Comics account for 25% all book sales in South Korea. Can they replicate that success—and challenge traditional Japanese market dominance—in the US?
American comics connoisseurs, add this to your personal lexicon: manhwa. It's the Korean term for comics, just as manga denotes comics from Japan, and with a host of publishers bringing new manhwa titles to the States for the first time, it's poised to become a household word among fanboys and pop culture mavens alike.
The manhwa invasion has been a long time coming. Manga wedged open the cross-cultural door in the '80s, bringing a fresh sensibility to fans raised on Superman and X-Men. But even with the subsequent comics explosion in America, manhwa has remained almost entirely in manga's shadow. Early Korean releases were often published as manga, with no marketing effort to distinguish their true origins. Aside from the fact that they're read from front to back and left to right, a reader unfamiliar with Korean comics might have found it difficult to place books like the gothic western Priest, or painterly supernatural romance Model, in a specific cultural tradition of cartooning. And yet it is a tradition as passionately maintained as that of Japan. According to one manhwa publisher, comics accounts for about 25 percent of all book sales in South Korea, while more than 3 million Korean users access paid online manhwa and 10 million read free webcomics. And, thanks in part to a comics industry that tends to cede more control to artists, manhwa allows for a level of individual expression, in storytelling and style, that is not always found in manga.
Now, as a growing number of comics publishers in the U.S. have begun treating manhwa as a distinct form, newcomers to Korean comics have access to a diverse range of genres, from raucous comedies and tense science fiction and fantasy to high-octane adventure, period dramas, and slice-of-life romances. Even "boys'-love" stories for women—romances that don't address gay themes in a traditional sense but focus on intense emotional connections between beautiful male protagonists—are making their way to American bookstore shelves.
Leading the U.S. charge are two Korean-owned publishing concerns, Ice Kunion and Netcomics. Ice Kunion, a consortium of Korean publishers who joined forces to bring their titles directly to English-speaking readers, has debuted with releases targeted at young women. (The Japanese equivalent, shôjo, was an early hit in America with titles like Naoko Takeuchi's Sailor Moon.) Ju-Yuon Lee, Ice Kunion's senior editor, aims to "provide books that the audience would already like, but also try to introduce some titles that have more of a Korean touch."
Choosing manhwa titles that will appeal to an American audience represents one challenge; another is the introduction of the Korean web-publishing approach. "In recent years, the market in Korea for print books of manhwa has been shrinking rapidly," says Heewoon Chung, head of the Jersey City, New Jersey–based Netcomics, and its parent company, Ecomix. One of Korea's leading providers of online comics, Ecomix has also broken into the promising market of manhwa for mobile devices like cell phones. Says Chung, "There have been some breakthrough titles originating on the web. Korea's online comics market is evolving, and you can't find this kind of market anywhere else."
Considering American comics fans' comfort on the web, Chung can reasonably hope to develop a similar market here. Netcomics caters to the U.S. audience's customary means of consumption with print titles, but it's the company's online delivery system that has potential to change the face of comics publishing in this country. Visitors to the publisher's website can sample the company's growing roster of titles for roughly 25 cents a chapter. Chung estimates that by this spring, Netcomics will have 75 volumes of 25 series in print, and more than 120 volumes of 30 series on the web.
These numbers encompass an impressive range of subject matter and treatment. Marley's Dokebi Bride is a coming-of-age fantasy about the heir to a family of traditional shamans balancing domestic angst with supernatural peril; Doha's The Great Catsby features a modern-day slacker navigating the mortifications of single life. Sooyeon Won's Let Dai, a popular title in the "boys'-love" genre, follows the unlikely romance between a vicious punk and an innocent schoolboy; and JTK's Madtown Hospital is a deranged workplace comedy with hospital hijinks that surpass those of Grey's Anatomy. The illustrative styles in manhwa also vary greatly, from Marley's blend of elegant romanticism and emotional intensity to Doha's loose-lined, humorous work on Catsby. X Diary, a free web comic, uses a charming, almost Peanuts-like minimalism to chart a post-breakup relationship.
Netcomics and Ice Kunion are leading the manhwa revolution, but others are also betting on a growing American appetite for the comics. Tokyopop was one of the first North American publishers to make a concerted effort at licensing manhwa, though Jeremy Ross, the company's director of new product development, notes that Tokyopop is sticking to the "manga" tag for all of its output. "While we acknowledge the nationality of all our creators, we don't believe it should be advanced as a primary factor for categorization," Ross explains. "Americans, for better or for worse, tend to accept only a few new foreign products or concepts at a time, and we felt we would fail if we tried to introduce to a mass audience the terms manga, manhwa, and manhua." (Manhua are comics from China.)
With other American publishers entering the manhwa field all the time, Tokyopop could probably stand to be more sanguine. Among its competitors is Dark Horse Comics, best known for blockbusters like Sin City. Dark Horse recently launched its own manhwa line with action-rich titles like Kim Young-Oh's Banya: The Explosive Deliveryman, a story rife with political machinations, and Park Joong-Ki's Shaman Warrior, which uses shifting "camera angles" to unfold its mix of swordplay, wizardry, and intrigue.
Tran Nguyen, the publisher at another new manhwa player, DramaQueen, says, "We really wanted to honor the artists from Korea," adding that the company is specifically interested in titles that appeal to older teens and adults. DramaQueen launched a line of romantic manhwa late last year, beginning with Audition and DVD from Kye Young Chon, whose style embraces the angularity and delicacy of line sometimes associated with manhwa visuals.
Where in this tidal wave of Korean comics are the offerings from North Korea? For the most part, the country's extraordinary isolation seems as prohibitive to the distribution of comics as it is to much else. According to Heewoon Chung, some North Korean comics were imported to South Korea recently, but they were educational titles dealing mostly with issues of ideology or morality. The North Korean manhwa viewable online, while technically accomplished, often looks severely dated.
South Korean manhwa, which exists easily in a global comics culture, has no such setbacks, but other factors may keep it from achieving the level of popularity that manga attained in such a short time. Animated versions of manga played a significant role in boosting sales; so far, manhwa has yet to tap into that kind of lucrative adaptation, here or in Korea. However, manhwa is due to get a live-action boost onscreen in the States: One of Tokyopop's earliest manhwa acquisitions, Hyung's Priest, is being adapted into a film produced by Sam Raimi, director of the Spider-Man films, and scheduled for release in 2008.
Meanwhile, manhwa publishers are mounting increasing presences at western comics conventions like San Diego's Comic-Con International and the New York Comic Con, ensuring that American fans come into contact with manhwa. When they do, they'll see part of a rich national oeuvre, and maybe they will connect with it as they have with Japan's manga. As with comics from any country, it's the power to enthrall readers that will ultimately make the difference.