Written by Mike Carey
Art by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel
DC Comics (Minx), 2007
Widely hailed as the best offering in the first round of Minx comics, Re-Gifters is the story of Los Angeles teen Dik Seong Jen—“Dixie” to her friends—a hapkido student with a serious crush on her classmate Adam. In an effort to win Adam’s heart, she uses the money that her parents have given her to enter a national hapkido tournament to buy him a costly birthday present. As you can probably guess from the title of the book, Adam’s reaction to her love offering isn’t all that she hopes for.
Mike Carey does an excellent job of telling a stand-alone story in a format that often better lends itself to series. Many of the plot twists will not be particularly surprising to anyone who’s read their share of teen novels, but Carey manages to make those familiar elements appealing. Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel’s stylish art also goes a long way toward making this true. The characters’ faces are very expressive, and the hapkido fights convey a nice sense of movement and kinetic energy. The perspective used in the panels is also interestingly varied.
I wish this was where I could end this review, but alas, I have a lot more to say.
Dixie, the main character, is a Korean American, and much of the story’s background detail comes from its setting on the edges of LA’s Koreatown. This was one reason I was particularly interested in reading this story; there certainly aren’t enough teen books or graphic novels about Asian-American teens. Unfortunately, this promising setup is ruined by the fact that the creative team behind this particular work—which includes no Koreans or Korean Americans—did a lousy job of cultural fact checking.
Let’s start with Dixie’s name. As she explains in Chapter Two (“The David Copperfield Stuff”), “My name is Dik Seong Jen. But Koreans put the first name last, so that goes into English as Jen Dickson. But only Mom and Dad call me Jen. My friends call me Dixie.” Now Carey gets some things right here. Koreans do put the family name first, while Korean Americans use Western name order in the United States. And most Korean names do consist of three syllables. The problem here is that Dik Seong is not a Korean family name at all. There’s only a relatively small number of Korean family names in common usage; the vast majority of them are only one syllable (such as Kim, Park, Lee, Han, Song, Chung, etc.). Dik Seong is not one of the handful that have two syllables. To someone who knows anything of Korean names, Dik Seong as a Korean family name is as ridiculous as O’Connor as a French family name or Nguyen as a Japanese family name.
Part of me appreciates that Dixie’s family name isn’t Kim, Lee, or Park; I get tired of every Korean or Korean-American character in fiction written by non-Koreans/non-Korean Americans having the family names Kim, Lee, or Park. (Sometimes these writers are extra stupid and name their Korean or Korean-American characters things like Kim Lee or Lee Park or Park Kim, which just makes me roll my eyes.) But there are so many other real Korean family names to choose from that I can only wonder why Carey felt the need to make up a fake one.
Carey’s script also includes at least one very iffy romanization of Korean words: oboji for the Korean word for “father.” Even if you’re not using the Korean government’s Revised Romanization system or the McCune-Reischauer system, there’s no way that particular word should be romanized oboji. (Aboji Abeoji1 would be a correct romanization.) It’s possible that my limited Korean vocabulary is preventing me from noticing other mistakes along these lines.
Last but not least, there are the sound effects. Many of the sound effects during the hapkido fights are written in hangeul, Korean letters. That should have been a nice touch, except some of those letters . . . aren’t letters at all. (See p. 96, bottom right panel, left sound effect; p. 97, top left panel, both sound effects; p. 97, bottom left panel, left sound effect; p. 103, top left panel, left half of sound effect). It’s possible that these nonsense marks are meant to be generic sound effects or emotional markers, like the crosshatch symbol in manga; if that’s the case, it’s strange that they receive the same graphic treatment as the hangeul sound effects. In my opinion, graphically equating the Korean alphabet with nonsense marks is rather insulting. If artists don’t want hangeul readers assuming that they don’t know the difference between actual letters and nonsense marks, they should do something to differentiate them in their art. For the record, I also examined my collection of manhwa (Korean comics) to see if there was some unfamiliar-to-me convention regarding the use of hangeul in sound effects that explained these strange marks. There wasn’t.
Cultural appropriation is always a tricky thing. I’m not arguing that only Korean Americans should write about Korean Americans; if anything, I believe more non-Korean Americans should write about Korean Americans so we can have more diversity in our graphic novels and literature. But if creators are going to depict a culture that is not their own, they owe it to everyone to do extra thorough research and to invest in some quality fact checking. Gaffes like the ones detailed above are so easy to make, but also so easy to correct. With a little effort, the irksome mistakes in Re-Gifters could have been avoided. In the end, that makes them all the more troubling.
If I didn’t know anything about Korean culture, I would have given Re-Gifters a B. As it is, I can only give it a C-.
Perhaps even that is too kind.
1 Edited 2/25/08 @ 5:19 PM. Thanks to ciderpress for the correction.