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.

Manhwa today

Contemporary Young Korean Comics

by Kim NakHo

Young Comics

Comics are forms of expression filled with diversity and youthful energy. Since the beginning, comics broke away from the rigidity of the standard art to freely express its messages and become an integral part of the popular culture.
If freedom to overcome the existing limits is indeed one of its virtues, such freedom is bound to be most ardently embodied by the young artists. The younger generation tries to communicate their diverse inner sensitivity and thoughts by using this effective new method rather than being confined to the old frame. In particular, young artists in Korea hold the added responsibility to create greater comics and thus overcome the trap of being tied to the mainstream genre that could easily become standardized under the industrial interests of capitalism. In addition to creating a new awareness and narrative style within the frameworks of the traditional comics style, their weapons are new visual styles, new comics grammar, up-to-date sensibility and message as well as the capacity to exterminate the borderline between various forms of media. With these progresses being made, it would be ideal to expand the world of comics by joining hands with many other youthful progresses around the world.
Trends Among Korean Comics Artists

With the dawning of the 1990s, many young artists began to openly express their various desires to open a new era in comics. YANG Young-Soon�s [Noodle Nude] and LEE Yoo-Jung�s [Hair], which depict male sexual fantasies, and YOON Tae-Ho�s [Outrageous Life], which satirically portrays the desire for a �stronger maleness� in Korea through the local baseball team, as well as KWON Ga-Ya�s [The Sun and the Moon] and PARK Heung-Yong�s [Like the Moon Out of the Clouds], which show philosophical and compositional desires using the framework of heroic historical drama, are all good examples of such attempts.

The mainstream genres in comics are usually those that maximize on certain factors that are easily approachable and enjoyable for public. Hence it is essential to understand and reinterpret this principle without being absorbed into the mainstream genre. Successful examples of such reinterpretation include YOON Tae-Ho’s [YAHOO], which inherited the pulp ‘Manhwabang comics’ of the 80s, and KWON Ga-Ya’s [Men’s Story], which philosophically reinvented traditional heroic comics. Also, BYUN Byung-Joon’s [Princess Anna] undertook the intensely descriptive realism of the 80s to successfully describe the characters filled with empty hatred in their eyes.

The Myungrangmanhwa(‘jolly comics’) genre that was almost extinct by the early 90s, have been reinterpreted and resuscitated in a new style. A critical analysis of the current affairs and realistic portrayal of everyday lives was added to what was previously mostly relying on sitcoms that focused on slapstick comedy and episodes revolving around the characters. Some fine works in this field include HONG Seung-Woo’s [Bibimtoon], which is currently being published in daily newspaper section, KIM Jin-Tae’s [The Glorious Citizen], and JUNG Yeon-Sik’s [Ddodi]. CHOI Ho-Chul’s [Euljiro Subway Line] or KO Kyung-Il’s serial portrayals of an alley are great examples of reinterpretation of the standard cartoons that provoke warm emotion by capturing truthful and ordinary facets of our everyday lives.

More radical experimentation with comics occur among those who completely deny all aspects of the mainstream comics. COMIX, one such underground comics group, use rough and unrefined drawings that are typical of such underground groups to express their defiance of the reality or their transcendental capacity to overcome such reality. KWAK Sang-Won’s [Still Romance Prevails] and other works depict warm romantic stories using unexpectedly rough, graffiti sketching.

