is heavily influenced by Moto Haigo and the character designs reminded me of the art from They Were Eleven. For some, this might give the series a dated look, but I’m a fan of shojo and think this style works perfectly for stories about high school romances and realities.
My biggest complaint is the lack of cultural notes in either volume. There are a lot of questions I have about the Korean educational system after reading these books. The books show that Seyoung’s school is segregated by gender with only club activities being co-ed. Is that true of public schools or does this mean Seyoung is going to a private school? They talk about some schools holding classes until 10 PM. So what is a Korean school day like?
Because of this gender segregation, a system of blind dates are used in the book. It would be interesting to know about how high school blind dates work in Korea and what the common activities are on these dates. Since this manhwa is 17 years old, is its description of high school life still accurate? A brief essay familiarizing Americans with Korean high schools would really help in understanding and appreciating this series better.
I thoroughly enjoyed these two volumes. In fact, I like the series enough that I will be reading the final two volumes on line at the Netcomics website, even though I usually avoid reading comics on the computer. There is a free preview of the book available. A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.