Book Review: Banned Book Club—By Kim Hyun Sook, et alia

Banned Book Club By Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyun-Ju, and Ryan Estrada Iron Circus Comics

Alongside guns, flags, and cats, few things spark people’s passions more than books. And why not? Books share knowledge, inflame emotions, inspire revolutions, and look fantastic on the shelf. As Carl Sagan once said, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” If books weren’t magical, why do so many people work so hard to either share or destroy them?

But, apologies to Dr. Sagan, is it possible to invest books with too much magic? In TV, films, and comics featuring bookish storylines, they’re granted powers they lack in real life. Films about books often feature characters as bland zeroes…until a text is thrust into their hands, whereupon they are transformed, given to memorizing rather than burning the classics (Fahrenheit 451), blowing sax and reciting beatnik poetry (The Dead Poets Society), or being possessed by murderous sex demons (Evil Dead II). Banned Book Club, a new graphic novel from Iron Circus Comics, does feature the transformative quality of books, though it’s an afterthought to the equally potent powers of peer pressure and ideology.

The plot is simple and nonfictional. Young Kim Hyun Sook, daughter of two struggling steak restaurateurs—steak restaurants were uncommon things in the 1983 South Korean setting—heads to college. Her father is supportive, but her mother less enthused, believing Hyun Sook would better serve the family by working at the restaurant. Secretly given book money by her dad, Hyun Sook prevails and pursues a major in literature.

Familiar collegial scenes occur: getting caught in a student protest at the university gates; arriving late for orientation and being called out by a crusty old dean; encountering a hip, long-haired professor who preaches the earthier parts of Shakespeare; and joining the school’s traditional masked folk dance team. Did I say familiar? Well, mostly familiar, even against a South Korean backdrop.

The team seems innocent enough with its drums and pageantry, but apolitical Hyun Sook receives a rapid education. As she delights in a performance of Yeongno and the Yangban—a 900-year-old story of a wealthy yangban who runs into a monster that’s eaten 99 other yangbans (one more and it gets into Heaven)—she experiences two revelations. First, she learns the club officers scheduled the dance to coincide with the latest campus protest, providing noise and moral support. Second, the plot is more commentary than entertainment (a yangban is a corrupt, wealthy politician of yore; something reflected in the administration of then-South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan, whom the protestors demand step down). Hyun Sook’s extracurricular education continues when prelaw student Hoon sees her satchel of books and asks if she’d be interested in joining a book club. Again, not all is as it seems—a recurring theme in the novel. One cannot judge a book by its…well, you know.

The club meets. Students Hoon, Yuni, Gundo, Suji, and Jihoo are a motley bunch, and the club begins with each member discussing their current readings. New meat Hyun Sook innocently shares that she’s perusing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The others go from recognizable revolutionary texts like Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and Betty Firedan’s The Feminine Mystique, to more esoteric works such as Chomsky’s Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. The club-members speak in the cant of the college left, though their degree of intensity varies as they share their readings and what they’ve been up to. Gundo works at a local factory, for instance, where he’s starting a union. Suji induces a double-take in our heroine when she reveals she loves “punching cops”. Hyun Sook realizes this isn’t a tea and finger sandwiches book club; it’s a secret group of protestors.

Hyun Sook freaks out, leading the club founder Yuni to call out Hoon—who was likely bird-dogging Hyun Sook—for not telling her the book club was a banned book club. Hyun Sook fearfully states she doesn’t want to lose her scholarship, alienate her parents, or go to jail, just for the sake of “break the rules and being cool”. Yuni apologizes for Hoon’s sneakiness, but grabs Hyun Sook’s arm and says, I presume in a voice full of ice, “But if you really think this is all about being cool, then you have some waking up to do,” She adds, “If you ever need help with that, you know where to find us.” Thus begins Hyun Sook’s transformation from square peg to guerrilla girl. Which brings up another recurring theme: peer pressure. Often Hyun Sook seems less educated by the group than manipulated. Upon reading, and regardless of the righteousness of their cause, the club somehow keeps hoodwinking her.

In a way, it’s refreshing. I imagine the book is directed toward a young adult readership, inspiring the reader to rise up against tyrannical bad guys everywhere. Unlike similar YA stories that portray rebellion as little more than marching and shouting slogans, Banned Book Club doesn’t hide the unpleasant parts of fighting the power. Usually, the power fights back, and the good guys aren’t always white knights. Americans currently afraid of the semi-mythical Antifa’s purported vandalism and assault tactics will blanch at what the Banned Book Club is willing to say and do. The club members are clearly the book’s good guys. But, appropriate to a truish story, sometimes it’s more like bad guys versus preferable guys.

Not to suggest that Hoon, Yuni, and company are a terrorist cell. Far from it. Mostly they provide nuisance value to the local branch of the Agency for Security, a goon squad placed by the government and headed by local uniformed boogyman Agent Ok. Ok and the Agency are much less constrained, placing spies amongst the student body, detaining suspects on tenuous claims, screaming at and beating them (or worse) in an attempt to turn up troublemakers and commie moles. The young people are clearly outmatched, but refuse to be silent in the face of an authoritarian regime. High stakes here.

