In the mid-to-late 1990s, sixteen-year-old Pearl is on a bad track. She smokes, she drinks, and she's fallen in with a crowd of girls most of the school deems unacceptable, becoming one of those “bad girls” herself. As Pearl struggles with her physically abusive parents and her equally brutal teachers, she finds solace in her so-called bad friends – and now, looking back on those years as an adult, she wonders just what it was that she was running away from, and why it is that she managed to escape the self-destructive trajectory she was on.
Bad Friends, award-winning manhwaga Ancco's English-language debut, is brutal. That's not to say that it's full of violence or horrors, although there is a lot of physical abuse. What makes it so difficult is the combination of clear-eyed hindsight and justification for actions heroine Pearl was driven to by her circumstances, alongside Ancco's ability to imply just enough so that our imaginations take over and finish the job in a far more graphic way than any image could have. Bad Friends is equally about the eponymous friend group and the lies we tell ourselves in order to keep moving forward, and how those two things feed into each other in Pearl's life.
The story takes place in two distinct time periods: the mid-to-late '90s, when Pearl was sixteen and in her final year of middle school, and the present day, when she's an adult working as a manhwa creator outside Seoul. (While there is a strong implication that parts of this book are autobiographical, “Ancco” does not translate to “pearl;” instead the name seems to indicate that Pearl, like grit in an oyster shell, becomes worth something through her hardships.) As she smokes on her porch at night, Pearl begins to reflect upon her sixteenth year and the friends she had, specifically her best friend Jeong-Ae. Although Pearl was starting down what adults around her considered a delinquent path before, her friendship with Jeong-Ae solidified that journey, and the two girls become partners in crime, so to speak, at one point running away from home and trying to make their living as hostesses. Jeong-Ae comes from a much more broken family than Pearl does, with an alcoholic father and largely absent mother, and she has an easy time slipping into the hostess role. Pearl, on the other hand, is out of her depth, and much as she loves Jeong-Ae, begins to realize that this may not be the road for her after all.
Of course, she can't vocalize that, and it isn't until Jeong-Ae disappears before the end of the school year that Pearl is able to begin to come to terms with her choices and her life. Unfortunately for her, a lot of that comes in the form of justifying her parents' abuse. Both Pearl and Jeong-Ae are shown being beaten by their parents and teachers on a regular basis (corporal punishment in schools wasn't banned until 2010, and in 2016 20% of students in Seoul still reported it), and Pearl comes to believe that at home, at least, it was an act of love on her father's part, and the reason she was ultimately able to escape while Jeong-Ae was not. She seems largely oblivious to the contradictions in her own belief, from the fact that Jeong-Ae received parental beatings herself to the off-hand comment in the present section of the book when she notes that she still has a dent in her skull from when her father hit her with a badminton racquet. This, arguably, is both the most upsetting and the most telling part of the story, as it shows just how much Pearl has been devalued, to the point where she sees herself as deserving what happened to her rather than understanding that she likely acted out in response to the violence she endured. When Jeong-Ae vanishes, we see Pearl becoming more violent herself – the only way she knows how to show her disappointment in someone.
Despite the fact that Aigo and Jeong-Ae are classified as “bad” friends by the title, we can still see that Pearl gets something out of their relationship that she isn't getting at home. She recognizes that some of what they do isn't comfortable for her, such as the way Jeong-Ae treats her younger sister Jeong-Hui or the abusive boyfriends she goes through, but they also offer her a place to belong where she can relax. Jeong-Ae makes Pearl feel safe in a way that her parents don't, and a piece of adult Pearl seems to feel guilty that she ultimately could not perform the same service for her. Jeong-Ae may not be a good example or influence, but she is a good friend: she cares for Pearl, helps her, and makes her feel like she belongs.
It's that last that really informs the bitter nostalgia of the book. As adult Pearl muses on her past and reflects on how she did manage to land on her feet, we can see that she'll always regret Jeong-Ae even as she fears finding out what did eventually become of her. Although she never says it, it's clear that if she learns that Jeong-Ae became a sex worker or died she'll feel like she didn't do enough to save her, to pull her best friend out of the mire that was her life. It's her haunting moment, and one she worries will be able to manifest at any time.
That dark fear informs Ancco's artwork, which is heavy in its lines and use of dark spaces. It works, making the book feel like it's coated in a smoky film, as if Pearl isn't sure she wants to be remembering but is unable not to. At times the images can feel sketchy or unfinished, but that really works for the tone Ancco is setting. It's a dark story, and the pictures do a good job matching that.
Bad Friends isn't an easy read, but it is a good one. Nostalgia tends to be rosy and high school idealized in both manga and manhwa, and this story blows ashes all over that concept. Pearl's life was shaped by who she was at sixteen and the events she lived through. Bad Friends gives us both the good and the bad of that, resulting in a graphic novel that hits you not necessarily where it hurts, but definitely where you feel it.