There be spoilers ahead…
It’s been a pretty rough couple of months for K-pop fans. We had to deal with some gut-wrenching revelations about popular idols. Plus, the days spent worrying our favs may be the next revealed as stupid, misogynistic man-babies were nerve-wracking. So with our guts and nerves thoroughly wrenched and wracked, what can we do to raise our spirits—and avoid potential medical complications?
Well, if there’s one group guaranteed to do just that, it’s those precious Bangtan Boys. While they may angst pretty hard at times, BTS is all about self-acceptance and unconditional love. Plus, a lot of their content is fun and totes adorbs. Their new album comes out tomorrow, but that’s not soon enough! The new official webcomic, Save Me, should shine a light in these dark times.
Wait … what?
Save Me is a serialized webcomic that launched in January of 2019 on LINE’s Webtoon app and website. It’s scheduled to have 15 episodes (16 if you count the prologue), and at the time of writing, 12 have been released along with the aforementioned prologue. The comic’s storyline was created by Big Hit Entertainment and expands the universe created in the music videos for the singles from the group’s two The Most Beautiful Moment in Life albums, most obviously “I Need U.” While both albums were released in 2015, the music videos’ impact has been felt in the shared “universe” of BTS media as recently as last year.
This interconnected nature is one reason Amanda and I haven’t done any deep analysis of BTS videos, despite them being seemingly tailor-made for it. Thematically, we are interested in what’s going on, but we have less desire to detangle a convoluted narrative that carries across Korean and Japanese videos, teasers, and a series of dialogue-free vignettes called the Love Yourself Highlight Reel. Even for us, it all seems a little too contrived and pretentious, and contrived pretense is our bread and butter. Plus, we are especially wary since the common consensus is that the key to unlocking and understanding the story is time travel, a narrative device that usually is pretty messy unless there is a DeLorean involved.
Well, Save Me is all about time travel. That may seem like it would deter us, and well, you’re kinda right. Amanda’s response to the prospect of following the comic for months: “I don’t think I can do it.” A legitimate and very logical reaction, but I, dear reader, believe that I can do it. And in fact, I have been doing it. Now, I’m going to share my thoughts in that most tried-and-true of content formats: a numbered list.
1. Have You Ever Wanted to See BTS Die? Well, This Is the Webcomic for You!
I don’t know if you could tell from those panels I included in the beginning, but BTS dies in this comic. Like a surprising amount. The plot is driven by the fact that Seokjin (I’ll refer to them by their real names since they’re used in the comic … unless, I forget to) has been granted the power to save his friends from a series of unfortunate fates, including suicide, prison time and falling down some stairs.
Episode 1 begins with Seokjin returning to Korea after two years spent abroad. For as-of-yet unrevealed reasons, he is not in contact with the rest of BTS, despite the seven having been friends in school. Even after seeing Namjoon at a gas station, he initially decides not to reach out. But then, he changes his mind a month later after a nightmare in which all his (former?) friends are drowning. He looks for Namjoon and learns that everything has pretty much gone to shit. Distraught, he goes to the beach (like you do), and a magical cat grants him the power to travel back in time. At least, I think that’s what happened. There was a cat, then Seokjin could travel back in time. I can only assume the two are related.
The time travel mechanic is a little Groundhog Day-esque. Seokjin returns to his first morning back in Korea (April 11), and if he fails to save one of his friends, the timeline resets. And boy, does the timeline reset a lot.
For some reason, in Episode 2, Seokjin doesn’t remember/realize that he’s reliving April 11, so he does exactly what he did the first time around. Well, kinda. There is one major difference. This time around, Jungkook falls to his death, and his body lands dead center on Seokjin’s windshield. His death resets the timeline, and Seokjin begins April 11 again, but this time, … he still doesn’t remember he’s done this before. Seokjin goes through the day normally, and thankfully, Jungkook doesn’t die on his windshield. No, Kookie’s body crashes down to the sidewalk right next to Seokjin when he’s leaving a convenience store. Time for a timeline reset.
