South Korea’s strongest cultural exports that contribute to the Hallyu Wave are none other than K-pop and K-dramas. However, those that read Japanese Manga may have noticed the ever increasing presence of its Korean version, manhwa. Stylistically, they may not be much different. On the surface, the only immediately noticeable differences are their names and the fact that it’s read from left to right. Manhwa is actually an umbrella term for any sort of visual novel (US Comic, Japanese Manga, etc) in Korea, but to the West, manhwa is essentially Korean manga.
First thing’s first, though: manhwa is not a carbon copy of manga. Manhwa has a rich history that evolved alongside Korea (and independently of manga). Telling stories through the use of pictures is an age-old idea, and manhwa has actually been in existence since the 1900s, often used as a form of criticism for Japanese Colonization. This changed dramatically in the 1960s, when Park Chung-hee essentially jailed anyone or anything with a slight tinge of dissent.
From there on out, manhwa switched from political satire to good-natured entertainment, and became a way to squeeze enjoyment out of what may have been a miserable life. The Korean Government actually backed this idea and urged artists and publishers to create what was called “patriotic comics.” Manhwa of this time period usually contained stories of unpatriotic Korean degenerates being brought to justice or criticism of the North Korean government. Popularity of manhwa only grew as illegally smuggled Japanese manga became widespread.
As the political landscape of South Korea evolved, so did manhwa. The authoritarian oppression of Park Chung-hee ended, there were many political reforms in the 1990s, and eventually there were less things to criticize. Many artists realized that for manhwa to survive, their inherent subjects needed to change. The scope of entertainment for manhwa began to range from science fiction, to romance, to “shounen,” and even “yaoi.” (Google that last one) Finally we’ve reached the modern manhwa, a smorgasbord of stories and genres that, while on the surface, seem very much like manga, hold their own uniquely Korean flavor.
Manhwa has even begun evolving through digital distribution. Popular portal sites Naver and Daum distribute many online manhwa called “webtoons.” These webtoons are usually in color and exist in an “endless scrolling” format, with each chapter posted onto one long image.
Manhwa is considered a little bit more realistic in presentation in comparison to manga. Many stories take place in an ever so slightly edited version of reality. This leads to manhwa being more entrenched in Korean culture, with nuances and traditions that are more readily brought to the forefront than in manga. That being said, manhwa only started becoming popular internationally thanks to its Japanese counterpart. With the manner of presentation being so similar, it was only a matter of time until they were grouped together.
However with the emergence of Korea as a cultural mecca, manhwa companies in South Korea are now keen on tapping into the power of the Hallyu Wave. Recently it was revealed that the sirens of Girls’ Generation as well as the boys of SHINee will be featured in an upcoming webtoon called ENT. ENT most likely stands for entertainment and will revolve around an SM trainee and a young fanfiction writer. The fanfiction writer publishes a story based on what the trainee has told him/her with much of the webtoon featuring the events that follow. This manhwa will initially be published in the Japanese magazine, Club Sunday, with the chapter being uploaded onto Naver at a later date. Manhwa publishing company Ylab hopes to draw attention to both manhwa and K-pop with this project.
Although Japan has its own thriving manga industry, manhwa has managed to find a place in the market. It is only recently that manhwa has been able to break into the west. One of the largest manhwa and webtoons distributors in the US, Netcomics, currently sells more than forty different series online. Following the format of how it is done in South Korea, each chapter is sold at $0.25 to be read online. When it comes to physical copies of manhwa, US comic distributor Dark Horse as well French-owned Yen Press lead the way, with a plethora of different titles being circulated either in bookstores or available for purchase online.
To international fans of the Hallyu, manhwa may seem obscure and of no great consequence. This viewpoint is interesting when you take into consideration that manhwa accounts for nearly 25% of South Korea’s overall book sales. But why is manhwa so invisible when it comes to the Wave?
Unlike in Japan, Korea does not have a large animated series market. This doesn’t mean manhwa cannot move beyond its initial printing. Many beloved and adored K-dramas are entirely based on manhwa. Goong, Full House, and Damo are just a few of the well known live-action adaptations of this medium. Manhwa has even managed to make its mark on Hollywood. Priest is a popular manhwa that circulated in Korea more than a decade ago, and was recently made into a movie, also entitled Priest. With most manhwa classically being adapted in a live-action format, the association of “this was a manhwa” is easy to forget. Not only that, it severely cuts down on the type of manhwa that can be expanded. Your typical “battle” type series will never be picked up as a drama because high production costs as well as lack of a strong plot-line.
When compared to South Korea and Japan, Western audiences have certain cultural stigmas attached to comic book readers. Around 10% of Americans admit to reading comics. In South Korea, a single chapter of a popular series can acquire 10% of the nation to read it. American women in general do not read comics — it is estimated that only about 5% of women do — whereas in Japan, 81% of teenage girls read comics. Much of the difference between the two industries should really be chalked up to how much more diverse manhwa and manga is. Most Western comics center around masked super heroes endlessly fighting villains to bring about justice. It’s extremely rare to find a comic where romance is the main focus.
Here is where manhwa tries to really make an impression. Western comics are a male dominated industry, but around 40% of manhwa artists are women. Female oriented comics is something the industry itself should invest itself in. Years ago, female video gamers were relatively unheard of, yet through re-branding and correct marketing, there is a relatively large amount of female gamers these days. That was not possible without the appropriate material to back it up.
In terms of comics, manhwa would be that appropriate material. Most manhwa that are published in the US are “soonjung” manhwa. These are innocent love stories, comparable to “shoujo” manga, and generally are targeted towards young women. When it comes to comics, American or otherwise, romance will not be the flagship seller. Soonjung manhwa have shorter stories, meaning a built up fan-base will end just as quickly. However shorter anthologies are easier to produce, and believe it or not, romance has the largest market share in popular fiction. Once manhwa as a genre can gain a real foothold in Western publishing industry, more competitive genres can ease in.
With K-pop beginning to storm the West, maybe manhwa will soon follow. In five years it might not be strange to see a manhwa on bestsellers lists.
Do you guys read any manhwa or webtoons? If so, what are some of your favorites? (I currently read Noblesse, Tower of God, Zen Martial Arts High School, The Breaker: New Waves, and The God of High School. I think you can tell what genre I stay in.)