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Drawing a Story – Explaining the Magic of Asian Comics

Photo by Manga Dragon. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Staff writer May Zaben uses Yongchan’s “Swimming Lessons for a Mermaid” to illustrate the unique power of Asian comics. 

Spoiler Warning: Please be aware that certain events of “Swimming Lessons for a Mermaid” are discussed for the sole purpose of expanding on the writer’s point. If you do not wish to know what these events are, please do not read on.  

You can write a story, but you can also draw one. When I started reading Asian comics (particularly manhwas, Korean comics), I realised that the visual mode of literature used in these stories was so precious, endearing, and enlightening. In spite of my love of textual literature, something about seeing what a character feels rather than reading about it made the story come to life for me. With that being said, I want to talk about how precious visual Asian literature is, using the digital manhwa “Swimming Lessons for a Mermaid” by Yongchan as an example. This comic (published on the webcomic platform Webtoon) revolves around Choa, a mermaid who can’t swim but wants to. As she finds it difficult to achieve this one-and-only desire, she “trades the ocean for a pair of human legs” (via the synopsis on Webtoon). When she embarks on this unknown journey, she comes across a boy named Soo at school. After inadvertently discovering her secret, Soo, an experienced swimmer, offers Choa swimming lessons to eliminate her fear. Choa agrees, and the adventure begins. 

In Episode 1 of “Swimming Lessons for a Mermaid”, which starts prior to Soo discovering Choa’s secret, he decides to strike up a conversation when she’s sitting alone in class. The way he “talks” to her, though, is by excitedly yelling, “HELLO, CHOA SHIN!!!” In return, Choa screams, “AH!!!” When I revisited this scene, I actually let out a laugh because of how comical it was. In addition to the excessive exclamation points highlighting the capitalised words displayed, the creator makes the humour shine with Soo’s extended, greeting hand and Choa’s wide-eyed, terrified expression. Black lines grace each side of the screen, perhaps emphasising the fear Choa feels even more. The scene seems like a simple one, but it’s a great example of how precious visual Asian literature is; the use of vivid language and lively animation revealing a certain side of the characters. Soo’s screaming showcases his extroverted persona, and Choa’s reaction illuminates her fear.

In Episode 4, there is a moment which takes place prior to Choa agreeing to take lessons. When she expresses her concern about learning to swim because she is scared she’ll “fail”, Soo tells her, “…But if you have even the slightest will to try it again…/…then you should go for it! Do you want to just give up without even trying because you’re scared?”. When I saw this scene, I smiled softly, thinking about how wholesome it was. Compared to the first episode where the viewer got a glimpse of a very rambunctious, excited Soo, here we have a soft Soo, one whose words of comfort reflect the sincerity in his eyes. If one were reading this scene textually, sure, they might recognise the sense of wholesomeness from the encouraging words said. However, if the same person observed this visually, discovering the warmth in Soo’s eyes, they’d understand the wholesomeness even more; they would drink it in. This is another example, then, of how endearing visual Asian literature can be.

In addition to this, there is a scene in Episode 81 which involves Soo participating in an open-water swim meet despite being sick. When he starts getting dizzy, he loses awareness and – with the waves’ strong currents – begins to drown. When Choa notices this, she jumps in to save him. In the water, she turns into her true mermaid self; bright blonde hair, blindingly gorgeous aquatic eyes, and a strong presence of urgency on her face. Reading this scene, I felt nervous watching Choa; Yongchan drew her in a way that emulated the anxiety-inducing tone of the moment; wild-eyed, scared, wanting to find Soo and save him. It was a facial expression which emulated what was at risk and encountering that, I couldn’t wait for the negative rush to be over. I wanted Soo to be okay and I wanted Choa to find relief. Her facial expression, therefore, elicited this emotion from me. In this case, visual Asian literature becomes valuable in the sense that it contains certain devices that are able to showcase something important and make the reader feel something profound.

Though I could write a whole book about the many beautiful instances which occur in Yongchan’s comic, I hope the mention of Episodes 1, 4, and 81 showcased how precious visual Asian literature is. The whole point of my telling you this is not merely about persuading you to like Asian comics, but it’s about giving this remarkable art form a chance. These comics aren’t just for leisure; they aren’t just there to pick up and read. They are there to depict a story, to portray something we never knew existed within a creative, captivating world. If you ever, therefore, have the chance to come across any Asian comic, you will not be disappointed. The first time you pick up that story, be it in physical or digital form, will also be the last time; you’ll only be able to put it back down once it ends.

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