Drawn & Quarterly
June 13, 2017
A graphic memoir by Korean artist Yeon-Sik Hong, Uncomfortably Happily is the tale of an artist-couple who moves from the hustle and bustle of Seoul to the relative peace and quiet of the countryside. Or so they think. Those of us who live in big cities often dream of being spirited away to a pure, pristine land, away from the traffic, smoke, and masses of humanity, who seemingly only exist to get in our ways. But only a few of us actually make that move. Walden for us remains a distant dream, and secretly, we are glad to keep it that away. Hong and his wife, Sohmi Lee, however, are situated at the particular time in life, newly married and starting out, with just the right amount of responsibilities to make that move a reality. Except the actuality of the countryside, in all its stunning beauty with imposing mountains and awe-inspiring nature, isn’t everything that they had imagined it to be at all.
Told from Hong’s perspective, the move is as much physical as it is psychological. For Hong, it turns into a mental challenge as he begins to come to terms with understanding his own limitations and strengths: as a husband, as an artist, and as a man forging an identity in this world. The rustic house in the countryside, without modern heating and the other comforts of urban living, provides the perfect foil to Hong’s idea of what it takes to build a perfect life. His struggles with not making enough money to provide for his family, the stressful nature of his job apprenticing as a manhwa (the Korean term for comics) artist, and the frustration of not being able to work on his projects create the perfect environment for Hong to lose his mind to sickness, delirium, and feelings of inadequacy.
While Hong keeps to a fairly simple style drawing his human figures, the scenes of the mountains, the heavy snow, and their life in the country are breathtaking. The black-and-white drawings are able to create just the right atmosphere of isolation, alternating between pristine white snow-laden expanses to the stark blackness of the night. There are moments in the novel, like gazing upon the holed-up couple with a bird’s-eye view in the depths of winter, miles away from any other living person, that create a Shining-like mood, with all its attendant dangers and unpredictability. But there are equally lighthearted moments: when spring finally comes, Hong and his wife explore their surroundings, go swimming in nearby streams, and plant their own garden. In these panels, the two characters break into musical interludes, singing and working happily together, as they gaze upon their idyllic life from a distance.
These touches of surrealism create a welcome break from the monotony of their life, which is extremely challenging, with even a simple trip into into the city taking up to two hours one-way. The depiction of these repetitive tasks is deliberate, designed to create a sense of impending doom, which Hong keeps trying to solve with creative work-arounds and alternate solutions. To save money, they decide to grow their own vegetables, but an ill-timed shower washes away their efforts. A guard dog they rescue from a pound ends up eating their egg-laying chickens. They buy a bike they cannot afford and end up having to resell it. The only consistent shining light through the entire novel is his wife, who maintains her good cheer through all the challenges, welcoming them and taking to them like a duck to water. She blossoms in the countryside, getting to work on her own projects, evolving as an artist and human being while Hong struggles, both professionally and as a husband.
A brief note on their relationship: many reviewers of the novel point out what they see as patriarchal notions of the working husband and stay-at-home wife who is not allowed to work operating in the novel, but that is not how I interpreted it. Hong genuinely wants his wife to make progress on her own graphic novel, and when he tells her she doesn’t need to work, I saw it as coming from a place of concern for her. He wants her to flourish and do well, and to him, it is a measure of his success as a husband, if he can create that environment for his wife. It certainly creates undue pressure on Hong, as he ends up being the sole-provider, and perhaps it wasn’t the most practical organization of their meagre resources, but certain events in the novel vindicate him: Lee does flourish and does well professionally with the space and time she is given to pursue her own art.
Lacking a clear plot, the novel, at over 500 pages, might read as a tad wearisome for some. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to publish it as two volumes, as was done in the book’s native Korea, where the book won the Manhwa Today Award 2012. Drawn & Quarterly’s English language edition has been translated by Hellen Jo, an accomplished comics creator herself. I read it with many breaks, instead of at a stretch as I am normally wont to do, and in retrospect, it would have created more of a momentum if the small stories and challenges the couple faces had been organized into neat little episodes, each building upon the other instead of into seasons. But aside from this issue of organization, the novel is a rewarding read, and provides a vicarious experience of what it would be like to live in a house in the country without modern comforts.