After having Jungkook die right in front of his face twice (in the same episode!), Seokjin gains the ability to remember past iterations of the timeline. Why couldn’t he from the get-go? I guess that magic cat is troubleshooting this whole time travel thing. There’s bound to be a few bumps. With the ability to remember exactly what he’s supposed to be doing, Seokjin gets better at saving his friends … kinda. They still die quite often, but none of it as gruesome as Jungkook’s two up-close and personal crash landings.
2. Even Outside of All the Death, There Are Some Questionable Narrative Choices.
My biggest question after “Oh my God! How many times are they going to kill Kookie?” was why exactly does the comic want BTS to wallow in so much misery. I mean, I get why to a certain extent. The “I Need U” music video is real, real bleak, and the point is basically to juxtapose the happiness of the boys together with the misery of them apart. While not necessarily presenting a cohesive, complete story itself, it does lay the groundwork for a narrative. Plus, fans really like this video. It makes sense to choose it as the basis for a BTS comic.
Some of the unrelenting sadness in the webcomic can’t be avoided because they need to recreate iconic moments from the video. Jungkook needs to get beat up by dudes in hoodies. Taehyung needs to kill someone. Yoongi needs to set a hotel room on fire. Jimin has to be depressed in, and in the general vicinity of, a bathtub. These are non-negotiable, and the comic has the opportunity to flesh these out into full stories instead of small vignettes. Which it does … by piling on even more misery.
Everyone’s families are absentee at best and downright abusive at worst. I mean, parents abandon their children on the reg. There are mysterious medical conditions and repressed childhood traumas. Violence, exercised by and against BTS, is perpetual, and about half the group is explicitly suicidal.
So far in its run, Save Me also has largely denied any catharsis in the form of happy moments of the boys together. The balance of the music video is gone, and in its place, the comic is just unrelenting in its sorrow. There are some flashbacks to happier times, but they’re generally brief and coupled with more tragic revelations. Like in Episode 7, we get to see Yoongi and Jungkook hang out together, but it’s combined with some dude just randomly slapping Jungkook. (Side note: Maybe future chapters will reveal more about this mystery slapper, but I kinda hope not. It just reads as beautifully absurd to have Jungkook listening to Yoongi play the piano one moment, and the next, he’s being slapped without preamble by some guy we’ve never seen before or since.)
But the biggest narrative question mark for me is Namjoon. In the music video, his arc is less dramatic than the others. He’s a gas station attendant, and a customer is rude to him. This is retained and elevated in the comic. The customer is even more of jerk, and Namjoon straight up assaults him in response. He physically attacks the man and winds up in prison because of it.
Is violent criminal really the best way for Big Hit to market a BTS member? And not just any member; it’s the leader. Unlike with Yoongi or Taehyung, they weren’t obligated to frame Namjoon as violent or destructive because of the source material. In the comic, Namjoon’s struggle seems to be his dissatisfaction with both his lot in life and the way he is treated. It’s not super clear because not a whole lot has been done with his character, and honestly, it doesn’t seem like much more is going to happen. Why did the writers choose to make him beat a man to illustrate this? They even make a point to mention that Namjoon doesn’t hurt the guy that badly, so why have Namjoon hurt him at all?
There’s even an easy fix for this. The confrontation with the customer includes the man demanding his money back after paying for his gas and whatever else. Just have him accuse Namjoon of theft. Namjoon can still end up in jail because he can’t afford to settle the case, but instead of actually committing a crime, he’s purely a victim. It just as effectively illustrates why Namjoon would be disillusioned by society’s treatment of people who are young and poor and, you know, doesn’t present him as the kind of person who would beat up strangers.
3. We Need to Talk About J-Hope.
This is a smaller point, but let’s talk about Hoseok. In the “I Need U” video, he takes a handful of pills and stumbles around outside before collapsing. During a bonfire with this friends, he dumps the pills into the flames, looking happy and even proud of the choice. What does that imagery say to you? It says drug abuse to me. When I asked Amanda, she read Hoseok as suicidal. In the comic, Hoseok is narcoleptic.
The pills are his medication. The collapsing is, well, narcolepsy. The bonfire isn’t in the comic, which is good because it’s probably best that Hoseok not just discard his prescription narcolepsy medication. He needs that. I can kind of see where the creators are coming from with this choice. The music video for “Run” and other material around The Most Beautiful Moment in Life feature Jimin and Hoseok in a hospital together, so you need to get him there somehow. But narcolepsy? Really?
