With North Korea so much in the headlines and such a point of fascination for Americans, Kim Hyun Sook’s Banned Book Club, co-written with Ryan Estrada and injected with energy by Ko Hyung-Ju, offers a spirited political view of South Korea through her own experiences there during her college years. It’s 1983 and President Chun Doo-hwan is busy doing what dictators do — controlling books and information, abducting people for questioning and torture, sending police to beat up protesters.
In fact, the moment Hyun Sook steps off the bus on her first day of college she blunders right into her mother’s worst nightmare about the situation — a protest. Hyun Sook’s mother is convinced that kids only go to college to protest, not to study, and in an argument earlier decried the entire idea of Hyun Sook even going to college. Hyun Sook’s dad smoothed things over, but the protest is jarring and a disheveled Hyun Sook wanders into class rattled and late because of it.
The class is also a quick wake-up call. The professor begins to berate the protesters and lay out the reasons they deserve to be silenced and incarcerated, all boiling down to the idea that they are troublemakers who defy the university and the South Korean president by the conspiratorial, communistic act of starting book clubs as extracurricular activities. And what Hyun Sook soon finds is that it’s hard to stay out of political conflict when almost any show of individuality becomes a political statement. She falls in with the wrong element without even trying, and that, of course, leads to a book club.
To become a revolutionary and risk imprisonment is a lot to ask of any college student. In true oppressive situations, the slightest transgression can destroy a life, so it’s no surprise Hyun Sook, in a panic, rejects her initial introduction to underground activism in the form of discussing banned books. But what she quickly learns as a person seeking knowledge is that any art worth examining is dangerous art and often the best of the dangerous art is that which hides its danger from the lazy brains of politicians that can only register what is plainly in front of them. If you want knowledge, the revolutionary act of reading dangerous books is unavoidable. But so is risk.
In the case of Hyun Sook’s book club friends, danger elevates quickly, and though it seems like their transgressions against the state are small ones, that doesn’t stop the agents of the state from treating the situation as if they were revolutionaries on the brink of storming government buildings. Hyun Sook, though, seizes upon the situation for growth, and one of the pleasures of this story is watching her take control in a pivotal moment that reveals all the guile that seemed to be lurking within her just waiting for the right application to bring it into life on its own terms.
While our own country certainly hasn’t reached the level that South Korea did, the situation definitely brings up parallels that are unavoidable. After finding out the full scope of their president’s conspiratorial lies, she wants to know why the people can’t see that he is lying. Her friend in the book club, Hoon, replies, “He created such a divide between the people who believe his lies and those who don’t that the country is too torn apart to come together and properly oppose him.”
That hits so close to home that it stings, but that’s the point. Banned Book Club isn’t supposed to be about something that’s far away. Its power is in the fact that it’s about something that feels like it’s on our doorstep.
But to this end, Banned Book Club offers some perspective when it looks forward beyond Hyun Sook’s earlier and into 2016 as the people of South Korea take to the streets against President Park Geun Hye, the first female president of the country and daughter of the President Park, head of the military dictatorship toppled by a coup by Chun Doo-hwan. The lesson is one of a cycle that requires maintenance and doesn’t look at tyranny as some anomaly in history, but a continual part of that cycle. Prevention is an admirable goal, but not necessarily a viable one. Action, just like that of Hyun Sook and her book club friends, is necessary to, at the very least, keeping the tyranny from metastasizing.
Note: After this review was published, iron Circus Comics announced a delay of this and other titles due to concerns related to the coronavirus, as their printers are located in China. Banned Book Club has tentatively been rescheduled for May.