Graphic Novel Review: Moms by Yeong-Shin Ma

Moms by Yeong-Shin Ma. Translated by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, 2020. 9781770464001. 372pp.

This graphic novel, focused on the lives of women in their fifties living in Seoul, South Korea, starts with a street fight between two women over a man. (It’s not explained until about halfway through the book, when the story catches up to it.) At the center of the book is Soyeon. She’s in a relationship with a man who’s cheating on her (for economic reasons) with a woman who keeps promising to open a flower shop for him. Soyeon’s life went downhill after she became pregnant and then married. Her husband cheated on her and gambled, and she worked for years to pay off the debt he racked up, but they eventually got a divorce anyway. Now she works as a cleaning woman at an office building and hopes her boyfriend will stop by at night. She loves him, but if he ever made her happy those times are behind them. (Her friends are in similar circumstances — they’re not in great shape economically and their relationships with men are unsatisfying. But they go out and have fun together once in a while, and they can mostly trust each other.)

I’ve never read a Korean comic like this. The ajumas swear and party and have fairly mundane lives. They want more but there’s not a great way to get it, so they keep plugging along. It feels very real (especially the abuse the cleaning ladies suffer at the hands of their supervisor and the people who hire them). The whole story is readable, and not just because of the fistfights two of the women have. In a note at the back of the book Ma explains that his mom is the main character. He gave her a notebook and a pen and asked her to write about her friends and her love life, and she did. This is the result. Ma says it makes him look at raucous, cackling older folks differently. (It makes me think about the busses I used to see in the 1990s, on Korean highway. They were filled with older adults dancing and partying while we all sat in heavy traffic. After reading this book I feel like I have more insight into those folks’ lives. But I’m still not sure it’s wise for anyone to drink soju on a moving bus.)


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