Uncomfortably Happily is the rare graphic novel that remains still for long periods of time. That’s not to say the comic is ever boring, only that it makes the most of its quiet and relies on strongly developed and clearly motivated characters, rather than complicated plot, to tell its story.
The events of the book couldn’t be more straightforward: an unnamed cartoonist and his illustrator wife tire of their hectic life in the Seoul and move out to a mountaintop in the country to try and live a “simpler” life. If you’re afraid you’ll be getting a twee, romanticised look at a charming rural landscape, that’s just what writer and artist Yeon-Sik Hong is counting on, as Uncomfortably Happily spends as much time illustrating the drawbacks of rural life as much as the advantages.
Peppered in between Hong’s gorgeous, yet minimal, landscapes, the protagonist endures frozen winters, arrogant hikers, unreliable public transportation and, most pressingly, his dwindling artist’s salary. While the protagonist and his wife often express their love for the mountain and their happiness in moving there, they just as often curse the life they have chosen, and each desperately craves a few of the creature comforts that city life affords.
The story is told over the course of one year, beginning in the fall and ending just as the summer comes to a close, but with over four dedicated chapters, the winter takes up nearly half the book. During the colder months, the lack of heat and company begin to drive the protagonist mad. Already an imaginative artist, the winter exacerbates the surreal encroachments of both his drawings and inner thoughts that Hong visually establishes early on in the book. By the height of the season, the protagonist’s physical and mental health have reached a breaking point.
The weather does get warmer, however, and the protagonist soldiers on, mostly due to his wife. The only other major character in the book, she contrasts his mania and meticulousness with a wonderful warmth and frivolity, while still retaining her own goals and ambitions. As the protagonist’s career illustrating a large franchise comic book frustrates him and begins to stall, he throws himself into household chores and dreaming about writing his own work. His wife’s career, however, begins to flower, much to his chagrin. While their relationship isn’t perfect (mainly due to the protagonist’s foibles), it’s the tender centre around which the book is based.
Originally written in two parts by Hong in the early 2000s, Uncomfortably Happily was collected into one volume and translated from Korean by American cartoonist Hellen Jo for Drawn & Quarterly for the American market. The book is tranquil and meditative on first glance, but conceals a frantic interiority bubbling just below the surface, proving that simpler isn’t always easier. Uncomfortably Happily is available now.