In the harrowing GRASS (Drawn + Quarterly, 480 pp., paper, $29.95), translated by Janet Hong, Gendry-Kim appears as herself, racing against time to interview the octogenarian Ok-sun Lee. “I’ve never known happiness from the moment I came out of my mother’s womb,” a wrinkled “Granny” Lee says, and by the time this dark book ends, those words read more as understatement than exaggeration. Born into poverty in 1928, Ok-sun was a feisty girl who wanted more than anything to go to school; when her parents suggest that a more well-to-do couple adopt her, she agrees to go. “I’m gonna study hard and help you get better,” she says to her ailing father. But Ok-sun never sees her family again, and it becomes painfully clear that education will never be hers. She’s sold again, to work at a tavern; in 1942, at age 15, she gets abducted and shipped off to a Japanese-occupied province of China.
With other girls — all of them stolen or duped — she toils in the fields, but then the soldiers arrive. About 200 pages into this nearly 500-page threnody, Ok-sun is raped by the first of hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Gendry-Kim’s forceful art, with its wild lines and dense black, plunges fully into the realm of nightmare. We see the men in silhouette, each face just a pair of leering eyes and a set of demonic teeth. The girls huddle in the top half of the room, across the top of two blackened pages, while the men are framed by a doorway that’s somehow emerging from the floor, as though stepping out of hell, a daring distortion that signals a further twist in the girls’ already grim reality. The next two pages are as heart-stopping as any comics I’ve seen. They depict nothing less than the death of a soul.