Korean-born Byun Byung-Jun is little known in these parts, except for die-hard manga and graphic novel fans. With luck, MIJEONG, his second collection of short fiction, will change that. It should, because this impressively talented artist deserves a wider audience.
The seven stories here are mostly about young people, and are full of youthful longings, desires, frustrations and melancholy. Their common feature is the city setting, quite possibly based upon Seoul. Byung-Jun’s characters walk down urban streets and alleys, mostly crowded but sometimes deserted. And he often pulls back the focus to include wide shots of streets or entire skylines, as though shot from above. It’s a technique that emphasizes the reader’s role as observer, as well as heightens the lonely ambience of each story.
Four of the tales incorporate elements of dark fantasy, but in varying methods. “202, Villa Sinil,” for example, is a semi-autographical piece of a young, heartbroken graphic artist who finds that the cuts and other markings he makes to newspaper photos lining his drawing table are reproduced on the subjects in real life, including death. “Courage, Grandfather” surprises us about midway in, when we discover that the narrator is not at all who we first thought. And “A Short Tall Tale,” the final entry in the collection, has another Byung-Jen-based artist relaying the fantasy story he’s working on over the phone in his lonesome apartment to his girlfriend, with occasional cutaways to the story protagonist.
The other three works are notable for their poignant emotions and moody evocations. They are mostly about relationships between teens and adults, or, in the case of “Utility,” a group of young friends suddenly confronted with an unexpected death and a suicide.
Byung-Jun works for the most part in photorealistic, black-and-white images, but occasionally, his city views are soft-focus and impressionistic. Only one story, “A Song for You,” uses pastel colors and includes scenes far away from the familiar urban settings.
An appreciative afterword is included by Kim Nak-ho, editor of a webzine devoted to graphic novels. MIJEONG comes highly recommended, not only to fans of graphic novels, but to all interested or curious about the range and effectiveness of the young, talented artists working in this field. It’s a worthwhile introduction for those whose knowledge of illustrated fiction has not yet gone beyond comic books. Either way, you’ll be aptly rewarded for whatever effort it takes to track down this striking collection. —Alan Cranis