The comic has taken every chance to put the characters in horrible situations and almost exalts in their making bad and destructive decisions. But Hoseok, a character who’s music video arc seems to fit perfectly with its bleak tone, is rewritten with a narrative contrivance that essentially absolves him of the sins of that arc. It’s basically the opposite of what happens with Namjoon in the transition from music video to comic, but thanks to the rest of the comic, it feels really jarring and almost inappropriate.
Perhaps this change is because of South Korea’s strict drug laws and recent drug scandals in the K-pop industry. They didn’t even want to toy with the idea that Hoseok is abusing substances in any way. But they have no problem with Namjoon assaulting someone, Jungkook jumping off a building and Yoongi endangering the lives of other people by intentionally starting a fire in an occupied building in a busy district. Alrighty then.
I guess it’s nice to have one character who isn’t completely miserable, and it makes sense to make it the guy who literally tells everyone he’s their hope. But it’s not like he doesn’t also have a depressing story. As a child he was abandoned by his mother at a carnival. He has been forced to manage his narcolepsy largely by himself from a young age, leading him to repeatedly injure himself. Also, he falls down stairs a lot. Like, it’s not even connected to his narcolepsy. He just falls down stairs on multiple occasions.
4. What Exactly Are the Stakes?
In any story with time travel, there is a problem of stakes. In a world where you can essentially hit a reset button if something goes wrong, how do you make people care or worry about where the story is going? It’s one of the reasons why Terminator kind of doesn’t work as a franchise. They just keep going back and doing the same shit, and audiences don’t care anymore. Don’t get me wrong. The movies also have gotten progressively worse, but time travel plays its own special part in the fatigue. Anything that happens can just be undone, so why should we care?
Save Me has a little bit of this problem. While the jarring nature of the violence was effective at first, I eventually became numb to seeing BTS die. Why? Well, I got used to it because of sheer repetition. But that repetition is facilitated by time travel. And time travel means none of these deaths are going to stick. Something bad happens; the timeline automatically resets. None of the action actually matters.
But that doesn’t mean there are no stakes. As readers, we want to see the boys together and happy, and each reset undoes whatever progress Seokjin has made to accomplishing that. That creates tension, but it also gets old and makes the story feel like it’s going nowhere. There’s always another reset just around the corner.
This is magnified by the fact that Seokjin doesn’t seem to have that much of a connection to the other characters. There are moments when the group comes together, and they almost never include Seokjin. In Episode 8, the gang goes to visit Hoseok in the hospital, but they don’t include Seokjin even though they know he’s in town, and he’s intervened in three of their lives to help them. Later in Episode 12, Hoseok organizes a mission to break Jimin out the hospital (oh, Jimin’s been trapped in a hospital for two years, and no one had any clue where he was) but doesn’t include Seokjin, even though he knows at that very moment, he’s in the same hospital.
And Hoseok is the character who seems most invested in engaging Seokjin, but he just gets shrugged off because Seokjin is focused on his mission. At one point Taehyung reaches out, but it’s literally because he had a dream about Seokjin. It has nothing to do with the actions Seokjin is taking to help everyone. After he saves Jungkook, Namjoon and Yoongi, their reactions range from being openly hostile to curious but indifferent.
Each reiteration of the timeline could leave Seokjin with a deeper understanding of his friends. He could learn new things about them that inspire him to keep trying and help forge a deeper connection, but that doesn’t really happen. Deeper moments of connection and narrative revelations generally happen between other characters. All Seokjin seems to get from reliving the same set of days over and over is a better sense of logistics.
Weirdly, the rules for the time travel the comic establish also undermine the stakes. In Episode 6, at the start of a new iteration of the timeline, Seokjin decides to gather everyone first thing in the morning so they can band together to stop Yoongi from killing himself in a fire. He teams up with Namjoon, Taehyung and Jungkook, and they all die in a car crash almost immediately. Seokjin takes this to mean he can’t change the timeline too much because if he does, the universe will Final Destination them or something. He explicitly says he has to do everything in a precise order without changing anything.
