[Review] Re-Gifters, a graphic novel by Mike Carey
A friend of mine came across this graphic novel by chance, down in the bargain basement of a Swedish comic shop. They said they couldn’t believe it when, while browsing to kill time, they saw the word ‘Hapkido’ bounce up from a comic description.
Hapkido isn’t the most well-known martial art, so um, I took the recommendation and found a copy on Amazon. Not disappointed!
Dixie (Dik Seong Jen) is a Korean American teenage girl living in LA. Her friend calls her ‘spikey’ – that is, tempestuous and full of passion. Her only outlet is Hapkido. The story follows her as two important things come crashing together – a national Hapkido championship and her infatuation with a popular boy.
One of the main struggles Dixie goes through is how falling for Adam is messing with her ki.
The title Re-Gifters refers to an unexpected Legend of Zelda trading game type of thing. It’s a really clever through-line, I think, and ties everything together.
The writing: It’s awesome
I’m raving for this one, got to say. Dixie is funny, her brothers are funny, her friends are funny! Carey treats us to adorable meta moments, where Dixie presents her exposition, or kicks her friend out of her caption text.
The cast is racially diverse, and Dixie’s being Korean American is a key part of her identity and an important aspect of her plot. She encounters some racism because of her heritage, and she embraces and is embraced by her Korean American family and community.
Dixie is an excellent example of a strong female lead. Carey writes her as tough, but not disdainful of girls who are not tough. Dixie swoons over boys, but she doesn’t sacrifice who she is to get their attention.
As a former teenage girl, my heart ached for her and the throes of romantic infatuation.
The art: It’s awesome
The art by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel is incredible!
Before I started reading it, I flipped through to see if the martial arts art was going to be any good and it is! You can really see the Hapkido. The hand positions are just right, you see the balance being given and taken. The mid-throw shots – you can tell what throw is happening! It’s probably the best martial arts illustrations I’ve seen.
All the rest of the illustration is fun. It’s an edgy style with lots of dynamic lines. Even people standing still have character angles going on, and the camera moves around. It’s easy to tell all the characters apart, the costume choices really add to it, the backgrounds are rich. They do crowd scenes really well. Capture the feeling of crowded high school cafeterias and thrumming house parties.
(Fun thing: some of the Pow! Oof! Bams! Are done in Hangul and that’s sweet.)
The martial arts: Pretty great
Eep! At first I was a little nervous that the martial arts would be off because the summary on the back of the book describes Hapkido as ‘ancient’, when Hapkido is actually a modern martial art. Even Hapkido’s most recent ancestor Daito Ryu Jiu Jitsu wouldn’t be described as ancient. But after reading the graphic novel, the summary was probably written by the publisher who fell into the trap of exotifying East Asian martial arts. Whoops!
That’s really the end of my gripe. The depiction of Hapkido in this book is pretty good. As I mentioned in the art section, the martial arts art is excellent. Unf. So good. I want it. And the writing about ki and its role in Hapkido and in life is also good.
(There’s a funny moment early on when Dixie’s instructor is talking to her about ki. Dixie is a black belt, but the instructor takes an extra sentence to tell us, the reader, what ki is. Funny because obviously that line was for us, not Dixie. Thanks, Master Choi!)
The Hapkido tournament is interesting. Dixie trains at a traditional dojang, but it seems like people of all fighting styles can enter through a last-person-standing kind of open bracket. She meets people who don’t train in a dojang at all – street fighters essentially. The matches themselves have no protective gear. So are these Hapkido tournaments like full-contact anything goes? Is that a thing!? I don’t know! But it’s exciting.
During the tournament scenes, Dixie reflects on what she’s seeing via internal narration. She’s talking about how one competitor punches in a way that leaves her weight free to throw, or how someone throwing so many attacks probably doesn’t have a good defense in place. Sorry, but a young adult graphic novel about a lesser known martial art is taking time to go into combat strategy? THANK YOU PLEASE? I also love how including that emphasizes Dixie’s skill and love for Hapkido.
I had a good time noticing that not once was there any nonsense about Dixie being a girl martial artist. It just wasn’t remarked on, and all the matches were co-ed. It was just a non-issue and I rather liked that. It felt very much that it normalized that girl martial artists exist and excel.
There are a couple of cultural and social things I don’t have the experience to comment on. I don’t know if it was well-handled or not. Like, would Dik Seong Jen be a realistic Korean name? Probably not? Is the peppering of Korean in the dialog and background accurate for Koreatown? No idea! Is the handling of the teenage criminal, from a poor family, Latino character Tomas aka Dillinger done well? Don’t know! I don’t have the nuance of understanding of what it’s like to be Latinx in South Central LA.
Dear readers, if you have read this and have some insight, do share.
No spoilers but…
There is a satisfying twist ending. Or maybe you saw it coming. I was pleased.