Manga Monday

Manga Monday #6: High School Soldiers

As much stress as may have been involved in my senior year of high school, it was nothing compared to what Korean high school students experience.  For me, the transition into college wasn’t end-all, be-all.  It was Plan A, Plan B, Plan C–doesn’t matter what happens, I was going to be just fine.

In Korea, high school is a zero-sum game.  It’s not about figuring out who you are, or what you want to be, it’s simply about being better than everyone else.  In the end, their entire future seems to be completely dependent on one day:  the college entrance exam–the suneung.

The results of this exam determine what universities students are qualified to enter.  And, considering there are only about three colleges that employers consider top tier, the stress of competition is insane.  Students often spend 14-hour days focused on school and after-school studies.  A Korean high-schooler’s life often doesn’t end until 11 o’clock at night.  All work, no play.

High School Soldiers

Duty after School
방과후 전쟁활동
Ilkwon Ha
50 episodes (completed)

Duty after School takes place in South Korea and follows a class of third-year high school students who are prepping for their college entrance exams.  As they’re thinking that their main concern is their study schedule, giant, bulbous purple extraterrestrials appear in the sky throughout the world–and begin to take thousands of lives.

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A mere week after the initial invasion, the students of class 3-2 are ushered back into school–but not to continue their studies.  They are given an address by the Minister of Defense, who explains that military forces are at their limit and so they have been forced to expand their reserve forces to include all university and high school students.Upon signature from their parents, the class would be sent through a four-week basic training camp, and then would be sent to areas needing surveillance and defense assistance.

Upon signature from their parents, the senior class would be conscripted as soldiers.  As an incentive, students will be awarded extra points towards their college entrance exams.  Any student who decides not to be conscripted would set themselves at a disadvantage; if they want to go to university, they need to participate.

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The proceeding story follows the 34 students who agree to be enlisted as what they believe to be as merely reserve soldiers.  Although it seems like a far-too-large cast, each character is distinct in design and personality.  The plot of Duty after School is intensely psychological and largely driven by its characters.  None of them are too over-the-top or troped, rather they are quite realistically just a group of high school aged children who have been pretty much just given a weapon and thrown into a very adult situation.

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The course of the story follows these kids through basic training and out into their individual assignments in the field.  Although the plot follows kids no older than eighteen, the development shows that the realities of war don’t adjust its severities according to age.  Although these kids do their best to keep their situation light, they cannot avoid the realities surrounding them, including death.

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Ilkwon Ha has a unique art style.  His use of color and shape in use of symbolism is especially unique.  As characters are put through the experiences of their deployment, they shift visually.  It’s hard to explain, but Ilkwon Ha makes use of imagery and color to visually display a character shift.  This is something that I have seen as more unique to webtoons versus print, utilizing symbolic tools in their story development rather than relying simply on appealing styling and dialogue to convey a theme.

Beyond its artistry, Duty after School is a darker story than anything I’ve written about for Manga Monday.  It does not mince words, it displays the realities of war and places a young cast in the midst of that.  Things that are tragic initially, like the death of a comrade, become even more disheartening as you realize the ages of those experiencing it.

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Okay, and as darkly as I’ve painted this series, it actually had a lot of very high schooler sounding humor throughout it.  Although each chapter leaves you stressed out of your mind, waiting for the next explosive moment, there’s a lot of funny and real warm moments as these kids and their leaders grow closer and strive to build some sort of familial comfort with one another.

Including heartwarming moments ruined by teenage boy farts.

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Overall, Duty after School was compelely different than anything I had read previously.  A suspense drama, filled with war and UFOs, it was unique.  It takes high school drama and gives it a real twist–and I loved it.  It’s such a great thriller that I’ve binge read it three times now.

The setting is fantastic, the characters are real, the development is smooth–not too fast, not to slow.  Each episode is expertly rounded, but I’m so grateful that I picked it up once it was already finished–I would’ve hated to wait each week for a new episode.

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However, it is the ending that makes this work so satisfying, because the ending is such a giant, open-ended shock.  I won’t spoil it, but wow.  It’s fantastic.  You don’t see it coming, but when it happens it is the perfect round-off to an already tragic story.

Duty after School is mature content, and thus I’m only recommending it to more mature readers.  Although it stars high schoolers, their story is more adult than teen.  It is a hard tale–no one is a superhero, none of these kids is magically an expert soldier, and the bad guys aren’t from Saturday cartoons.

There is a large amount violence within the plot, and a sizeable amount of casualties to match that.  The effects of those circumstances are portrayed quite realistically, especially within a group of teenagers whose only motivation to join this war is a college exam that may never actually happen.

Still, the humor is so appreciated.  There are more funny-centric episodes that act as an oasis amid the chaos of the story that really help give your heart a break.

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You can read Duty after School for free in its full 50-episode entirety on Webtoon’s website or through their free app.  Binge it–so worth it.

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