It’s been a while since I’ve read Ginseng Roots and even longer since I’ve read the first few issues of Ginseng Roots, but I’m pretty sure when creator Craig Thompson brings up Roots’s generative problems, it’s for the first time. In issue ten of twelve, he reveals after spending months trying to turn his research into a comic, he was left without any drawn pages and ready to get into animation.
A very amusing Hollywood meeting cures him of that ambition.
Now, Thompson had established a creative malaise and trying to get out of it with this new project… but I don’t think he’d mentioned problems realizing it once he’d done the legwork.
The issue opens with Thompson and his siblings hanging out with their parents before leaving small town, ginseng farming Wisconsin, while the parents talk about death. The way Thompson visualizes it—with he and his siblings passive observers on the sofa while the parents sit in their regular chairs and discuss death for the nth time—is devastating.
Thompson has a chance for a eureka moment with the parents, something he’ll only have much later and even further away. It turns out Thompson’s work is big in South Korea, and his publisher there would love to bring him over. He calls up little brother Phil, who started the issue with him visiting the parents, and invites him to come along; it’ll be a chance for them to reconnect.
The comic then becomes this whirlwind of South Korean ginseng industry information, framed through Thompson first casually, then explicitly. The local news is willing to fund his research in exchange for filmed footage, as they’re making a ginseng documentary. So these two American ginseng farmer’s sons, familiar with ginseng as a food product, not a cultural item, all of a sudden immersed.
In some ways, the issue’s very controlled. It’s mostly a travelogue. Not much visual digression, except when he gets food poisoning and the series mascot has a bout on the toilet. Otherwise, it’s all very tight. Even when Thompson lets brother Phil render his experiences a couple times in the issue’s last few pages.
It’s a great device. Half the panel is Craig Thompson, the other half Phil, art, writing, and, most importantly, perspective.
The issue doesn’t have the highest gee whiz rating the series has ever reached, but it’s an exceptional comic. Especially given how little time is left, Thompson—the protagonist—has to make something of his experience.
There’s some beautiful travelogue art of South Korea. Thompson ably toggles between almost comedic people and then hyper-realistic settings.
Roots is such a good book.