Author: G: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (translated by Janet Hong); NoMW: Isabella Rotman
Pages: G: 480 pages; NoMW: 60 pages
Publish Date: G: June 2019; NoMW: 2016
Publisher: G: Drawn & Quarterly; NoMW: Self-published
Catalog ID: G: 978-1770463622 NoMW: 978-0986164415
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/shop/graphicmedicine
Book Reviews by Kevin Wolf
Before I delve deeply into the two graphic works under review here, I have three issues to address: whether you should even read this review, whether I should herein use gentle (as in Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim) or more explicit words to explain events, and the elephant in the room. Let me explain. You may not want to read this review because of the subject matter. At the beginning of Not on My Watch: A Bystanders’ Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, Second Edition by Isabella Rotman there is a warning, so I want to give mine here: This review of graphic works contains language about rape of women during World War II (WWII) and their subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The caveat at the start of Not on My Watch is the reader should understand that “sexual violence, interpersonal violence, and domestic abuse” are discussed (page 1). So if you don’t want to read about such trauma, please stop reading. Second, should I use some of the gentle language of Grass, like write about “comfort women” (the literal translation of prostitute from the Japanese) or should I use language that I believe more fitting, namely: sexually raped and physically/mentally systematically abused and enslaved girls and women mostly by the Japanese imperial army men. I’ve thought about writing two reviews one with gentle language and another with more honest words. I’ve decided to use “comfort women” when used in a quote from Grass and explicit language when I’m not, because I want the reader to understand that language matters and I’m concerned that gentle language implies less harm. The author had this same dilemma when she indicated in her inside note: “The term ‘comfort women’ is widely used to refer to the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery … the term continues to be controversial, especially among survivors and the countries from which they were taken, since it reflects only the perspective of the Japanese military and distorts the victims experiences.” (page 5). Nonetheless, the author decided to use ‘comfort women.” Finally, the elephant in the room … men in the military and sexual assault. Obviously, not all men in a military commit sexual misdeeds, but sexual assault, rape, and prostitution has been part of war for probably as long as there has been one country fighting another. For example, according to a biography (Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel (SL) by Bob Batchelor—Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) during WWII Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ well-known writer and editor, worked state-side in the Signal Corp. His ‘all time strangest assignment’ was to create an anti-venereal disease (VD) poster. (SL page 38). “The British had forty thousand men a month being treated for VD during the Italian campaign.” (SL 39) Men were told “up to half a dozen times a month [how to avoid VDs and provided] prophylactic kits [including “ointment, cleaning cloth, and cleansing tissue”] when on an overnight pass or furlough.” (SL 39) There were “prophylactic stations the army set up … [according to Lee that] ‘dotted the landscape.’” Lee’s poster said “VD? Not me!” with an image of a serviceman going into a prophylactic station. (SL 39; where condoms and STD treatments could be found). Now this might sound funny, especially to men, but one should remember these servicemen were an invading force into another country; and they’re there to fight the German and Italian forces and free Europe from the yoke of fascist tyranny not to have sex with the locals. The reader should understand that because there was actual physical structure surrounding the treatment or preventing of STDs, the potential for sexual accosting was systemic—it was built into the military system in WWII! And an internet search today can fairly easily find cases of sexual harassment, assault and rape occurring in a military with or without an invasion, so the sexual assaults in Grass shouldn’t be construed as only occurring in the not-so-distant past by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Now on to the review … I will review Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (Translated by Janet Hong) and Not on My Watch: A Bystanders’ Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, Second Edition by Isabella Rotman. The former is based on the author’s interview of “Granny” (an honorific) Lee (Lee Ok-Sun) covering her early childhood in the late 1930s through her elder years and ending in early 2017. The latter graphic work is not a story but a teaching tool which offers ways for a bystander to prevent sexual assault and a supporter (e.g., friend) to be there for a person whose sexual or physical trauma is ongoing. The former is an example of the horrors of trauma, while the latter might be a tool to prevent an assault. Sexual assault carries lifetime trauma with subsequent PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The PTSD, as in Grass, can include reliving the nightmare, numbness, disconnecting from reality, being shunned by family and community, being blamed for the assault, being disbelieved, isolation, and much more.
