Yeong-Shin Ma The graphic novel about the mischievous moms of South Korea

Cover Image - Yeong-Shin Ma
WordsAlex Kahl

Yeong-Shin Ma’s graphic novel Moms is a brutally honest depiction of life as a divorced middle-aged woman working as a janitor in Korea. Having written multiple graphic novels, this is the first one the Seoul-born writer has had translated into English. The book is entirely based around the stories his mum wrote about her life, as she decided to tell them. The gossiping and the dates, the fistfights and the heartache, this is probably not the life you picture when you think about your parents. Here, Ma walks Alex Kahl through the stories behind some of his favorite spreads in the book.

Like many young people in Korea, Yeong-Shin Ma lived with his mum until well into his twenties as a way to save money. They didn’t have the best relationship, and they fell into all-too-common robotically dependent mother-son interactions. Ma didn’t realize just how much his mum did for him until he moved out. “Living on my own, I noticed how important the work she did was,” he says. “It made me rethink the way I saw her.” Ma wondered if there were other things about her that he didn’t know, and so he gave her a notebook as a gift, with a small note attached asking her to tell him all of her life’s tales. The stories were so surprising and eventful that he decided to use them as inspiration for a book, Moms, published by Drawn & Quarterly this year.

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A divorced life of a middle aged woman is pretty common in Korea but people try to avoid the subject.
Yeong-Shin Ma

“Here, mum had carefully done her makeup, but by the time she arrived at the nightclub she was sweating. As a son, it was strange to be depicting my embarrassed mother as she started to question whether all of this was worth it for love. I wanted to avoid drawing this kind of scene, but I got over myself and made it in the end.” - Yeong-Shin Ma

“In this scene, she’s apologizing to her father in law at his wife’s funeral. At first, I was surprised that my mum’s writing expressed such intricate feelings. I just didn’t know that side of her.” – Yeong-Shin Ma

Born in Seoul in 1982, he started drawing comics after completing his military service. He’s written graphic novels for years now but Moms, translated by Janet Hong, is the first to be translated into English.

Over the last 10 years, divorce rates have been steadily rising in South Korea, with women in their mid-forties most likely to get separated, making Ma’s 50-plus characters one of the key demographics of divorcees. Despite the increase in cases, divorce remains quite a taboo subject in the conservative society, and so Ma knew that someone like his mum wouldn’t normally be of interest to people. “A divorced life of a middle aged woman is pretty common in Korea but people try to avoid the subject,” he says.

Ma’s characters, Lee Soyeon, Myeong-ok, and Yeonjeong, are all mothers in their mid-fifties. Ma gives us a window into their world as they navigate awkward sexual adventures and underwhelming dates. At first, he decided he didn’t want to use the book to discuss his mum’s dating life or personal affairs too much, but as soon as he began to read her writing, he had a change of heart. “The first time I read her stories, it was heartbreaking. I felt like I was really understanding her for the first time,” he says. She filled the notebook with unfiltered stories, and Ma turned them into an hilarious, refreshingly honest graphic novel.

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My mom is a janitor but she is also a fighter for love.
Yeong-Shin Ma

“This is a scene when they’re cleaning at work. Janitorial work is dirty and hard but what mum shows here is that you can still work cheerfully. It’s all about your mindset.” – Yeong-Shin Ma

“Here, she’s fighting on the street with a love rival. At the end of every chapter in her notebook, she always includes regrets, resolutions, and advice on life. I thought it would be more powerful to watch her make a mistake while reading about the regrets she had after making it. We hear the truth about life in theory all the time, but we don't always realize it in time to put it into action.” – Yeong-Shin Ma

Having previously fallen into the trap of seeing his mum as a “mum” rather than as a person in her own right, this book was a turning point for Ma. “She is a person who has a name, and I wanted to make this story for many mothers and their kids out there who are in the same situation,” he says. “Dating is not a sin for a middle aged woman and you don’t have to hide it.” While they didn’t talk to one another much before he gave her the notebook, they’ve since been speaking more regularly, and in some ways the book seems to have broken the ice between them.

While piecing together the graphic novel, Ma was worried about the reception it might get. He felt that comics with a societal message sometimes don’t succeed because they’re too heavy or serious. “But in the end, the purpose of this is to portray the awful environment of the Korean cleaners in a genuine way, through the lens of a vibrant lady’s life,” he says. “My mom is a janitor but she is also a fighter for love.”