The webtoon manhwa (South Korean comic) Magical 12th Graders provides a consistent balance of humor and drama while exploring themes of mental health and transitioning to adulthood. The story raises awareness of the alarming suicide rates among children and young adults in South Korea. And the way this magical girl webcomic seamlessly weaves through realism and absurdism to show the costs of societal pressures is impressive.
Reading Warning: This review contains discussions about suicide.
Yeorum is trying to finally get through high school, but since her older sister’s suicide last year, it’s harder to keep her grades up. When giant goldfish float around and wreak havoc on the school late one night, she stumbles into her male biology teacher wearing a dress.* She finds out that her classmate, Aran, is a magical girl. Yeorum learns that she is also a magical girl, like her late sister Gyeowul. Along with Aran and her cross-dressing teacher, Yeorum has to collect the cubics, magical gems that can manifest wishes and anxiety.
Magical 12th Graders by seri (writer) and Biwan (artist) creates a story that is both comical and serious without coming off as distracting. Yeorum and Aran struggle to uphold their parents’ expectations in passing twelfth grade and getting into college. The school still doesn’t take Gyeowul’s sucide seriously which depresses Yeorum further. The media still fixates on Gyeowul’s outfit at the time of her death (assumed to be cosplay), similar to Yeorum’s magical girl dress. Yeorum grapples with her grief and guilt. But during another encounter with the goldfish, Gyeowul appears before her, and Yeorum thinks she has another chance to make amends with her sister. But is it really her sister?
This webcomic surprises me with its clever twists and character reveals. During my first reading, I didn’t expect the story to become compelling and emotional. It’s about more than escaping reality and magical girl shenanigans. And the characters? They end up astonishing me with their complicated personalities and growth. Even when the story seamlessly slips into chaotic and comical moments, it doesn’t stray away from its serious topics of mental health and suicide and perceptions of them in South Korean society.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among youth in South Korea today. Students between the ages of 9 and 24 die by suicide due to societal pressures to excel in school. The suicide rate has peaked at 10.3 in 2009 and has increased again from 7.7 in 2017 to 9.1 in 2018. The pressure to attend college and earn a well-paying job leads to drug and alcohol abuse as well. School teachers and administrators expect students to study every day, including during vacation and at night. Magical 12th Graders does an excellent job showing the consequences of having to meet societal expectations, from gaining cubics by solving math problems correctly to fighting manifestations of exam-related anxiety.
The webcomic also conveys these themes through the relationships between Yeorum and Aran and their parents. Aran at first appears to be someone with an obsession centering on men in dresses and has a crush on her biology teacher for it. As the plot progresses, however, Aran reveals to Yeorum that her life isn’t as joyous as she makes it out to be. Aran’s mother calls her “F student” because of her poor grades and lack of focus on schoolwork. Being a magical girl serves as Aran’s escape from reality. Flashbacks provide glimpses of Yeorum and Aran’s personal lives and add dimension to their characters.
Magical 12th Graders shares an important story about enjoying life without letting social expectations overtake you. It’s an unexpected gem.
*Note: As a Western reader, it’s not my place to comment on views/issues involving gender and sexuality in South Korea.
For more great webcomic recommendations, check out our Wednesday Webcomics archives!
Author: Brahidaliz Martinez
Brahidaliz (pronounced Bra-da-leez) is a 2019 graduate of American University’s MFA in creative writing program. Their cross-genre chapbook, Coquí’s Song, is forthcoming (2023) from Mason Jar Press.
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