A few online United States resources related to domestic abuse, include National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE, 1-800-799-7233), Prevent Child Abuse America, and National Center on Elder Abuse; and calling 911 if there’s immediate danger. Some of these sites suggest you clear your home device search history or search on a device outside the home if you fear your web searches are being monitored. And Not on My Watch recommends scarleteen.com‘s safety plan.
Grass is emotionally-difficult-to-read and very worthy graphic non-fiction history/biography to get through, dwell on, learn from, and prevent future occurrence of systemic sexual assault by military personnel and their supporting civilians (e.g. brothel managers). Grass in its gentle way demands change, or at least I hope it leads to change after reading it. I highly recommend Grass and recommend Not on My Watch as a teaching tool.
Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (translated by Janet Hong)
Grass is a Manhwa (i.e., Korean graphic novel). The word “Manhwa” is used for Korean comic books, print cartoons and animated cartoons, and has the same word root as Japanese “manga” (漫画): namely, the Chinese manhua (漫画; this Chinese hànzì has the same Japanese kanji) which means “impromptu sketches” in Chinese. The story begins with a caveat that the graphic work uses the standard “Japanese euphemism for ‘prostitute,’ ianfu, (page 5) as “comfort women” though it really was forced sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. The author provides historical events to give context to what happened to Lee Ok-Sun and other women. Lee Ok-Sun is interviewed by the author while living at the House of Sharing—senior living home for the women survivors of Japanese imperial soldiers’ sexual assaults—in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, on the edge of Seoul South Korea. There is memorial statuary outside the House of Sharing. When Korean or Japanese words arise—many related to created family among the woman-child’s like Obasan (Japanese; desired by the woman manager of the brothel) for aunt and Eonni (Korean for older sister) —the author defines them at the bottom of their page. Lee Ok-Sun refuses to use Japanese words and refuses her assigned Japanese name—Tomiko—by the brothel’s male manager.
Each chapter usually begins with several pages of barren-of-humans scenery—trees, birds, outdoors, buildings, and so forth—which are beautifully though darkly drawn. The children emphasized are girls. The young are drawn with less detail, while the elderly are drawn with shading to emphasize their wrinkles. Even with a simple style young girl’s faces become haunted and dirty with smudges on their cheeks forever after being accosted by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese soldiers that committed these war crimes are the guilty party, while the women-children are the haunted victims. As Grass shows this haunting lasts the rest of their lives. The more I read this book the more I realized that this is a story of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—the WII phrases were Battle Fatigue, Combat Fatigue, and Combat Stress Reaction. PTSD today is often equated to a war-related event effecting military personnel, but PTSD has many causes including a single event (e.g. IED (improvised explosive device), single rape, gunshot victim …) or long-term repeated occurrences (e.g. spousal/family abuse; sex abuse, bullying, sexual slavery, repeated deployments …) and occurs in civilians, too. Victims shouldn’t be defined by what caused their victimhood. Starting beyond the PTSD’s cause is where Grass begins in Granny Lee’s 1996 life when she travels from China back to Korea for the first time since she was abducted in 1942.
Lee Ok-Sun’s life is filled with dashed hopes, starting with her desire for an education like the boys around her. She was born into economic poverty where boys could attend school but the girls had to help their parents survive. Lee Ok-Sun wanted an education like her brother. In 1941 a man from another village convinced her parents that Lee Ok-Sun could live with him and his wife and go to school; he pays them so he can take her. Her father gives a poignant goodbye & Ok-Sun thinks her mother regretted her decision, but she never looked back so she didn’t really know. Much later in Grass Lee Ok-Sun sees her sister and learns more about her mother’s feelings. Instead of school, Lee Ok-Sun was forced to work in their bakery barely getting fed. One day while running an errand she is kidnapped and taken by train into China with other girls where her raping assaults (starting at age 15 in 1942) become her nightmare lived until the end of the war in August 1945.
