A Short History of Manhwa

The Life of Korean Comics

by Park InHa (Eng. translation: Kim Nakho)

To talk about Korean comics several things should be taken into account: their artists, the times they lived in, the lives of people of the times – in short, the life of Korean comics itself. Throughout the last century, Korea underwent a succession of turbulent events: Japanese Colonialism, Liberation, US Military Occupation, the Korean War, uprisings for democracy, military dictatorship, democratization movements in 80s and movement for democracy in 1987. Amid such turbulences, Korean comics provided consolation to the tired people, offering a respite for the jobless and providing new epic fantasies to women. Like a life form undergoing the process of evolution, Korean comics continued to evolve.

Enlightenment and Satire : 1909-1945

Many newspapers and periodicals launched in the late 19th and early 20th century utilized comics and cartoons. In 1909, The [Daehan Minbo] newspaper was first published, and it had LEE Do-yong’s cartoon on the front page. In 1925, [Dong-A Ilbo] began a series of four-strip comics by Ahn Suk-Joo. [Chosun Ilbo] which had recruited Kim Dong-sung in 1924, also began to publish various types of comics and cartoons dealing with current issues. However, these satirical and enlightening comics were repressed by the Japanese government in the late 20s and disappeared altogether. AHN Suk-joo introduced the form ‘ ManMoon ManWha’, where a cartoony sketch was put together with a short essay. It was printed in the [Chosun Ilbo] since 1928 until the mid-30s. KIM Kyu-taek, whose work was already being published in many magazines made his debut on the pages of ‘Chosun Ilbo’ with [ByukChangHo] in 1933. There were others like ROH Soo-hyun, LEE Sang-beom, CHOI Young-soo, and LEE Joo-hong. Their works led the first days of contemporary comics through those days of enlightenment and satire. On the other hand, the colonial government also published comics that persuaded young people to go to war for the Japanese emperor and encouraged farmers to produce more rice to feed their army.

The History and Its Wounds: 1946-1979

With the Liberation, the US military occupied South Korea and carried on the policies from the Japanese precedents. The two Koreas each established an independent government, and the Korean War began in 1950 to cease fire in 1953. During this period, comics were used as the most efficient medium for propaganda. Also, comics to console the war-devasted children were published. Although they were thin, shoddy booklets of poor print, these so-called ‘Ddakji Manwha’ or ‘Ddegi Manwha’ were full of adventures and fantasies. Meanwhile, newspaper comics had to endure political oppressions. During the next decade between the mid-50s through the mid-60s, Rental shops – ‘Manhwabang’ – with stacks of comics for rent appeared. They spread throughout the country and formed a vast network. Comics began to branch out into several genres suiting the tastes of the diverse readership. PARK Ki-jung, KIM Jong-rae, PARK Ki-dang, KIM Won-bin, and Kim San-Ho are some of the main artists of that era.

However, the golden age did not last long. The monopolization of the distribution network in 1966 and pre-censorship following the military coup in 1961 had negative effects on the creators’ imagination. In such times, readers relied on ‘MyungRang(jolly)’ comics published in children’s magazines and on dramatic comics that were published in adult magazines.
Artists of the ‘MyungRang’ genre such as LIM Chang, BANG Young-jin, Gil Chang-duk, PARK Soo-dong, YOON Seung Woon, SHIN Mun-soo and Lee JungMoon provided energy to the children. On the other hand, the works published in the entertainment papers were historical dramas. The newspaper [Daily Sports] introduced Ko Woo-young’s [Lim KkeokJung(72)] and Kang ChulSoo’s [PalBulChool]. Lee DooHo’s [GaekJu], and his version of [Lim KeokJung] further deepened that genre.

Long Epics and the Desire for Change : 1980 – 1990

With the beginning of the 80s when hope for democracy was again shattered by another military government, a new breed of dramatic epics came about among the rental shops and flourished. One of the main artists who led that boom was LEE Hyun-se. His major work ‘GongPoEui WaeInGuDan(The Terrifying Mercenary Baseball Team, 82) is a story of a group of losers who endure hard training and become the most powerful baseball team. The characters face obstacle after obstacle from the beginning heading for a a tragic end. Among the many works by HUH Young-man, [MooDang GeoMi(87)], which was one of Huh’s major hits in these comics rental shops in the 80s, best describe the sentiments shared among the people who lived through the 80s. Also, one of the major artist who symbolized the 80s in the magazines was KIM Soo-jung. He captured readers of the 80s with her lively characters and witty dialogues.

From the 80s until the 90s, Korean comics began to expand into a new visual culture. As it linked with the people’s art of the 80s, Korean comics became rich in the external appearance. A group of artists believed that they could change the society through their comics and this belief was projected into their comics. With the launch of the newspaper [HanGyeoRae ShinMoon] in 1988, PARK Jae-dong, was appointed to draw the editorial cartoon on that paper, and became one of the most active artists in the 80s. Other artists such as JANG Jin-young, LEE Eun-hong, JOO Wan-soo, SHIN Jong-bong and CHOI Min-wha actively lived through the harsh environment of the 80s and 90s.

Meanwhile “female” comics reappeared in the 80s in a new form. KIM Dong-wha, HAN Seung-won and HWANG Mi-na were popular among the readers with their everyday romance stories and romantic sagas based on historic events. The flourishing of the rental market in the 80s became the foundations for new artists to exhibit their skills, such as SHIN Il-sook, KANG Kyung-ok, KIM Jin, Kim Hye-rin and LEE Mi-ra who expanded the width and depth of female comics. With the launch of ‘Renaissance’ magazine in 1988, this genre transferred its homeground from the rental shops to magazines. Established artists and new artists began to present their new works through these magazines.

[From: official guidebook for the exhibition ‘La dynamique de la bandee dessinnee coreene'(The Dynamics of Korean Comics), held at Angouleme International Comics Festival, 2003.1.]

One thought on “A Short History of Manhwa

  1. I don’t agree that 70’s manhwa were not creative.

    I remember spending entire days at manhwabang (during those days, one paid by the book, not by the hour).

    Especially good were the horror genres, less contrived, but more creative than today’s manga.

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