Manhwa & Cultural Exchange

The Fascination of Korean comics and Cross-Cultural Exchange

by Kim NakHo

Cultural Regionalities of Comics

In every society comics has been developing so closely in accordance with the public, making it literally the most ‘popular’ medium and art form. As comics are under strong influence of each society and its culture, they can be subdivided into several cultural regions, just like any other art form. Taking artistic trends and industrial formats of mainstream comics into account, some of the major regions are European, North American and Asian comics. It is a interesting fact that each major cultural region has a history quite independent from one another; Each one has not only its unique form of distribution or industrial format but also different themes, contents, forms of expression, readership and creative environment.

However, what’s just as interesting as their differences are their commonalities. In spite of their differences, they seem to hold inherent qualities that are trans-cultural. In every culture – whether it be North America, Europe or Asia – comics were at some point target of censorship and oppression. Then, they have expanded their readership from children to adults, and tried hard to be recognized as a form of artistic expression. Timings differ, but experiences are shared.

Obviously this macroscopic grouping could never totally embrace the individual differences that each member within that region has. For instance, French and German comics exhibit many differences even though they belong to the ‘same’ European comics; If compared against comics in other cultural regions – such as Asian – these two would have much in common, but between themselves they show different kinds of fascinations (which, of course, are rooted deeply into the social contexts of each). Therefore, to enjoy the world of comics fully, these commonalities and differences should be taken into account.

Unfortunately however, enjoying comics that are not from one’s own cultural group is still in its basic steps. By nature, comics are so deeply embedded in the popular culture of the reader’s own society; So, understanding can only be achieved when one is ready to accept and step into the other’s culture.

The Fascination of Korean Comics

Korean comics share the same basic traits of Asian comics. Age-long traditions of line drawings, pictorial poems, cartoon-like folkloric pictures and serialized picture-stories are some of the major roots of the east Asian forms of comics.
Another thing to notice of Korean comics is its variety and dynamism. Korea’s dramatic modern history resulted in multi-directional development of comics. At times imagination flourished from pure need to bypass censorship and oppression, at other times it was to succeed amid difficult economic situation; and then there were times when artistic spirit emanated to combine new sensitivity with ancestral inheritance. Some key words to understand the Korean comics culture are:

* Manhwabang: ‘Manhwabang’ is a sort of a private library where people can rent comic books to be read on the spot on pay-by-time basis. There are thousands of those spread throughout Korea. What began during the poor days as a way to read more comic books for a less price, continues to thrive today in spite of economic affluence. Each month, several hundred titles of so-called ‘daily comics’ – pulp fiction style comics printed on low quality paper – are published exclusively for rental at these Manhwabangs.

* Women, the ‘half’ of that world: Female-centered comics in Korea, the so-called ‘Sentimental comics’ are based on a strong culture among female readership, female writers and amateur clubs. Since the 80’s they have escaped the narrow genre of ‘love and romance stories’, to encompass a wider variety of subjects such as historic epic, daily lives and (of course) feminism. The quantity and quality of female artists have continuously grown to make up almost half of the comic artists in Korea.

* Co-existence of Various Markets: Various markets as seller’s market, rental market(mostly Manhwabang) and ‘educational comics'(comics used for informative purposes) market co-exist quite independently in Korea. Each has its own distribution channel, readership as well as social function.
* From Cyber-Money to Mobile comics: Korea enjoys one of the highest broadband internet distribution rate in the world. Internet has long become an essential part of the Korean life. Besides artistic desires to utilize the cyberspace, ‘online Manhwabang’ where readers can pay cyber-money to stream comics onto their own monitor, or ‘mobile phone comics’ where one can receive segments of comic strips equipped with animation and sound effect over the mobile phone, are already reality in Korea.

Cultural Exchange of Korean comics

To make cultural exchange of comics meaningful, they should be conducted through works and artists that embody the unique characteristics of their own cultural and social context. Only then, the reader could discover NEW satisfactions and inspirations which could not be found when tied only to their own cultures. Even if as a result they want to learn and resemble some characteristics of each other, such would be done by adjusting them to their own cultural context.

Ironically, Korea has been more than generous in importing foreign comics in spite of its limited attempts to export its own. Of those imports, Japanese comics fill the majority followed by Chinese comics. However, among younger readers, interest in U.S. and European comics continue to increase. In fact, more than 50 European titles have been introduced in the past 3 years , resulting in the diversification of comics.

Cultural exchange of comics is more than just some financial trade, and must be preceded by cultural acceptance. This introduction is but a small step toward creating an environment for such acceptance. I merely hope this will be a small touchstone to greater ‘exchanges’ in future.

[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.]