If I can use the phrase in the artistic sense, there are many beautiful images throughout Grass, but there’s one that’s perfectly rendered (201) of Lee Ok-Sun’ disembodied face centered with four panel gutters acting as a cross behind her, two panels below these four, and ink spillage into the gutters and beyond the panels. Her eyes are staring at nothing seen; her face is dirtied forevermore; her body is no longer her own; and her life, hopes & dreams have ended. A whole article or book could be written about this haunting image. She is a survivor who was abused by soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army, ignored by Japanese political leaders for decades, accused of prostitution by the local citizenry, and denied her reality by her own sister when they reconnected over fifty years later. Her only hope much later in life was for reparations and a sincere apology from Japanese leaders (more about this later). There are several pages of solid black panels following the haunting image, then a page of white words on black before we catch a glimmer of life returning.
The author when interviewing Lee Ok-Sun rightly deems some of her questions inappropriate, but asks them nonetheless, which leads to confusing or misunderstood answers. For example the author asked, “While you [Ok-Sun] were at the [comfort] station, was there a soldier who loved you? Or someone you had feelings for?” (325) Any answer is messed up with her powerlessness and the soldier’s power. The author argues for this question as perhaps providing a lifeline or a sense of hope. But it would’ve been better if the author more directly asked, “Was there anything that gave you hope during those years?” Lee Ok-Sun said there was no such soldier.
Medical topics. The military hospital at the airport base, where the brothel was located, treated the raped women only for syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) because soldiers refused to wear condoms. Ok-Sun lost her ability to have a child because of her STD treatment. There were at least several pregnancies; including some attempted self-induced abortions by falling from great heights or having a heavy rock pressed on the abdomen. Two women died from tuberculosis. There was only self, not medical, treatment after soldiers beat Ok-Sun and others because they didn’t obey or “receive” (i.e., be raped by) some soldiers. Senior military officers or the called-in military police were the ones who beat “comfort girls” and not the brothel managers or non-officer men. Ok-Sun loses hearing in one ear after a beating, because they only treated the women for STDs and nothing else! Regarding the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grass states “Shim Jintae, the Director of the Hapcheon Chapter of the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, claims at least 100,000 of the 740,000 [atomic bomb dead, radiated, or injured] victims were Koreans, with 50,000 losing their lives in the blast.” (345) And, of course, there was PTSD, which lasted Lee Ok-Sun’s and other woman-child victims’ lifetime.
The sexual assaults—perhaps 30-40 off-duty soldiers each weekend and less daily during the week—occur at a military airport. Lee Ok-Sun’s medical care was only a weekly medical exam for venereal diseases with the male examiner declaring to a woman stereotypically dressed as a nurse “Conduct thorough exams so our imperial forces don’t contract diseases.” Condoms were required, but the imperial soldiers refused to use them; the senior officers were especially violent.
After the war ended her struggles continued through two difficult marriages and further abandonment. In her second marriage though an unhappy one, she stayed for her stepson who clung to her; and he became her son! We see her visiting with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren as small symbols of hope. She had kept her promise to another woman-child in the brothel … to not die. And with Grass she will live on and continue to teach us about her life and the horrors that must be prevented and stopped. Rather than give more plot details, I highly recommend that the reader buy their own copy of Grass and see and feel for yourself how Lee Ok-Sun was powerless but maintained some self-worth. In the end, her one desire was reparations and a sincere apology from Japan.
It took until 1993 for Japanese leadership to admit their WWII military’s involvement of having “many [women] forced to act as virtual slaves, providing sex for imperial soldiers.” According to many articles easily found on the internet in late 2015 Japanese and South Korean leadership agreed to a formal apology from Japan and reparations of 1 billion yen (about $8.8 million) to about 45 still living South Korean women of over 200 that came forward since 1993. However, the actual victims weren’t a party to the agreement and many of those victims and their supporters still feel the reparations weren’t enough and the apology wasn’t sincere. There may have been 200,000 women who were sexually assaulted by the Japanese military. Of the many only[i] a few articles are linked here. After Japan surrendered August 15, 1945, the imperial army fled the area where Lee Ok-Sun had been. Days later, as she and her peers were fending for themselves, Lee Ok-Sun reported that Soviet soldiers arrived. Instead of liberating them, the Soviet soldiers raped and further brutalized (including shooting and setting on fire) “any girls they saw.” (366)
In 2020 Grass has won many awards and commendations, including Best Graphic Novel from Los Angeles Times, Great Graphic Novel for Teens from American Library Association, shortlisted at The Cartoonist Studio, and Graphic Novel Diversity Award at Virginia Library Association.
