I picked the first volume of this series by Uhm JungHyum as one of my favorites of 2007. Here’s my short review:

I’ve come to have very high expectations of Korean manga (or mahwa), and Forest of Gray City doesn’t disappoint. Yun-Ook Jang is a young woman trying to turn herself into an adult, with intermittent success — she is managing to make a go of it as a freelance artist, but she drinks too much and her cash flow isn’t all it could be. So she takes in a tenant:17-year old Bum-Moo Lee. Though Bum-Moo actually seems older and more responsible than Yun-Ook at first, he has his vulnerabilities too. Over the course of the first volume, the two housemates tentatively start to rely on each other as friends, and perhaps more.

The scenario itself is exquisitely romantic, and both Bum-Moo and Yun-Ook are given the full shoujo treatment —elegant, languid poses, flowing hair, giant limpid eyes. Their mutual attraction, repulsion and general confusion is pitch perfect — when Bum-Moo deadpans, “Is it okay to have a crush on you?” and Yun-Ook deadpans “no,” it’s funny and uncomfortable in just about equal amounts. It doesn’t hurt that, though this is Uhm’s first full-length story, she is already a masterful artist. Her use of grey shadings, and the way that she varies spacing — dropping borders, using insets, tilting the characters within the frames, even shifting the placement of speech bubbles — makes the narrative moments seem to wash into each other an intimate, dream-like blur. When she slows the pace by using a cleaner layout — as when Bung-Moo stops to look at the daybreak half way through the story — its almost inexplicably poignant. Only the first volume of this has been released, and the second has been delayed several times. If this series ends up getting canceled, I’m going to be really depressed.

Well, the second volume finally came out…and it turns out it’s the last! I thought I had like 20 or 30 volumes of this to read, and now it’s over! Waaaaah! (I was just recently giving super-hero fans flak for not wanting series to end…guess that’ll show me.)

Anyway, the second volume fills in backstory, which is always a little dicey — and sure enough, Bum-Moo’s past tragedies are a little over the top — though it could be a lot worse, lord knows. Still, the graceful, inevitable coming together, pulling apart, coming together of romance is pretty near perfect.

A big part of the reason it’s perfect is the art. Uhm Junghyum is simply an unbelievable illustrator. Case in point (be sure to click for the larger view too):

This isn’t even part of the story; it’s a bonus drawing showing Yun-ook in what I’d guess is a wedding dress. The detail of the embroidery is something else, and the use of solid blacks and whites to suggest the sensual, tactile feel of the material is masterful as well. It’s an enormously sexy image, obviously, but it doesn’t turn the character into a simple fashion plate or anonymous model. Instead, it’s still very much Yun-ook; she’s got an almost uncertain, worried expression, her head tilted just slightly, her lips pressed together. Her hands, which are drawn outsized, also makes the rest of her look awkward. She ends up looking stunningly beautiful and uncomfortably unsure of herself. It’s an irresistible combination; if the goal of romance is to make you fall in love with the protagonists, Uhm JungHyum’s art can do it without even having to tell you a story.

Another great image is the last one in the book:

This is the scene, supposedly, where the two main characters finally get together — but Uhm Junghyum doesn’t draw them clinching or embracing. Instead, it’s the moment before, when both are still on the verge. Yun-ook is all pulled into herself, back turned to the reader, elbows bent, the only sign of emotion a slight blush on her cheek, while Bum-Moo is gasping for breath since he’s just been running. It’s a stellar story-telling choice, concluding just before resolution, so longing, hope, uncertainty — the delectable emotions of romance — stretch on forever.

For such an ending I’ll reconcile myself to getting only 2 volumes. But her next series better be longer, damn it.

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Manga fans might also be interested in my article in this week’s Chicago Reader, in which I link the Torchwood TV show to shojo, yaoi, slash, and the coming man-porn apocalypse.