Activism Comics History

Read Banned Book Club

Read Banned Book Club

When Kim Hyun Sook started college in 1983 she was ready for her world to open up. After acing her exams and sort-of convincing her traditional mother that it was a good idea for a woman to go to college, she looked forward to soaking up the ideas of Western Literature far from the drudgery she was promised at her family’s restaurant. But literature class would prove to be just the start of a massive turning point, still focused on reading but with life-or-death stakes she never could have imagined.

This was during South Korea’s Fifth Republic, a military regime that entrenched its power through censorship, torture, and the murder of protestors. In this charged political climate, with Molotov cocktails flying and fellow students disappearing for hours and returning with bruises, Hyun Sook sought refuge in the comfort of books. When the handsome young editor of the school newspaper invited her to his reading group, she expected to pop into the cafeteria to talk about Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter. Instead she found herself hiding in a basement as the youngest member of an underground banned book club. And as Hyun Sook soon discovered, in a totalitarian regime, the delights of discovering great works of illicit literature are quickly overshadowed by fear and violence as the walls close in.

I’m embarrassed to admit I knew next to nothing about South Korea’s coups and regimes, just vaguely that one of their recent presidents was removed – I didn’t realize she was the daughter of a previous totalitarian president. Political dynasties are so dangerous, I fully expect to be dealing with Ivanka Trump running for president in 15 years.

Though the particulars of this story were new to me, the story itself is sadly familiar. Totalitarians and dictators follow the same playbook, banning books and movies, arresting artists, disappearing their opponents. I hope we don’t get to that point. I still feel comfortable criticizing the government and reading whatever the hell I want… but with populism on the rise I won’t be surprised if the next ten years turn truly ugly. We got a taste this summer – journalists attacked, civilians black-bagged, police using chemicals banned in warfare on their own people. Protestors painted as rioters, never mind they were defending themselves against military-esque police forces, even here in liberal Seattle and Portland.

“Surprisingly, [communist] is not defined as ‘anyone who disagrees with you.'”

The first few pages of artwork felt a little chunky, and the exposition clunky, but settled into a style after that. All of the characters were visually distinctive, which I appreciate.

The main character gets sucked into the underground quickly, seemingly more than she wants, but she takes steps to remain part. I loved her confrontation at the end, which gave her a character epiphany while protecting herself and her friends.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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