Not on My Watch: A Bystanders’ Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, Second Edition by Isabella Rotman
A pseudo-mini-comic, Not on My Watch: A Bystanders’ Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, Second Edition by Isabella Rotman is a counterweight to Grass in that it provides a teaching tool to prevent sexual violence. The book is primarily for a person who witnesses or suspects domestic violence and not the survivor of domestic violence, though it does provide some resources to the domestic violence survivor.
Mini-comics are self-published and often unregistered without an ISBN (international standard book number). Typically these works are shorter (maybe fifty pages or less), stapled rather than bound, and more cheaply printed, because the creator pays all printing costs perhaps at their local copy shop. Usually they lack color images, except maybe the cover, to also save on printing costs. It’s self-marketed at local comic conventions (regular or alternative) and/or comic book shops on consignment. I call Not on My Watch a pseudo-mini-comic because it has the look and size (5.5” x 6.75”, two staples, 60 pages) of a min-comic but it does have an ISBN, so it’s been registered, though it’s still self-published at IsabellaRotman.com. For more information about mini-comics read The Minicomix Revolution 1969-1989 by Bruce Chrislip (2015) or look into annual small press conventions like APE, CAKE, SPACE, MOCCA, StLSPEx, and SPX.
The cover provides the only color in this graphic work; it’s a reddish-orange plaque with a small forward facing right hand in shadow signaling “stop” and a six-starred badge providing the author’s name. Within the cover we find the protagonist waving and declaring she’s “Sergeant Yes Means Yes of the Consent Cavalry” which explains the badge. The work almost appropriately provides a warning in its introduction that Sergeant YMY wants the reader to understand that “sexual violence, interpersonal violence, and domestic abuse” are discussed. What’s inappropriate is the, hopefully accidental phrase, “hits a bit close to home” when suggesting any survivor or co-survivor—a supporter during recovery—of such violence should seek help. The introduction provides some college student statistics including about 20% females and 6% of males are sexually assaulted; that “Trans and gender non-conforming students often experience violence; and may be reluctant to report crimes against them for fear of being harassed or ignored by criminal justice or healthcare professionals.” (2)
An educational work. Not on My Watch discusses how bystanders, who witness sexist comments or scenes that might lead to sexual assaults, can intervene or disrupt the occurrence. For example, they can help an intoxicated person get home, call police, say that rape isn’t something to joke about, and/or provide support to a sexual violence survivor. The work explains that sexual relations should occur only when consented to by all parties. “Consent is an explicitly communicated, reversible[, voluntary] mutual agreement made when all parties are capable of making that decision [at all times].” (9) Consent isn’t based on clothes, dancing, flirting, gender, prior consent, your relationship or coercion; and it is definitely not when someone is under the influence of drugs, alcohol or any mind-altering substance. “Sex without consent is sexual assault. Period.” (9) Not on My Watch provides specific examples (14-16) of sexist ideas (e.g. crude name-calling and harassment). There’s a sexism test: “If this person were talking about my sibling, parent or loved one, how would I feel?” If I feel disgust, protective or rage-filled, then the comment isn’t ok and bystanders should say, for example, “not cool.” (13)
The largest part of this graphic work (18 – 34) provides strategies to intervene to prevent and curtail sexual assault. “Non-consensual acts are about POWER, not SEX.” (19) It gives some red flags: a known person encouraging a vulnerable individual to drink alcohol or use drugs by building trust and slowly pushing boundaries, and isolating the individual. (20-21) But assaults can also be within a relationship or with a stranger by force (latter as in Grass).
