Introducing ‘Manhwa’: The World of Korean Comics

(The following text was written as the intorduction in the sampler catalogue on Manhwa that was?distributed at the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2003 (and in following SanDiego ComiCon as well). It was the initial year when the Korean Ministry of Culture?started promoting Manhwa to the Western world. For the sampler I selected the comics, wrote notes. For the event itself, I planned and wrote the script to the presentation show. Anyway, here it is…)

Introducing ‘Manhwa’: The World of Korean Comics

Comics in eastern Asia are a more than just a form of popular entertainment. “漫畵”(read MANGA in Japan, MAN-HUO in China, and MANHWA in Korea) is a part of the cultural life itself. They take the forms of dramatic entertainment, power fantasies, poetic beauties, effective information carriers and everything else you could imagine. If the first major (pleasant) cultural shock struck you in the form of “Manga”, then be prepared: There are more upcoming. Let me introduce you to the next big blow: Korean comics are on the way!

Korean comics are goldmines of old masters and young talents, waiting to be discovered. Influenced by the modern comics from the rest of the world and the traditional narrative drawings, they have created their own unique identitities. The Korean society itself has this dynamic passion and power that can’t be easily found elsewhere in the world(remember the red crowd in 2002 Soccer World Cup?) – and naturally, such energy is a essential part in comics as well. In fact, Korea has been going through a quite passionate and dramatic history in this century; The struggle against Japanese colonialism and the military intervention of USA, the Korean War and the mass revolt to overthrow the dictator, the military coup in the following year, the movement for democracy and the massacre of Gwangju, military dictatorship and the democratic resistance. And all along, Korean comics have accompanied, entertained and brought hope to the people. They are full of dramatic energy, and have developed a wide variety of genres, themes, styles, and ways of reading comics. Ranging from short cartoons to epics of several thousand pages, from funnies to dramatic stories, from pulp fiction to artistic ambitions, The spectrum is hardly biased; A world of comics where several mainstreams are accepted. An important aspect to be underlined, is also the place which it offers to the women. Indeed almost half of the comics artists presently are female, and they never let their female readers down.

Another reason why Korean comics are so energetic is even simpler: comics themselves are BIG in Korea. In 2002, more than 9000 titles were published annually, with Korean comics covering approximately 40% of it. Aside from the traditional book stores, comics are being read in the private libraries(called ‘Manhwabang’, 24-hour shops where they sit down, read comics, and pay by the hour), on the web, and even on the private cell phones.

Despite the 100-year history of its modern rebirth, Korean comics have remained unintroduced to the rest of the world for most of that period. It has been gaining popularity in east Asia in the 90s, but only few attempts were made to encounter them with the western parts of the world. But when the Manga-craze hit the floors in the 2000’s, readers finally opened their eyes to the Asian ways of graphical storytelling. Korean comics have gained rapid interest because they share all the strongpoints that made Manga popular, have plenty of resources, cover all kinds of genres, but don’t have reading-right-to-left problems. Moreover since Korean comics are more storyline-based than just character-led, those who expected their own stereotype of mainstream Manga were literally splashed into the overwhelming sea of unique interesting stories.

Korean comics are the next big wave of Asian comics, and if this keeps on going, it won’t be too long before the term ‘Manhwa’ is commonly used. Ambitious young artists are pushing the limits of expressions: No matter with traditional pen-and-ink or the new digital tools, heartwarming stories or cold reflections of a harsh reality. From traditional drawings to mobile-phone serials, “Manhwa” has always been in its constant process of evolution. This small booklet deals only with a small and biased fraction of its vast spectrum, and much more is left to be explored. But rest assured: it will certainly make you long for more. No matter if you are searching for powerful action, fantastic imaginations, heartful humor or deep drama, there will be fruitful answers.

Jump into the world of Manhwa. It’s more than worth it.