Award-winning graphic novel chronicles tragic life of sex slave

This undated photo shows Grass author and illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (left) with Lee Ok-sun (middle), the subject of the graphic novel, shortly after the work was published in Korea in 2017. (Keum Suk Gendry-Kim)

Award-winning graphic novel chronicles tragic life of sex slave


Oct. 11, 2019

Global Korean Post


By Xu Aiying and Kim Hwaya

“Grass rises up again against the wind.”

This is the message of the graphic novel Grass, which depicts the life of Lee Ok-sun, a so-called comfort woman who was forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese imperial army.

Written and illustrated by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, the work on Sept. 14 received a special prize in the inaugural Prix Bulles d’Humanité from the French daily L’Humanité’. This annual humanity comic book award goes to a work depicting human life and rights.

The award’s judging committee said, “Through the eyes of comfort woman victim Lee Ok-sun, the book tells of a tragic part of Korean history,” adding, “Her modesty, vitality and strong determination to live well together with the setting of Korean society in the 1940s are well depicted through text and pictures.”

With the original Korean-language version debuting in 2017, Grass has been published in English and French. An Italian-language version will follow on Oct. 10, and those in Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic are slated for release in February next year.

In a Sept. 26 interview with, Gendry-Kim said on why she produced her work, “This isn’t just a tale of the history between Korea and Japan,” adding, “It’s a story about how people suffering from trauma lived and the background of the violation of the most basic human right.”


Meeting sexual slavery victim Lee Ok-sun

The cartoonist said she first heard of the plight of the sex slaves in France in 1993, when she conducted translation and interpretation related to the comic book Comfort Woman Report.

Based on one victim’s testimony, Kim in 2010 wrote the 10-page short comic Secret. She met Lee after finishing this work, and wishing to produce a work that went more in depth on the issue, the artist created Grass.

Gendry-Kim’s meeting with Lee was also destiny.

When the cartoonist visited the House of Sharing, a shelter in Seoul for surviving victims of Japan’s sexual slavery, she forgot her comic book Kkokkaengi there. When Gendry-Kim went to go get the book, Lee said it reminded her of her childhood, spurring the artist to interview the elderly woman as the protagonist and write the plot for Grass.

“Doing an interview that reopened past wounds wasn’t easy but this grandma was brimming with humor while showing an incredible zest for life,” Gendry-Kim said. The artist said an unforgettable moment for her was when Lee shed tears after seeing the cover of Grass.

Spreading global awareness

Gendry-Kim said she was surprised that Grass won an award in France since Japanese comics command a large share of the French market. In addition, a campaign to raise funds for the Japanese-language version of the graphic novel, slated for release in February next year, on the Japanese crowd funding site Readyfor on Sept. 19 met its target 40 days ahead of schedule.

On her work being publish in more countries, she said, “Beyond personal glory, this achievement has huge meaning in that it tells the truth behind a painful history to everyone in the world.”

“We must remember this story because these elderly women are not just victims but also peace and human rights activists as well as living history.”

In addition to the sex slaves, Gendry-Kim has also dealt with other historical and social topics such as Korean independence activists and the Jeju 4.3 (April 3) Incident, in which an estimated 30,000 people on Jeju Island were killed.

She said, “I’m preparing a work related to my mother’s relatives who were separated by the Korean War.”

“I want to create more books that touch hearts,” she added, saying her dream is to always attentively listen to society’s weak through comic books.