But the way Hyun Sook is brought into the fold is disagreeable at times. No one specifically intimidates or brainwashes her, but each time she arrives for a new gathering, she discovers it wasn’t quite as innocent as it sounded. Euphemisms are necessary to mislead the authorities, surely, but no one tells Hyun Sook the truth until she arrives and already incriminates herself. Oh, by the way, the book club is a banned book club. And that “cocktail party” is really a Molotov cocktail making party. “Didn’t you know X meant Y?” Is the usual reaction of the club-members as another layer of wool is pulled from Hyun Sook’s eyes. But why would she? Hyun Sook’s radicalization is kind of iffy. How good are the good guys if they’re not straight with you, even as they pull you in deeper? It’s a fine lesson in the reality of revolutions.

The group’s reasons do become clearer. Hyun Sook learns about the Gwangju uprising shortly before the police break in on the club with tear gas. She and Hoon escape, and along the way he provides exposition on why the club does what it does. President Chun’s lies “created such a divide between the people who believe his lies and those who don’t that the country is too torn apart to come together and properly oppose him.” Sounds familiar. He adds., “That’s why we protest. That’s why we have events like this. That’s why we read books we’re not supposed to.”

Noble, though like many lefty college students, Hyun Sook’s new friends are bright-eyed, optimistic, full of hope, irritating, pretentious, and overconfident. The impassioned muddled thinking of youth is well-represented. All have scraped their knuckles, and some have seen the inside of an interrogation cell, but it’s hard to pin down their endgame. Saintly they are, but there’s a simplistic fervor to it. They want to spread the truth and save the country, but the path to both is unclear. Despite what Agent Ok thinks, the gang really aren’t North Korean spies or fifth columnists. They’re young, and their activities seem more like a game of chicken than anything. While their reasons seem clear, their motivations are harder to place.

Communism is flirted with, dabbling in political systems the way others experiment with smoking, drinking, and sexuality. One day, as Hyun Sook and Hoon print out copies of The Communist Manifesto for distribution to the student body—secretly using the school newspaper’s equipment under the nose of an school's Agency censor—Hyun Sook questions why they’re doing it at all.

“You can’t just get The Communist Manifesto at a bookstore!” Hoon chides with a don’t-be-silly grin. “But if they’re going to keep calling us communists, we might as well learn what that means. Surprisingly, it is not defined as ‘anyone who disagrees with you’.”

Well, okay. But considering they share a border with a country that remains a nominally communist dictatorship, at odds with their own authoritarian and capitalist government, which is eager to root out and punish anyone even slightly pink…I’ll ask Hyun Sook’s question again. Um, why are they copying and distributing The Communist Manifesto? Banned Book Club doesn’t come out as pro-communist, however—though there's plenty of Marxist dorm chatter about tearing down the system and replacing it with something or other.

Later though, flirting with Marx leads to grief. I was struck by the scene where Jihoo—a scrawny poet who’s never participated in a protest, to keep him “clean” in case Yuni or Hoon are arrested—reveals he’s hidden a book by North Korean Eternal Leader Kim Il-Sung behind the cover of a collection of sappy love poems. Possessing the book is a punishable act. Jihoo reads a bit of starry-eyed prose from it about “the workers, peasants, youth, students, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, traders, etc.” uniting as one to attain “real” freedom for South Korea. Gundo, an economics student, has a less high-flown view. He presciently suggests Jihoo replace the cover so as not to be busted with “North Korean War propaganda”.

“He actually sounds quite loving and peaceful,” responds Jihoo, describing a man who imprisoned countless dissidents like Jihoo, among other human rights violations.

“You don’t think Kim Il Sung really believes that, do you?” asks Gundo.

“No way,” says Jihoo, “But reading this will help me spot the same lies when they come out of the mouths of our politicians.”

Which is as deep a thought as any conjured up by an undergrad, I suppose.

Sadly for Jihoo, Gundo is right. Grabbed on trumped-up charges by Agent Ok, Jihoo is subjected to two days of torture and humiliation (to Banned Book Club’s credit, torture isn't idealized as some sort of tempering process one simply endures and emerges from stronger than before).* Admirably, he never confesses, but just as he’s about to be released he drops his book. The fake cover slips off and an evilly grinning Ok knows that he has him. As a result, Jihoo isn’t just unjustifiably sent to prison for owning a book, he’s sent for possessing a book he doesn’t even believe in. He should be able to own the book, but it’s unclear why he does. I suppose it sticks with another theme, that the club fights to be allowed to explore ideas without fear. Still, one wonders why of all the things Jihoo could have done to lose his freedom, did he choose to carry a book by the dynastic thug next door? Banned Book Club doesn’t say.

Returning to the idea of books as magical totems: Throughout, the club continues to meet and discuss books, but they show little interest in non-revolutionary texts. Illustratively, Hoon hollows out a very rare edition of The Scarlet Letter—much to Hyun Sook’s horror—to make a book safe in which she can smuggle messages. Upon consideration, the only people who see books as “magical” is the 1983 South Korean government, who believe, justifiably, such books breed insurgents and sedition. While the Banned Book Club only seems interested in rebel works and dogma, lit major Hyun Sook does have a moment where she explores the power of literature. She explains to the obligatory college mean girl who’s been tormenting her, that while she can read the copy of Jack London’s White Fang she carries, she’s not allowed to possess London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, which was banned in South Korea for its socialist message. But that’s as much lip service as non-Boring Theoretical Party™ lit gets here.

