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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.

The country’s export-led growth under Park Chung Hee peaked, and in the 1970s the young, educated middle class felt the time was approaching for the political system to open up as the economy had. Thanks to manhwa’s growing popularity, artists saw they could humorously use it against the government. After the student protests in the 1970s, manhwa shifted away from cheerful themes toward dark humor.

Many stories were highly taboo in Korean society, such as those depicting the urban underclass that benefited little from the country’s development, as well as gender inequalities and South Korea’s rapid economic growth set against repressive political rule. Artwork became more realistic, and storylines more oriented toward adults.

A Daunting Team, published in 1983, set the standard for the 1980s, what artists now call manhwa’s golden age. The comic book depicted a scruffy baseball player, Kkachi, who defied authority during the dictatorial regime of Chun Doo Hwan — the military ruler between 1980 and 1988 who continued the repressive policies of Park Chung Hee. Kkachi was an average kid whose rebelliousness fueled his baseball talents and earned him success.

Koreans wanted to see more characters like Kkachi, average people whose hard work, not their connections, catapulted them to stardom. Artists like Heo Youngman, Lee Hyun-se, and Park Bong-seong took the cue and molded characters who rose from extreme poverty to achieve success in government and business, often against the wishes of fictional aristocrats. Government censors, however, feared that such stories would taint South Korea’s image before the Seoul Olympic Games of 1988 and cracked down on the publishers. Pirated, underground comic books became common.

But when presidents made democratic reforms in the early 1990s, cartoonists said there was little left to satirize. They widened the scope of manhwa to general entertainment, like ghost stories, zombies, science fiction and romance. Call it a reflection of Korea’s changing national pulse — a country that decades ago was one of the poorest in the world, now curious but wary of what the 21st century will bring. “We have democracy now, so manhwa has become more diverse,” said Kim Dong-hwa, head of the Korean Cartoonists Association.

Now artists are feeling the effects of free online content, despite manhwa’s growing popularity. Ten million Koreans read free web comics, while only 3 million choose to pay, according to the Korean Culture and Content Agency, a government-affiliated body that promotes Korean arts around the world.

In the past two years, at least 10 Korean cartoon magazines have stopped publication due to a lack of subscribers. South Korea only has 12 such magazines now, compared to 300 in Japan. Kim Donghwa, head of the Korean Cartoonists’ Association, remarked that many Koreans view manhwa as something that should be free.

Yet manhwa is hardly dying. When Park oversaw the opening of a manhwa museum in September, thousands of fans showed up. Park is doing quite well, teetering in the film and print industries. But today, he’s widened his political focus to more general strips about the excesses of modern life for South Koreans: He satirizes the country's high suicide rate, gender discrimination and the often unrealistic pressures on students to perform well.

“My work became famous because people could laugh when political events were very serious,” he suggests. “All people are half emotional, half logical. My job is to help them find their emotions.”