Moms by Yeong-shin Ma review – a joyous celebration

This remarkable South Korean tale illuminates the longings and desires of four ‘invisible’ middle-aged women

Lee Soyeon is a divorced woman in her 50s who works as a cleaner in a Seoul apartment building. Her life isn’t easy. Her bosses are mean, and her thirtysomething son, who still lives at home, is a wastrel who never lifts a finger to help her. Most painful of all, her boyfriend, Jongseok, another feckless loser, has recently revealed that for the last three years he has been two-timing her – and yet, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot give him up. In bed at night, her phone lies beside her like some miniature coffin, a night-time bearer of bad tidings to whose bleeps, messages and alerts she remains cruelly addicted.

But there are other kinds of light in this darkness, as well. Her friends, Myeong-ok, Yeonsun and Yeonjeong, have love lives almost as complicated as her own, and there’s solidarity in talking to them (they like to moan). And her character tends towards optimism, even in the bleakest moments. She loves to go out to afternoon dances, jiving with one man after another, and scoffing at them all (why are middle-aged men so hopeless? So gauche, so unstylish, so unaware?).

Pretending to be 10 years younger than she really is, it’s an old game of hers to see if she can persuade these “chumps” to pay her bill. The prospect of loneliness may loiter ghoulishly at the edge of such times – what would she do without Jongseok, she wonders, as she makes her way home – but they give her both the release and the dignity she craves. She is alive, and where there is life, there is hope.

A page from Moms.
A page from Moms. Photograph: Yeong-shin Ma

Yeonsun and co are the stars of Moms, a graphic novel by Yeong-shin Ma that was published in his native Korea in 2015 – and when I say “stars”, I mean it. What a remarkable, joyous book. Our culture, like his, is hell-bent on rendering middle-aged women invisible, and yet here are four of them, their lives not only filling every single page of this comic, but brought to us with such intimacy.

Ma, who is in his 30s, had help with Moms, having based it on a notebook he asked his mother to keep (she didn’t hold back), and thanks to this, we don’t only hang about inside her apartment, we’re also in her head and heart, experiencing the full churn of her emotions, which are no less intense than those of the young – and sometimes much more so.

Ma’s mother has given her son a great gift by helping him to understand that older women do not suddenly put aside longing and desire, jealousy and rage. Their bodies may be weary sometimes, and their faces may no longer carry the bloom of youth (though this is so often replaced, if only the world could see it, by something richer and more beautiful). But such things have no effect whatsoever on their hearts, which may still be broken – cracked in two like a hen’s egg on the edge of an old frying pan.

Moms by Yeong-shin Ma is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£22.50)

Contributor

Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Artist by Yeong-shin Ma – middle-aged men behaving badly
This darkly comic tale of three hapless and macho males fixes a boldly satirical eye on Korean society

Rachel Cooke

02, Jan, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
Isadora review – glorious art of a dervish
The avant garde dancer’s wild life is celebrated in Julie Birmant and cartoonist Clément Oubrerie’s clever retelling

Rachel Cooke

17, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson – review
This updated version of a comic book classic beautifully captures the emotional topsy-turvy of travelling alone

Rachel Cooke

26, Jun, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Swamp by Yoshiharu Tsuge review – powerfully strange
A gritty and humorous postwar Japan is depicted in these early works by the influential manga cartoonist

Rachel Cooke

24, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Esther’s Notebooks by Riad Sattouf review – fantastically daring
The French cartoonist’s funny, well-observed stories about the life of a young girl in Paris read like an illustrated version of the TV series Up

Rachel Cooke

30, Mar, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Boundless by Jillian Tamaki review – picture-perfect short stories
This collection of graphic short stories, quirky and ephemeral though they seem at first, are indelible in the mind

Rachel Cooke

17, Jul, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati review – sweet sorrows
In this latest instalment of the melancholy Paul series, our nerdish hero is lonely and adrift – as well as bleakly funny

Rachel Cooke

05, Jan, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sensible Footwear by Kate Charlesworth review – an instant classic
This joyous personal history of British LGBTQ life leaves no stone unturned

Rachel Cooke

18, Aug, 2019 @10:34 AM

Article image
Spinning by Tillie Walden review – portrait of adolescence on ice
An intimate graphic memoir of competitive skating feels like a coming-of-age classic

Rachel Cooke

12, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The New World: Comics from Mauretania by Chris Reynolds – review
These unsettling sci‑fi stories by a cult Welsh artist deserve wider attention

Rachel Cooke

28, May, 2018 @7:00 AM