13th Boy, Vol. 1
written by SangEun Lee
Everyone knows that Hee-So is in love with Won-Jun. Everyone. She confessed to him on national television, in front of the entire student body, after all, and she is certain that this twelfth object of her affection is for keeps. Unfortunately, Won-Jun has other ideas, and he is ready to call it off before it has even begun. Does his reluctance have something to do with their classmate Whie-Young? And what is up with Whie-Young, anyway—why does he seem so determined to butt into Hee-So’s life?
Yeah, whatever…another sunjeong manhwa (Korean for “comic for girls”) romantic comedy, right? It is the classic setup: The destined lovers Hee-So and Whie-Young start out seeming entirely wrong for each other. But veteran creator SangEun Lee (Love or Money) knows better than to write a story that is quite so tired. So what is the twist? Well, for starters, Hee-So has a pet cactus. A pet cactus named Beatrice that walks and talks (vulgarly). Beatrice appears on the scene early in the first volume of 13th Boy, no explanation of its existence on offer whatsoever. One thing, though, is abundantly clear. This isn’t just another boring romantic comedy—this is a supernatural romantic comedy spiced up with just enough otherworldly questionable elements to make it good enough to justify coming back for more.
Lee knows her target audience and plays to it very well. The character of Hee-So is the archetypal sunjeong heroine; she is irrepressible, not too bright, often unsuccessful in romance—and unwittingly gifted with some unspecified magical power that, among other things, brings cacti to life in her presence. Her power, naturally, makes Whie-Young interested in her—he has powers of his own—and the storyline could take a number of interesting directions past volume one as their relationship gets more complicated. Of course, there is also a bit of “yaoi” fanservice as Hee-So wonders if perhaps Won-Jun dumped her because he is actually in love with Whie-Young.
The artwork is solidly produced and well sequenced according to the asymmetrical panel layout style first pioneered in Japan. Lee has published dozens of volumes of manhwa in Korea, and her illustrations, particularly her pastel-shaded full color pages, are instantly recognizable to those familiar with the genre. She has, however, improved dramatically with experience, and 13th Boy, as a relatively recent work, reveals a mature artist at the height of her draftsmanship powers. Visually, the first volume reads so fluidly and naturally that the technique used itself seems to disappear. Like an ice skater who makes a triple flip look easy, Lee’s naturalistic hand is often underrated.
It’s easy enough to figure out who the “13th Boy” will be—heck, the reveal happens on page seven—but the happily ever after destination isn’t as important as the road taken to get there. By the end of the first volume, the plot has thickened considerably, and the appearance of a number of new supporting characters adds to the developmental complexity. In short, Lee is making the trip enjoyable, so shoujo and sunjeong fans are encouraged to stay tuned.