I first read about Surviving Romance last year in a Masha Zhdanova blurb at Women Write About Comics. “If you liked the idea of Homestuck’s final act more than its execution,” she wrote, “you should read this webtoon about a girl trapped in a romance novel.” Reader, I was listening to the podcast “Homestuck Made This World” at that very moment. I had to read Surviving Romance. But I had to do it fast, because the series was about to be relegated to Webtoon’s dreaded Daily Pass section. I read the comic after work. I read it on the weekends. I blasted through the final chapters while riding the bus to New York City for Thanksgiving. Then I started The Makeup Remover, the previous work by artist Lee Yone. 

Surviving Romance was published in weekly installments between 2021 and 2023. There were few interruptions save for a hiatus between the its two seasons. Lee Yone’s art bears the scars of this weekly schedule. It is functional and occasionally experimental, but rarely surprises. The same can be said for The Makeup Remover. These comics are quick and dirty architecture to mount Yone’s stories and not much else.

chaerin eun eaten by boyfriend

Lee Yone’s stories, though, are deceptive. Surviving Romance starts as an isekai story, or portal fantasy, about a young woman transported into the world of a romance novel. The Makeup Remover is a Cinderella story in which a college student and a makeup expert team up to compete in a reality television show. Both comics feature strong female leads, dashing male heroes and a dash of fantasy in line with popular Webtoon trends.

But the heroine of Surviving Romance is eaten by her boyfriend at the end of the first episode. It’s not a romance story–it’s a time loop zombie story. Meanwhile, the heroine of The Makeup Remover receives a first-hand education in the corporate conformity of South Korea’s beauty and entertainment industries. Yone’s brightly colored worlds of beautiful people are dangerous and corrupt. They devour the unwary and reduce rebels to husks.

chaerin and mihui

I’ll love you every day

The real villain in Surviving Romance is not zombies but the romance genre itself.  We eventually learn that the heroine Chaerin–whose real name is Huisu Kim–entered the world of the novel to escape her terrible life. So long as she submits to its rules she is beautiful, safe and adored. But she is also alone; her classmates all hate her per the cliches of the genre, and her boyfriend doesn’t know her secret.

Once the time loop starts, Huisu rallies her classmates so that they might all escape their zombie-infested school intact. In the process she discovers that the kids she once dismissed as faceless “extras” are all real people. None of them remember why they were mean to her, only that they were somehow compelled to be so. They, like her, were trapped by the silent rules of Webtoon romance. Huisu’s only chance at liberation is to destroy the world of escapist fiction together with her peers.

silhouette with bat sitting next to zombie corpse red silhouettes

The Makeup Remover by comparison explores the contradictions of the cosmetics and entertainment industries. Makeup lets heroine Yeseul transform her appearance. But it’s also a product sold by corporations that is used to enforce beauty standards. Reality television gives outsiders like Yeseul a chance to define themselves on screen. But it’s also an engine that leads to harassment and objectification. The same audience that cheers for Yeseul is also capable of leering over a child star participating in the competition. 

The Makeup Remover was published around the same time as True Beauty, another Webtoon about a young woman changing herself with makeup. True Beauty is a popular series that is due to receive an anime adaptation this year. It also does not ask its audience to think about its premise critically. Lee Yone by comparison demands that her readers think about how and when makeup is used. If makeup can be used to let anyone to become anything, she asks, why is it instead applied and enforced in such specific ways?

yuseong applies yeseul's makeup

Face-Off Cinderella

The Makeup Remover is as much a comic about patriarchy as it is about the beauty industry. Yeseul has a crush on her handsome classmate Seungwoo. The reader, though,  learns that Seungwoo is a plagarist who has been passing off Yeseul’s photography as his own. When Yeseul becomes a television star, Yeseul works hard to control her so that she won’t ever outshine him. He demands that she wear her hair long, be subservient to him and stay away from her other friends. Yeseul nearly falls for it. 

While Yeseul begins the series with long hair, she realizes early on that she prefers it short. It’s her first step towards realizing that personal style can be just as much about feeling good about yourself as anything else. I was struck by the parallel with Huisu’s own long hair in Surviving Romance. She keeps it long in the beginning because the role of “Chaerin Kim” demands it. But she ties it back and later cuts it off when she choses to reject that role and take back control of her life. 

"this is how you wanted to look."

It’s a serious matter for women to wear their hair short in South Korea. In 2021, per the BBC, the archer An San was criticized by men for daring to have short hair. It didn’t matter that she won three Olympic gold medals. In fact, that may have made it worse. Short hair was associated with feminists, and as far as certain internet commenters in Korea were concerned, “all feminists should die.”

2018 wasn’t just the year that True Beauty and The Makeup Remover were published. It was also the year of the “escape the corset” movement. According to The Cut, women trashed their makeup palettes on social media and cut their hair. They simplified their multi-step beauty routines and took pictures of themselves wearing baggy clothing. These women were done with the obsessive beauty standards of their home country. They were ready to try something else.

yeseul cutting hair pose shot

Escaping the corset

At the end of the day Surviving Romance and The Makeup Remover are stories about women finding fellowship with each other rather than with men. Huisu is inspired by her classmate Mihui, who strives to keep fighting despite her own personal weakness. Meanwhile, Yeseul’s greatest ally turns out to be her classmate and television rival Heewoon. Their friendship is so crucial to the story that it steals the spotlight at the end from Yeseul’s love interest Yuseong.

There’s something I find enjoyably perverse about Lee Yone’s refusal to end her comics with romantic fulfillment. Surviving Romance is one thing, since that comic revealed itself after the initial fake out to be a metafictional suspense thriller. But even The Makeup Remover, which puts the relationship between Yeseul and her makeup partner Yuseong front and center in its advertising, minimizes his presence in the last few chapters. It’s a violation of the rules of romance–that there must be a happy ending, and that we must see the characters together at the end.

yeseul wearing glasses

I think there’s something radical about Lee Yone asserting, in a medium known for romantic fantasies, that women don’t need to be in a relationship to be happy. That’s not to say that relationships aren’t important. Yone’s characters are frequently saved by their friends and partners from their worst instincts. What matters most though is their self-actualization. “I’m still not pretty,” Yeseul thinks to herself at the end of The Makeup Remover. “But who cares? I’m happy with how things are now!” 

Lee Yone’s works repackage popular trends for a wide audience in snack-sized packages. In this respect they are no different from any other Webtoon. At the center of that packaged snack though there is always a little worm. It asks the reader, “are you really happy with this? Don’t you want to live your own life?” I’ll keep reading Lee Yone’s comics so long as she keeps demanding just a bit more of her audience.

By the way, did you know that Lee Yone began her career as an artist outside of Webtoon? Next time: we’ll cover Gajae, Miss Guillotine and her comics origin story.