Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Entry 68: The Fox Sister

I’m not very familiar with Korean mythology. Some of you may be surprised to learn this, having assumed me an expert in all things. Though it pains me to shatter your illusion by admitting to my ignorance, there are many spheres of human knowledge that, though fascinating and appealing, I have yet to explore. One reason I regret not knowing more about Korean mythology and folklore is that I feel a greater familiarity with those subjects would increase my appreciation of The Fox Sister.

I suppose there is a risk that learning more about the mythology and cultural background that gave rise to The Fox Sister could ruin it, if I start realizing that there are all sorts of inconsistencies and gross overuses of artistic license. I don’t think so, though. The influences in The Fox Sister feel like they’ve been driven by an appreciation for Korean traditions. I suspect that the anything inconsistent with the source mythology would come across as an expansion or an exploration rather than a crass divergence.

Oh, but here I am debating the merits of this comic’s adherence or divergence from established myth, and I haven’t even begun to describe the comic for you! Silly me. Ahem.

(Now is the time for the extremely spoiler-phobic to just go read the comic, though I’m not going to give away anything beyond what’s clear based on the title and the first few pages.)

The Fox Sister tells the story of a woman, Cho Yun-Hee, whose family was killed by a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox who feeds on human flesh and disguises itself as a woman. The specific woman as whom this kumiho has described itself is Yun’s late sister, Sun. Years later, Yun keeps searching for the kumiho who replaced her sister, dedicated to the purpose of ridding the world of that evil presence.

If you like fantasy stories, I don’t have to tell you anything more. That’s a compelling premise, the type of framework on which great things are laid. It offers a chance to explore a mythical element, either to begin learning about it at all if you’re like me, or to discover a new story about a familiar type of character, if you know a thing or two about kumiho to begin with.

Beyond that, there’s the personal drama, the story of a woman overcoming her grief and mourning her lost family. The inner turmoil of being confronted with the visage of a lost loved one, a monster turning that comfortable and familiar form into something evil.

When she’s not being the hero in an epic fantasy tale of the struggle between good and evil, Yun gets caught up in a romantic comedy. Those genres seem like they’d be pretty incongruous, but they fit together seamlessly. The comic’s tone stays consistent whether Yun is preparing to do battle with the kumiho that stole her sister’s appearance, or getting to know Alex, an American missionary who connects with her because he’s kind to her dog.

I think the key is curiosity and exploration. Yun’s response to the unfamiliar or unexpected is always a cautious approach to seek understanding and mastery. She doesn’t change her attitude depending on the particular challenge at hand, but remains resolutely true to herself whether faced with a clueless stranger or a dark mystery.

The two plots, that of the epic fantasy and the romantic comedy story, each progress according to well-trod structures, but they each feel fresh and engaging, because the characters involved feel so true to themselves. The standard belligerence-eventually-gives-way-to-affection narrative isn’t forced, but is a natural progression as each character becomes more familiar with the other. At the same time, the reader gets to know the characters as well, making the reader, in a sense, the third party to the romance.

One thing I like about The Fox Sister is that, though the comic is written in English, Korea is treated as the native location and Alex is treated as a cultural outsider. If you’re like me, you enjoy exploring unfamiliar cultures and abandoning the assumption that your own culture (in my case that of the good ol’ US of A) is necessarily the default, just because it’s what you’re used to. So works that originate from a different culture or that assume a different “default” worldview. On the other hand, approaching a work from a different culture can be challenging… there are often language barriers (translation being a wonderful but imperfect art) and certain cultural notions are difficult to understand if you’re not used to them. So finding a comic like The Fox Sister, that inhabits another culture while definitely created for consumption in this one, is a rare treat.

Alex and Yun’s divergent cultural backgrounds add an extra element to their romantic comedy routine, as they each get to know not only each other, but gain understanding of the other’s point of view. It adds to the comedic misunderstandings, and also occasionally highlights some of the comic’s deeper themes.

I’ll warn you that the comic gets a little violent in parts… the kumiho is a vicious creature, and certain segments are pretty gruesome. I wouldn’t call any of it gratuitous, as it all serves to further the story and enhance the setting, and it all fits in with the comic’s general tone. If you’re particularly sensitive to blood and gore you’ll want to tread cautiously. Otherwise, jump right on in… everything in The Fox Sister exists to meet the demands of the story, and it’s a great story.

Ignore that “Updates on Tuesdays” banner at the top of the website… The Fox Sister has been on hiatus for a while now. I like to check in every so often and see if there’s anything new though, because we’ve been told that the story is nearing its end and with any luck we’ll get to see those last several pages any day now.

For me, what separates this comic from others really is the emphasis on Yun as a character. She drives the entire story, her dedication and commitment to her task giving rise to everything that happens. Yun is an example of how to make a character “mysterious” and have it work… she’s not withholding information about herself to be deliberately innocuous, but is simply the kind of person who mostly keeps to herself. It’s clear that she has a rich inner life (and a rich outer life) and that she doesn’t share it easily. Most importantly, I want to know more about her. My curiosity about Yun keeps me curious about the story, and keeps me reading as I’m constantly yearning to learn more.

The Fox Sister is written and colored by Christina Strain and drawn by Jayd Aït-Kaci. I want to describe it as fun, but it’s so heavy and dramatic that using the word “fun” seems inappropriate. It is fun though, especially if you like mythology and fantasy stories. Which I do! Therefore I can’t imagine that there is anyone in this world who does not. Therefore everyone in the world should love this comic. Case closed.

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