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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

“The Tarot Café” (Vol. 1–7), by Park Sang-sun, translated by Soo-Kyung Kim

184–208 pages, Tokyopop, ISBN-13: 978-1595325556 (Volume 1); ISBN-13: 978-1595325563 (Volume 2); ISBN-13: 978- 1595325570 (Volume 3); ISBN-13: 978- 1595328144 (Volume 4); ISBN-13: 978- 1427803955 (Volume 5); ISBN-13: 978- 1427803962 (Volume 6); ISBN-13: 978- 1427803979 (Volume 7)

The Tarot Café is a seven-volume manhwa (the general Korean term for comics and print cartoons) by Park Sang-sun published by Sigongsa in Korea and by Tokyopop in the United States. The overall story is set in contemporary Great Britain and focuses on Pamela, the owner of the eponymous Tarot Café; during the day she receives any number of average, ordinary Londoners seeking supernatural answers to whatever question they may have…but it is the supernatural clients Pamela receives after midnight wherein the series is concerned, ranging as they do from a love-stricken cat, to a vampire spending his eternal life running from his one true love, to an unattractive waitress looking for the man of her dreams, or to a magician who creates a humanoid doll to serve the woman he loves; all of these peculiar beings come to Pamela for advice through tarot readings, telling her their stories even as she unravels their past, present and future through her cards. In exchange, they pay her with beads of Berial’s Necklace which Pamela is gathering for her own secret ends. Each chapter starts or ends with a modified tarot card often relating to the story, featuring well known commercial tarot decks replaced with story characters.

The Tarot Café is a rather charming tale overall, the main selling point being the abundance of interesting characters, with Pamela, the owner and tarot reader, being especially so. She genuinely seems to care for all of her clients, regardless of the challenges presented to her personally, while the clients themselves are engaging and easy to become attached to as you learn their stories, some of which are genuinely touching. The settings are also interesting, from centuries-old Turkey to modern-day London, from mystical forests to the very depths of hell itself. The plot itself, however, is a little lackluster, for while the individual elements of the past are enthralling (enough so that I was willing to excuse plot issues), when it all gets pieced together something is somehow lost; furthermore, for the first couple of Volumes, the primary focus is not on the plot but on individual clients that have no apparent relationship to each other: on one hand, it makes a nice little collection of one-shot deals to read at your leisure; on the other, it seems both fragmented and slightly frustrating when searching for a real story beneath it all. Adding to the frustration is the art: yes, yes, yes, it’s lush and detailed and both beautiful and grotesque scenes are rendered well…but the characters are all too similar to one another to be able to easily tell one from another (the only feature I could rely on to tell the male characters apart was their hair).

Still, I wouldn’t let that scare you away from The Tarot Café, as it is a very enjoyable read overall. It has drama, mystery, comedy, a bit of horror, good characters, pretty (if impractical) art, plot twists galore, fun side stories, lots of demons – and, as an added bonus, you get to learn some tarot as you read.

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