Joy Kim

Librarian. Book Reviewer. Coffee Addict.

Carey, Liew, and Hempel: Re-Gifters

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel
DC Comics (Minx), 2007
ISBN-13: 978-1-4012-0371-9


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.


  1. Oh, ick, I had no idea the cultural gaffes were so bad. I’ll be linking to your review from mine, with a note that the fact-checking was off.

  2. Thanks for the link! It surprises me that there don’t seem to be any other articles or reviews that mention these errors, and they really shouldn’t be overlooked. Very basic fact checking or web searching would have turned up the information necessary to avoid them.

  3. heya you know i was worried the sound effects would look wrong – i borrowed a korean comic from a friend and tried my best to approximate what i saw there, but errors of copying, perhaps multiplied by variations due to inking later meant that they didn’t quite come off right.

    I guess the only real excuse is that i didn’t have access to someone who could help check it at the drawing stage; there wasn’t exactly a disneyesque budget to get all the research right :p

    even the way koreatown looked – i tried without success to get friends in l.a. to help take pics for me (being based in Singapore), and the only advice i got was that it looked like the rest of the city except with korean signs.

    I ended up sketching off Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, having been told that game was extensively researched and based on the real los angeles.

    Anyway, would just like to extend my apologies to anyone who found the inaccuracies insulting… it was mostly a question of a lack of research budget and time constraints…



  4. Sonny: Thanks for stopping by and commenting here to give some background on how these errors happened. Given what I know about the realities of publishing, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that you didn’t have the budget to do more in-depth research. I appreciate the apology.

    That said, I don’t see the explanation as an excuse. (I could not tell if you meant to present it as such.) I still don’t understand why you still chose to attempt Korean sound effects even though you were aware that you did not have the personal knowledge or outside resources to proofread them. While the hangeul sound effects are a neat idea, they only add to the story if they are executed correctly. Having correct English sound effects on those pages would have been a thousand times better than having nonsensical supposed-to-be-Korean ones.

    Along the same lines, I do not understand why DC went forward with this project if they were not willing to budget for cultural fact-checking during editing and adequate research by the creators.

    Respect and accuracy go hand and hand during cultural appropriation. Without them, cultural appropriation ends up feeling a lot like exploitation–and who needs more of that?

  5. heh well for the SFX i thought it would still look interesting as a graphical element even if the text itself wasn’t totally accurate. it was also something i thought of whilst midway through the book (you’ll notice their absence early on) so i guess there wasn’t enough premeditation involved to think about all the implications.

    As for DC’s budgeting – its really a problem with all comics in general. Gail Simone set some of her Bird of Prey stories here in Singapore, and got involved in a debate about its accuracies with some readers here. Ultimately everyone agreed that there’s only so much research which is possible given time and money constraints – even most american cities depicted in comics look nothing like the real thing.

    is it exploitation? i hope not – i think we tried to do justice to the setting other areas. but i do accept that the hangeul SFX thing should have been better done – perhaps if anything similar comes up again i’d be able to consult you for fact checking :)


  6. Sonny: I guess we just disagree on what the best response is to time and money constraints in this sort of situation. To me, it seems irresponsible to embark on a project that involves cultural appropriation if one is not going to do it respectfully and accurately, with the time and money commitment that implies. If you can’t tell another culture’s story correctly, perhaps you shouldn’t be telling their story for them at all.

    Frankly, when I hear that cutting corners in this manner is fairly common in the industry, it doesn’t make me think, “Oh, Re-Gifters isn’t so bad. Everyone else is doing it.” It just makes me feel alienated from the industry as a whole.

  7. Hmm well for me, aside from the SFX, the rest of the errors were relatively minor, and unless you think writers should only write about what they know in their immediate circumstances, any venture outside of that requires some ‘appropriation’, where factual errors are always possible, whatever the time and budget – and how glaring they appear is often a subjective thing.

    For me exploitation or being disrespectful is more a question of characterization. I lobbied for example for the final kiss being on the cheek rather than the lips cos it seemed more in keeping with character; and (though there was no place for one finally), for a stronger korean male character of Dixie’s age in the story.

    Anyway internet exchanges are probably not the best place to try and change opinions; its inherent impersonal nature often leading to misreadings of tone and intention… so hopefully we can agree to disagree and best wishes for your future endeavours :)


  8. Sonny: I think our assessment of the scale of the errors differs because, again, I know more about the culture in question than you do. In the end, it’s not for non-Koreans/Korean-Americans to determine what Koreans/Koreans-Americans get to see as “minor” or “major” offenses in appropriations of their culture.

    As I said in my original post above, I am not arguing that people should only write about their own cultures. But from my perspective, these are not minor errors simply because they are so easy to fix. A conversation with any Korean or Korean-American who has been raised with a knowledge of their own culture or basic web searching (there is after all a well-cited Wikipedia article based in the 2000 Korean census on Korean names) would have been all that was necessary to avoid these errors. I am not claiming that creators need to do doctoral level research when they have projects outside their own culture. What I am criticizing is the obvious lack of basic research.

    When people outside my culture are appropriating it for profit without being respectful enough to do basic research, it does begin to feel an awful lot like exploitation.

    Conversations on the internet are indeed difficult because of misreading of tone and intention. I do appreciate that you have been civil and that you stopped by here to comment on this issue in the first place. That said, I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that explanations aren’t excuses, and apologies tend to be better received when they aren’t followed by a list of reasons why the offense wasn’t so bad after all.

  9. Comment #6 nails it for me. When I read the earlier comment it was exactly what I was thinking. Ouch.