Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong
Uncomfortably Happily is a gentle slice-of-life manhwa memoir about adapting to change. Yeon-Sik and his wife move from Seoul to the mountains in an effort to clear their heads from the busy clamor of the big city, and together they must recalibrate their work-life balance as new responsibilities and distractions arise. In their new rural cabin, they learn the hard way about coal heaters, blackouts, and unreliable bus schedules, all while finding a new, life-affirming joy in the natural world around them. With a close eye on their bank account, Yeon-Sik and Sohmi Lee grow vegetables and collect herbs in the forest, living off the earth as best they can. But “before we can grow a garden,” Hong writes in a potent early scene, “we have to clear out these piles of garbage that have been around for who knows how many years.”
It’s a sweet story, but a complicated one, as Yeon-Sik and his wife struggle with balancing their own shortcomings with the necessary requirements of maintaining a household. Yeon-Sik unflinchingly draws himself as a procrastinating jerk, indirectly rendering his wife’s saintliness as she endures his poor discipline and moaning about work deadlines. He’s a comics illustrator that dreams of someday writing his own story, but instead plugs away at revision after revision of contract artwork for his nagging editor. Meanwhile, Sohmi Lee quietly works on her own art with the quiet confidence that Yeon-Sik lacks. Hong subtly creates a competitive spirit in the memoir’s professional, working environment, and balances that discomfort with lovely, child-like scenes of Yeon-Sik and Sohmi Lee goofing off in a fresh snowfall and splashing in a nearby lake.
As its title suggests, much of Uncomfortably Happily unfolds in a space bent outside of normal feelings: Hong takes the basic tenets of life, love and the pursuit of happiness and exposes the complexities at their core. “My wife is laughing for some reason,” Hong writes during a stunning late-winter scene. “She dusts off her husband and walks around with him like this, just to take the bus and buy some ramen. And yet, for some reason she still laughs. If I feel happiness, I’m a shameless husband. But today I’m here just trying to be happy. I push my feelings of guilt and self-pity off until tomorrow. Just for today, I’ll be shameless.”
As a winter illness afflicts the increasingly angry Yeon-Sik, it becomes uncomfortably clear that it’s not the mountain and rural living that’s getting the best of him, but the psychological “garbage” that he brought with him from Seoul. He’s consumed by societal expectations of how to be a good husband, which are compounded by a professional crisis surrounding his passion and talent for cartooning. He feels like a failure if he can’t provide for both his wife and himself; his wife should not worry about making a living of her own. Throughout the memoir Sohmi Lee remains an optimistic hard worker, and even repeatedly suggests that she get a job or work as Yeon-Sik’s colorist. But he doesn’t listen, and only a breakdown (and a creative breakthrough) can cut through his traditional defenses.
The visuals and pacing of Uncomfortably Happily are at odds with the sobering maturity at the book’s center. The memoir is cutely drawn, almost to a fault: it might appear from a casual glance that the book is for younger audiences, considering all the wide smiles, dancing, and the occasional music notes that appear alongside particularly joyous bits of dialogue. As Yeon-Sik’s mind races with indecision, ideas often pop out of his head and converse with him as characters. He often splits into clones to weigh out his options, with one living out a particular outcome. While any hesitations with these visuals really come down to personal taste, the memoir’s only true fault is its pacing, which manically cuts scenes mid-page like a frantic cartoon. This spazziness nicely mirrors Yeon-Sik’s noncommittal need for excitement and his reluctance to develop a thoughtful work of his own, but it hinders the success of the memoir as a whole. A powerful work that’s held back by some its stylistic choices, Uncomfortably Happily is reluctantly profound.