Not on My Watch explains the “bystander effect” (when a bystander to a sexual assault does nothing because they think some other bystander will intercede or the assaulted person can take care of themselves or they’re fearful or it’s not their business) by covering what bystanders can do to prevent sexual violence. This work provides an excellent simplified prevention template (23; shown below):
Not on My Watch further provides guidance about what not to do, ways to separate people, prevention through distraction, getting help from others, and when to delegate intervention. (24-28) The graphic work repeatedly says don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Though “sexual assault [is never] the fault of the victim” the book suggests avoiding harm by having a buddy along, don’t drink too much alcohol to reduce awareness, don’t drink from unknown source to avoid Rohypnol (date-rape drug) … start with closed cans and watch your drink, cab or rideshare (confirming ID) to get home, don’t wear headphones alone late at night, etc., and make sure someone else knows what you’re doing, where you’re going and when you’re expected back.
Not on My Watch has two pages describing the “Cycle of Abuse” as a negative feedback system. (36-37) On several occasions Not on My Watch provides a very important goal to find a safe environment for the victim to take back control; and supporters should take care of themselves within their own support network. The book is for the person who sees or hears about domestic violence and not the survivor of domestic violence. The domestic violence survivor supporter should avoid burnout by, for example: exercise, getting sunlight, getting a hug, spending time alone, and enough sleep; the author credits Emily Nagoski for the self-care text. A bibliography is provided at the end of Not on My Watch while some statistics’ sources and support resources are given when provided in this work.
Not on My Watch provides a summary (49 – 51) to stop sexual violence by demanding consent, oppose objectifying or sexism, be a responsible bystander by intervening safely (e.g., “not cool,” or separate victim and victimizer, or call for back up if dangerous), protect you and your friends (e.g., buddy system when going out), when helping a friend under possible abuse be supportive without judgment), and “supporting survivors means honoring their story and wishes, and taking excellent care of yourself.” (50) Isabella Rotman is artist-in-residence at scarleteen.com. She was co-author of Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up (Oni Press 2019) with Heather Corinna.
Editorial Opinion of the author of this review and not GraphicMedicine.org
I struggled over many weeks with writing this review. For me it became clear that writing the review wasn’t enough. During my research, I read about Japanese, Soviet and United States soldiers sexually abusing women citizenry during WWII. And even today, one can do an internet search to easily find continued sexual mistreatment by soldiers. Initially I thought my recommendation to read the graphic work Grass or learning from Not on My Watch would be enough to address my desire that sexual harassment, abuse, or assault end. But it’s not. A soldier’s training and actions are a reflection of the country that provides those soldiers. Sexual harassment, abuse and assaults should never be a part of warfare. I feel compelled to write some humble suggestions to work toward ending systemic military sexual misdeeds.
First, training for soldiers should consistently and repeatedly include the definition of consent—required for any sexual relations—and that sexual assault is a war crime and a civilian criminal act. If a soldier wants sex, then s/he should pleasure her/himself alone. And if, for example, masturbating is embarrassing to men, maybe they should spend a lot more time thinking about how destructive rape is. Masturbation instruction, if necessary, should be part of their military training. Second, the military should not support in any way (e.g. STD treatments) sexual relations with foreign persons while the military is occupying a foreign country; instead the military should send back home anyone with STDs and medically discharge—see third item for exception—that person from the military. Third, dishonorably discharge (U.S. term; or its equivalent for other countries) and send back home any soldiers reliably accused of committing unwanted sexual acts (rape, assault, or harassment) on another person including other military personnel. Let such accused persons defend their honor back home. And finally, have such a dishonorably discharged person prosecuted by a civilian court with all due process available with the military paying all expenses for any willing foreign witnesses to appear in the civilian court. There is no excuse for rape or other unwanted sexual assault by any gender; it’s not “boys will be boys.” Such men have no empathy for their victims. Instead, it’s an embarrassment and a war crime. Prevention of rape, sexual assault & harassment must be built into military training, repeated innumerably and continually reinforced. And that includes taking all accusations very seriously with independent personnel (i.e. civilian judges and lawyers with civilian due process) overseeing the process, rendering a decision and writing a publicly available outcome report.
[i] Note that this article mentions Granny Lee with the spelling Lee Ok-seon