Sitting in the back of an ambulance rushing his ailing mother to a hospital, cartoonist Madang remembers the happier times from his childhood—specifically the memories of his mother’s irresistible cooking. Young Madang and his little brother float through the air on the wave of smells, and cheerfully sing as they devour kimchi prepared by the entire neighborhood. These memories haunt Madang in Yeon-Sik Hong’s Umma’s Table (Drawn & Quarterly), a heartbreaking exploration of how bittersweet nostalgia feeds familial resentment and guilt. The book is full of loving tributes to Madang’s mother’s cooking and the ways that her recipes enrich his own growing family, but as he recalls moments of intense connection, he becomes more aware of how he’s distanced himself from both his parents as an adult.
With his mother rapidly deteriorating from heart disease and his father drinking himself to death, Madang is under immense stress that only increases as his parents’ medical problems become a heavier financial burden. Umma’s Table is a heavy read, especially in a global climate where economic instability and the health of the elderly are very pressing issues, but it’s also a valuable story for a time when people are stuck inside, showcasing the emotional nourishment that comes from home cooking. There’s a lot of joy in the scenes of Madang and his family gardening, preparing kimchi, and cooking meals, which imbues these relationships with love and affection that gets tested over the course of the book.
Hong isn’t tethered to reality in his visual storytelling, starting with the decision to use cartoon cats as the actors of this very human drama. The opening sequence of Madang driving his wife and son to their new home abandons the road to have the car flying through an open, snowy expanse where cows, livestock farms, and factories careen past—a beginning with a sense of whimsy that highlights Hong’s expressionist tendencies. These stylized moments aren’t always playful, as in a scene where Madang appears as a knight protecting his domestic kingdom against a foe that cannot be stopped: his father’s massive crutch, which crashes down from the sky and destroys his home. The affection Madang has for his mother is matched by the hostility he has toward his father, who often appears as a malevolent shadow hanging over the family (when he’s not too drunk to function).
A driving sequence later in the book reinforces the connection between past and present versions of Madang’s mother with a graceful, melancholy transition. As Madang leaves her alone in the hospital, his car drives away on the tube that feeds his mother nutrients. The curved shape of the tube levels off, and Hong turns the sloped object under the car into a chopstick as the action jumps back to show young Madang eating with his mother. It’s a subtle but powerful way to bridge these time periods through two objects representing sustenance in very different circumstances, and Hong fills Umma’s Table with scenes that embrace the malleability of reality on the comics page to excavate the emotional depths of his characters.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the release date of Umma’s Table has moved from April 1 to May 19.