What? He’s supposed to save his friends from horrible fates, but he can’t change things too much? How much is too much? Are there certain events that have to happen, or is it just bringing everyone together that screws everything up?
In Episode 13, Seokjin seems to start a new timeline by forgoing his usual April 11 actions of helping Namjoon, Jungkook and Yoongi, and instead, gets Jimin out of the hospital. The entire group then meets at Namjoon’s apartment to share a meal, and everyone is happy for basically the first time in the comic. Nice, but problematic. First of all, everyone seems real chill that not only is Seokjin back, but also knows where Jimin is. For spiralling out of control and being prepared to kill themselves later in the day, Jungkook and Yoongi both seem pretty okay. But beyond those narrative hiccups, it doesn’t really make sense in the logic of the universe. This huge deviation doesn’t change things too much?
It’s almost like the time travel conventions just fit whatever the plot needs and aren’t actually firm, established rules. Weird.
5. So, What’s the Point?
In Episode 7, Taehyung hides at Namjoon’s apartment after almost being caught by the police when vandalizing a building. The two have a conversation about Taehyung’s street art where he reveals he simply hits the same building each time, painting over what’s already there with new colors. Namjoon asks what the point is, and Taehyung responds, “There doesn’t have to be a point. Maybe I’m just trying to make a point with my drawing.”
Whenever a text takes the time to have characters discuss the point of something, you’re going to want to pay attention, especially if that something is art. And this pretty clearly is a thesis statement for Save Me, and fittingly, it’s a little bit dumb and confused. Paraphrased it’s something like: There may not be a point, but I want there to be. The comic seems to be saying that while Taehyung’s actions—painting the same building night after night at great personal risk—can be read as stupid and meaningless, they ultimately matter because the art matters to him. It’s Taehyung who makes the actions worth something.
The parallels between the repetitive tagging and Seokjin’s repeated attempts to help his friends are clear. Like the graffiti, Seokjin’s attempts seem futile, but it’s admirable that he keeps trying. Repeating the same actions and expecting different results may be the definition of madness, but it’s important that he strives to save his friends. It is his commitment that gives the endless cycles meaning.
But it’s also fitting that Save Me’s artistic thesis statement is essentially “there’s no point, but also maybe there’s a point” or more simply put, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
I don’t know if Save Me is a failure. It’s not over, but it feels so misguided that I can’t really call it a success. Then again, maybe they’ll bring it all together in the last three chapters. Like Taehyung’s painting, something beautiful will come from all the pointless misery before it. Stranger things have certainly happened. Including Big Hit commissioning a comic about it’s main source of income that features abuse, arson, suicide and murder.
So yeah, Save Me may not always work, and the reasoning behind the narrative choices may not seem logical. But maybe Taehyung is right. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a point. Maybe the fact that I and thousands of others are still reading is the point.
But seriously, why time travel?
6. Bonus: Let’s Make Some Money
Why isn’t this a visual novel game? It practically begs for interactivity. You could play as Seokjin, and each playthrough, you pick a member to save. The decisions are relatively arbitrary and low stakes, but sometimes, the wrong choice ends the game, and you have to start over. Everyone’s storyline has to be completed to unlock the ultimate happy ending where they all go to a beach that’s free of magical cats that give you shitty time travel powers.
In my mind, it’s a free to download mobile game and works pretty standardly. You have limited lives that you can use at a time (maybe two episodes a day), and to see flashbacks or unlock certain narratively unnecessary scenes, you have to use the in-app currency. It should be something fun and on theme, so let’s go with dead Jungkooks. Players earn dead Jungkooks by completing episodes and watching ads, but they can also buy them, along with extra lives.
It probably takes less drawing and artistic input than the comic. You just need character models with a few facial expressions, like four generic locations and a couple more detailed images to serve as cutscenes. You don’t even have to sweat the background music. It’s a BTS game. Just stick piano versions of “Save Me,” “I Need U” and “Run” on loop.
This idea is golden. You’re welcome, Big Hit.
Note: I literally was just finishing up posting this, and the last two chapters went up. So this entire thing is already out-of-date. Whoops.
Anyway, in conclusion, here’s Jungkook crying while Dolly Parton performed at the Grammys.