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Will Korean manhwa replace manga?

As sales in Japanese manga plummet, the "Korean Wave" takes hold, offering popular comics with sophisticated themes.

SEOUL, South Korea — In his bag, Park Jae Dong always carries a fine-point ink brush. The mellow, aging artist speaks in few words, preferring to communicate through Korean cartoons, or manhwa, which have gained such popularity across Asia in recent years.

When his fans approach him, he pulls out the brush — smirking, like it's a new idea each time — and strokes little streams furiously onto cardboard, arriving at an impromptu self-caricature with his signature below. Tough work for a national icon.

But that’s good news. In recent years Korean manhwa has reached a peak in popularity. That comes as Japanese and American comics — once dominant across the world comic book market — are losing their clout, reflected in their slumping sales and re-branding to the film and video game industries.

Since 1995, Japanese manga sales have more than halved, thanks in part to an aging fanbase that’s looking for something new. Unlike Japan’s gritty post-apocalyptic mangas for teenagers, manhwas are full of realistic dramas for aging fans, touching on adult themes like domestic violence, romance and gender inequalities.

Korean comic books

A replica of a Korean comic book store from the 1970s.
(Geoffrey Cain/GlobalPost)

Enter the “Korean Wave,” the recent trend of South Korean cultural exports gaining popularity abroad. Just a few decades ago, South Korea was a poor and isolated country, ruled by a military government that stifled pop culture. But Korea’s rapid growth, political liberalization and wiring to the Internet have spurred the creation of television shows, movies and magazines that have found new markets around the world.

Last month, one publisher announced it would sell manhwa in North Africa, a first after expanding into North and South America and Europe earlier this decade.

Yet manhwa wasn’t always like this. In Park’s golden years, the art was often a political tool used by dissidents and government officials. His fame came in the 1980s for lampooning his country’s military regimes in the Hangyeore Sinmun, South Korea’s first left-leaning political newspaper. With the fall of military rule in 1993 and subsequent economic growth, Park’s art form has moved away from politics and into today’s youth tastes for entertainment.

The first manhwas were drawn in 1909 to criticize the colonial Japanese administration. But they didn’t become widespread until Park Chung Hee launched a coup d’etat in 1961 against a nine-month-old parliamentary government, imposing authoritarian rule in order to build South Korea into an industrial powerhouse. Park curtailed freedom of speech, jailing dissenters under the slightest suspicions. Life for many South Koreans meant suffering, and manhwa gave them a reason to cheer up.

Knowing this, the government encouraged publishers to create myongnang manhwa, or patriotic “cheerful comics,” according to The Korea Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes Korean culture. Publishers jumped on the bandwagon, opening presses across Seoul and distributing the comics to all audiences.

Comic-book magazines catered to children, depicting unpatriotic, mischievous characters receiving justice and mocking the leaders of North Korea. Alongside the cheerful comics, South Korea saw an influx of pirated Japanese mangas during the 1970s, adding to the popularity of comic books.