November, 2014 & January, 2015
Milkyway Hitchhiking might just be the most beautiful comic I’ve ever held in my hands. We’re talking over 300 pages of weighty paper with full color from cover to cover. Paging through the volume is a visual feast, complete with the delicious smell of ink. Yes, this is what’s known as book lust. If you also experience this reaction, know that you’re not alone. Like a dragon with a precious, precious thing, I clutched Milkyway Hitchhiking to my chest and ran to my comfy reading chair, intent on devouring it immediately.
I was not disappointed. Every page is a treat. Milkyway, the most beautiful cat ever, hitchhikes through space and time and people’s lives. The two volumes are basically a series of loosely connected vignettes with Milkyway as the common element. Settings range from historical Korea to a futuristic metropolitan city to pseudo-Medieval Europe, and beyond. Milkyway interacts with kings, princes, vagabonds, bards, students, housecats, waifs, mothers—a whole range of characters whom we, the readers, meet but briefly before Milkyway meanders away again.
Further into the volumes, characters begin to reoccur, and their stories are slowly fleshed out. For instance, we meet an evil king in volume 1, then learn about the beginning of his ruthlessness in volume 2. Interspersed “fan service” scenes (the “Milkyway Convenience Store” in volumes 1 and 2 and the “Milkyway Café” in volume 2) show all of the characters interacting in a light and humorous manner that, for me, underlines how much backstory the author has given them. Whether or not these characters’ personalities shine in the vignettes in which they appear, they’re definitely there.
The storylines themselves vary in complexity, although they all share a wistful, dreamlike quality that is primarily generated by the artwork and the relaxed pacing. Even action scenes, of which there aren’t many, feel removed. I caught myself doubling back: wait, did that king just lop off that person’s ARM? Oh, yes, he did. There’s the beautiful trail of blood left behind as the body was pulled off-panel.
Which brings me to: no, lovely cat protagonist and adorable kitty cameos aside, this is not a story directed at children. Unless said children read the original versions of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, in which case Milkyway Hitchhiking will not be shocking at all. In fact, I found this a bit of a relief, even though some of the stories just made me scratch my head (more on that below). In spite of her sparkling blue eyes, starry coat, and beautifully curled ears, Milkyway is not all rainbows and sunshine. She’s a multifaceted cat who is equal parts caring, selfish, spiteful, playful, curious, and demanding. What could have been simply a pretty romp through vacuous cute things instead includes exploration of some of the darker aspects of life—albeit on a surface level only.
To be frank, some of the stories succeed more than others. My favorites are those that capitalize upon the fairytale quality of Sirial’s artwork, such as the story of how a rabbit and a tiger trick a fox into raising a chick into a chicken, or when Milkyway meets a wanderer who is in love with a rose. I also adore the linked stories about a robot cat named Sandy (Sirial’s wobbly watercolor robot cat eyes just make me melt). Other stories are a tad bizarre—the one where a young tribal man accidentally marries Milkyway, for instance—and some are shocking in their casual brutality. In some ways, this reinforces the fairytale feeling, but part of me also questions the value of rendering violence and violent emotions in so beautiful a manner. That’s hardly unique to this manhwa, by any means, so let’s leave that discussion for another time.
As Milkyway drifts here and there, observing and questioning, so drifts the artwork. Sirial’s dreamy, watercolor style illustrations effortlessly draw the reader from panel to panel, page to page, story to story. No one page is like any other; compositions are set up to suit both the overall mood of the story and individual scenes within it. Objects and characters aren’t always outlined; sometimes they’re just color blocks against the background. Shapes emerge from loose ink washes, resolving into flowers, ribbons, people, or Milkyway. Landscapes sweep across one page and onto another, creating spectacular vistas that draw the reader further into the story.
Reading Milkyway Hitchhiking feels a lot like walking through an ever-shifting dreamscape. Some dreams are sweet and some are sad, and the experience may be a bit trippy at times, but it does make for a fun afternoon.