Bad Friends is a memoir of growing up in South Korea in the 1990s from the cartoonist known as Ancco. It is a powerful account of teen years spent as a punching bag.
Ancco holds little back in her fragmented narrative, so this new title from Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly left me feeling queasy and helpless. It is a bleak vision of a youth who represents an entire generation that has few options in life.
Jinju is Ancco’s comic alter ego. My stomach knotted as I read about the seemingly endless beatings visited upon her. Jinju is beaten at home by her father, at school by her teacher and in the streets by her peers.
Even worse, the central character becomes caught up in the Asian’s country human-trafficking sex industry.
Her only defender is her unreliable friend Jung-ae. Together, the two rebel against an environment bent on crushing their spirits. Is she successful? To a degree, I suppose. In this cruel setting, just surviving one’s adolescent years is a victory.
What Bad Friends lacks is a turning-point moment when life gets better for Jinju, or she breaks free of her tormentors on her own. We see her as a girl being beaten, then 10 years later, after she has become an artist. The reader is denied a catharsis.
I recommend Bad Friends, but only because it succeeded in transporting me to another time and place. If you decide to check this book out, be prepared for a gruelling experience.
While you’re at it, there’s another recently released title you might want to check out, Home After Dark, David Small’s tale of a teen boy growing up in small-town California in the 1950s. Thankfully, it’s a tad less depressing than Bad Friends.