Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #124: Banned

I mentioned last week how important it is to have stories from different points in history that, in the west, are relatively unknown. There are a wealth of stories around the world from different points of time that end up buried under our own history. But comics are helping to illuminate those parts of the past. As Henry Kiyama shone a light on the experiences of Japanese immigrants in San Francisco at the turn of the century, more recent creators like Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada present to us Banned Book Club and its look at living under a military regime in 1980s South Korea. 

Centered on Kim Hyun Sook’s personal experience in the early 80s, we’re given not only a look at how things were in South Korea at the time, we’re also given Sook’s own growth from her time entering college to now. In the beginning, Sook was relatively neutral—not exactly on the side of the students protesting the president, but not against them either. This is, of course, before she’s invited to a book club that reads various pieces of literature that have been banned by the ruling regime. This one moment would go on to shape the rest of Sook’s life as the book club leads to “movie nights” showing foreign news reports of what has really been happening in South Korea, university newspapers that act as a front to a more secret newspaper, and clubs that help organize protests and disseminating information to other colleges.

Sook, Estrada, and Huyng-Ju’s work on Banned Book Club is also something that we can be immediately connected to.It’s one of the reasons that graphic memoirs of these stories are so important—not only do we as an audience have that more visceral connection to the story, but it opens up that potential audience to a much wider group. There is an accessibility with comics as its interplay of images and words can lead to a greater understanding of the story. Everything in Banned Book Club, from its depiction of protests past and current to how Sook herself navigated through this time despite the potential for danger, helps to draw the reader in as we empathize more fully with their struggles. And this is what the comic does so well with its story—while these are old struggles under different circumstances, they’re struggles we can still connect to in a modern context.

History is a strange thing, but luckily we have comics like Banned Book Club to show us more of what we don’t know about the past. Going into this graphic memoir, I knew very little about South Korea in the 80s, less so the machinations of its ruling regime and the effort of its citizens to stand against it. It’s why these stories matter as much as they do—without that ability to connect and empathize with people, we simply don’t see their struggles.

Get excited. Get together.


Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.