It’s underscored as Hyun Sook’s college lit career takes a backseat (we rarely see her in class), and in a sequence akin to a 80s college cramming montage, she's seen reading her way through Locke, Luxemburg, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. A few Korean authors and poets and their works are mentioned, Im Kkokjong by Hong Myong-Hui and A Song That Cannot Be Erased by Kim Jeong-Hwan, which could have been described further to lend more of a Korean perspective, but alas, they are not discussed. Some books are more equal than others.

We do see the social side of the social justice warriors. Hyun Sook finds a supportive and thought-provoking group of friends, and they have fun as well as serious times together. Through them she finds her way, realizing the world can be a dark and horrible place, but it’s up to folks like her to fight back. As the lead character her personality and storyline are the best developed, but characterization is light for the others. Despite a large cast, subplots are almost nonexistent. Suji signals as gay throughout, though this is more alluded to than investigated. Yuni, while intriguing, boils down to a broken bird/ice queen type. Gundo is too peripheral. As one who takes more practical steps than the others in the club. I would have liked to have seen more about him. Similarly, Agent Ok is a one-dimensional baddie. He is an undeniably fascist pig and sadist, and artist Ko Hyun-ju makes sure you know it, portraying him with plenty of Kubrick stares, under-lighting, and many-toothed smiles. A moment that might make Ok less of a one-note beast—he speaks to his child by phone, promising to return home to Seoul after he rids the local area of bad guys—only makes him more repugnant when he hangs up and further abuses Jihoo. Fascism as a career path is his only motivation.

The story ends satisfyingly enough with Hyun Sook not just pursuing justice but doing it on her rather than Hoon’s, Yuni’s, society’s, or anyone else’s terms. She and Ok have an inevitable confrontation, played for laughs, but neatly pointing out how strength is abused by a fascist governments that beats on poets while leaving those who need protection (e.g., young students hit on by, surprise, hip, long-haired professors who just want to get into her pants). But then the goal of fascism is to reduce everyone to bodies of varying usefulness to the state. Ok, who’s been shown beating the hell out of Hoon and spilling coffee on the floor of the cell and shoving Jihoo’s face into it, is somehow flummoxed by Hyun Sook’s line of BS and lets her off.

A flash forward to 2016 shows the group reuniting at a protest against another pretender to the throne, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the military coup-installed Park Chung-hee. Our Gen X crew talks with the new breed of protestors about the old days on the barricades, and how you can never really stop protesting. All seem to have moved on to more direct action and becoming part of building a new system, pursuing justice in more intelligent and productive ways then hucking Molotovs, punching cops, and threatening to bash in brains.* † Perhaps the most important lesson of Banned Book Club—especially in current times—is this: freedom is considered a bad thing only by those whose power is most threatened by it, and it’s only through positive and organized alliances (and books) that we can combat them.

Banned Book Club is available at most comic and book stores and the Iron Circus website.

* Later in the book, another student and member of the folk dance team, Jae Young, is discovered to be a spy for Ok (though he’s never been trusted enough to be invited to the book club). Jae Young is the first in his family to attend college, and Ok holds his scholarship over his head. Even though Jae Young hasn’t fed Ok anything he didn’t already know, he remains a fink. When his cover is blown, he’s stuffed in a locker by fellow students, who prepare to work him over. Ever intense and intimidating, Yuni sends them away, smashes a fist in the wall beside his head, and tells him how angry she is at him. Nevertheless, she makes overtures of peace, sharing her lunch and telling him he should reject what Ok and the government have told him all his life. “It’s all a lie, you know. They like to make it seem like the only way we can succeed is with their help.” She also makes it clear that if Jae Young continues to narc, she’ll hunt him down and bash his brains in, a manga moment highlighted by glowing eyes of doom in a blank face. In the epilogue, we learn that adult Yuni joins the progressive party and runs for city council. If things went in another direction, however, who’s to say she wouldn’t have overseen interrogations herself?

** I wouldn’t call it glamorization, but there’s a strange sequence in the epilogue where Jihoo the poet returns, both published and incredibly buff after several years in prison (apparently, prison workouts make you a foot taller). He describes it as an awful experience, but also brags about hanging out with imprisoned artists, writers, musicians, and more. I’ve seen this in similar works of fiction—Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta comes to mind—where incarceration, interrogations, torture, and the like are seen as a tempering process, from which one emerges relatively unscathed and angelic. For a work that mostly doesn’t shirk on showing the horrors of authoritarianism, it’s a bit of a hiccup. Then again, Jihoo is poet. Enough said.

† We don’t find out what happened to Agent Ok—though, because of bookending, we see him taking a fist to the head from Suji back in the 1980s. If the law of middle-aged men failing upward holds, he no doubt currently has a high position in some conservative think tank.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.