Graphic Novel Review: Banned Book Club by Hyun Sook Kim and Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Hyung-Ju Ko

Banned Book Club by Hyun Sook Kim and Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Hyung-Ju Ko. Iron Circus Comics, 2020. 9781945820427. 192pp.

This fictionalized memoir of Kim Hyun Sook’s life begins in 1983. It was the year she started college, and back then the US backed South Korea’s ruling military dictatorship. College campuses were the sites of protests that often turned violent. The government sometimes tried to silence students with violence and disappearances.

Her first day at Anjeon University, Hyun Sook has to dodge Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and riot police to get through the main gate to her first class. She soon joins a masked folk dance club to stay out of politics, but even traditional dances are political. One of her new friends invites her to a book club, which sounds great. But she soon finds out the attendees read and discuss books that could get them arrested. At first Hyun Sook decides not to join. Bu her Shakespeare professor indirectly encourages her, and soon she’s attending. She learns a lot, including about the parts of her country’s history that her parents don’t talk about like the Kwangju Massacre. Soon a government agent is after them. is trying to track down members of the book club.

It’s all very a bit harrowing, but there are also lighthearted moments. The opening scene in Hyun Sook’s parents’ steak restaurant made me laugh, and so did the movie everyone is talking about (it involves a naked woman on a horse). Some book club members even copy books right under the nose of a government censor.

The characters are all easy to root for, especially for library folk and readers like us. Hyung-Ju Ko’s expressive illustrations make them even more likable.

This biography is fictionalized, in part to protect the people in the story, as Kim says in her biographical statement. But it rings true to me based on stories my wife has told me about her university days in Busan, where Kim and Estrada currently live.


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