Review by Frank Plowright
A poignant and understanding perspective of middle-aged women wouldn’t be the topic of choice for most graphic novel creators in the their early thirties, so that alone separates Korean cartoonist Yeong-shin Ma from the crowd. His afterword reveals the prompt was leaving home, then being frustrated by continual basic household tasks, and for the first time considering his stepmother’s life. Much of Moms originates in a notebook he provided for her, and the honest and confessional outpouring she returned, sparing him very little.
Even discounting middle-aged women being all-but absent in comics, Moms is remarkable. It’s an unflinching examination of how reality constantly falls short of hopes and dreams, how disappointments are frequent, and how the bar is set at contentment rather than fulfilment or happiness. While Ma’s mother Lee Soyeon provides the initial momentum, the narrative switches around her friends, all of whom have partners who’ve died or left them. Through Soyeon we learn of their pasts, habits and of their broadly similar regrets, along with what she really thinks of them, but keeps to herself. Alongside that, working lives are revealed, generally smart women trapped in menial jobs due to their age, and having to face daily indignities just to keep earning. Soyeon works as a toilet cleaner, employed by a manager whose abuse is appalling, extending well beyond casual workplace bullying, yet confident in his position enabling such exploitation.
Just as the commentary is unflinching, Ma is honest with the art. It’s simple, and occasionally flawed, but with hidden depths, Ma careful about what’s shown, even in the panel backgrounds, and a little thought on the part of the reader reveals meaning that isn’t clear in passing. However, because facial expressions aren’t a strength, Ma has to rely on thought balloons or comments from other characters to make his point on occasion.
Moms takes the long path, diverting where necessary, but the strongest recurring thread is Soyeon’s relationship with Jongseok. She’s consistently let down by her dissolute boyfriend, yet is a soft touch for a reunion whenever she ditches him, despite always having half an eye on upgrading when attending dance clubs. By any reasonable standards he manipulates and mistreats her, yet what transmits well is Soyeon’s fear that there will be nothing better. It culminates in her confronting Ma about moving out, considering his presence limits her opportunities. There’s justification for her other views, and Ma’s honest enough to record them.
He works toward resolution of most plot threads and for Western readers translator Janet Hong provides explanations of cultural differences and traditions. Moms is enlightening and compassionate, shining a light where perhaps it needs shone more often in other creative media.