However, the expansion of the young comics in the truest sense was achieved by women. Some of their representative works include PARK Hee-Jung’s [Hotel Africa], which captured the intricate sensibility in daily life through explorative graphic and comics metaphors and LEE Kang-Joo’s [For the Kangaroo]. Feminists’ forthright messages are well captured in LEE Jin-Kyung’s [Four Springs] and HAN Hye-Yeon’s [Prohibited Love], both of which are filled with serious contemplation on what it is like to live as a woman in the patriarchal Korean society and what should be done about it. Women comic artists are also in the front line of shifting away from the existing framework to expand on the aesthetic expressions in the world of comics. LEE Ae-Rim, who made quite a sensation in her debut using a unique visual effect, is still boldly experimenting with different styles such as the psychedelic style in [Aurora]. CHOI In-Sun who has incorporated traditional subjects of Korean culture and realistic awareness into the realm of overly exaggerated cartoon metaphor, has created a unique artistic world with a number of short works such as [Father]. IWAN, an artist with a different tendency, freely expresses a unique monotonous bizarre architectural world in the space of a geometrical partition on paper or of online interaction in [Jumping].

Another distinctive trait among these young artists is their approach on their work as an ‘objet’, to be exhibited to public in art galleries. KANG Sung-Soo’s installation art using comics or HongIk University’s comics club Nemorami’s experimental installation of comics are good examples of such tendency which began in the mid 90s, LEE Hyang-Woo culminates such tendency in a more organized comics installation shown at [Fantasy Exhibition] when she uses diverse objects to express the city and fairytale-like sentiments. LEE Woo-Il, the author of [Woo-Il’s Fable] also heads for the same goal.

Another important tendency among the young artists in Korea is the active use of information technology such as the internet. Mo Hae-Kyu, who is also the chief editor of [Hottoon] is one of the pioneers in the field of flash comics and mobile comic strips which can be downloaded through the mobile phone. Kwon Yoon-Joo, created the [Snowcat] homepage, in which all factors in the homepage, including its Snowcat character and homepage design are an integral part of her art work.
The traditional school of art are increasingly becoming aware of the comics. More and more young fine art artists are beginning to accept the unique attraction of the comics language that is capable of embracing creative concepts. As result, contacts with the artistic genres other than comics are also becoming more frequent.

Young Korean comics, evolving into various directions, have several common factors. Among them, one is the combination of autobiographical factor and comics-specific metaphor as a means to emphasize ordinary things. The more serious young artists have begun to reveal stories close to their real experiences in order to convey a more honest sensibility and awareness.

Another factor is the ambiguity in the borderline between the media. Many young artists are currently expanding their scope of work from what was previously a mere cross-over between comics and animations into other areas such as installation arts with comics as the objet, internet, music and even games. In particular, the various experimentations with the internet are on the high-rise due to Korea’s high-speed internet environment.

Independent publication, self-financed publication and such are also the latest common tendencies. Perhaps it is obvious that budding artists, who want to voice out their opinions more freely, do not wish to give their work or be dependent upon the major publishing companies that are still dwelling in the traditional and outdated production method and genres.

However, the most distinguishing tendency of the young animators not only in Korea but also around the world is their open-mindedness. They are ready to exchange with any form of comics in any cultural region, in any country and to influence each other. Through their accomplishments, comics will take a further step into actively creating a new variation of styles contributing to their evolution.

[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.]

Manhwa Market

About the Comics Industry in Korea

by Kim NakHo

Market Size

There are many levels and categories of the Korean comics industry. The distribution channel of comics is separate from the book market at large. The market is subdivided again into categories of comics in general and ‘educational’ comics(comics offering practical knowledge, rather than stories). Aside from the seller’s market, another large portion is consumed by the rental market and more recently, internet comics are on the rise. As of 2001, 9,177 titles were printed (26.5% of all publications) for a total of 42 million prints (35.9% of all publications). The size of the production is app. 130 million Euro, and its sales number is app. 60 million Euro. Meanwhile, the industry is undertaking a restructuring plan in an effort to balance the rental market which is currently 3 times larger than the print market. The 14 million Euro sized online market is continuously growing. “Educational comic books” hold the largest stake in the large bookstore distribution networks.

Introduction of Non-domestic Comics

As of 2001, 44% of all titles and 62% of the total prints are of foreign origin.

Size of Publishers

In the past few years, there has been an increasing bipolarization in the size of comic book publishers.

[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.]

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.]

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.]