Yeon-Sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily is a graphic memoir covering a couple of years when he and his wife moved from Seoul to a remote house on a mountain. Working for a manga publisher, he dreams of writing his own project. He’s not the perfect employee, and his editor is not the perfect employer, resulting in numerous tense exchanges. He’s late with his pages, and she likes to call early in the morning and go through corrections on the phone, while he would prefer that she emails them to him. Meanwhile Hong’s wife is looking for a new apartment on her own as he’s too busy working to help. Seoul is portrayed as a sensory barrage of noise and smell, and so when they find a chance to move to the countryside, they do.
The years of working on comics for other people have clear rewards beyond the royalties - Hong is a highly skilled cartoonist. There are so many inventive touches, like drawing himself as a robot as he receives instruction after instruction from his editor, or representing inner monologues by drawing multiple instances of his character conversing with each other. Many pages are quite minimal, but when depicting the beautiful scenery he adds considerably more detail to great effect.
There are overlapping cycles of friction throughout the book: where to live, problems with Hong’s editor, money worries, the isolation of living on the mountain (especially during winter and when they have no transport), the desire to produce his own work rather than being a cartoonist for hire, and more. A common theme is his procrastination, exacerbated by the new home, which requires a lot of work to make it a viable place to live. He often gets stuck into projects like removing the rocks from the garden while neglecting his work, then makes himself ill trying to catch up. Meanwhile, his wife makes excellent progress on her own cartooning, as she is less of a perfectionist and more of a finisher, and pride and resentment fight for dominance of his feelings about this. Of course, there is much more depicted here than his own internal conflicts. The book provides fascinating insights into life in Korea, cycles of nature and the relationships by different people in a community, those who visit his rural idyll as tourists and those who own the land. The couple live a simple life, where eating meat is a real luxury and seemingly their only indulgence, and they are constantly juggling their finances to have enough to eat and heat. Phone and internet access, both of which are vital for his work, are cut off as bills go unpaid, and he sometimes skips class to avoid the expense of a bus fare. All of this combines to produce a book that is a pleasure to read, with the creative and striking artwork and the focus on inner and outer struggles ensuring it’s an engrossing read, and much faster than the near-600 page count would suggest.