As Korean movies and TV dramas become ever so popular around Asia and the world, well-known Korean cartoonist Lee Hyun-sae, 50 once bellowed out “Why not our comic books, too?”
Korean comics, or “manhwa,” are still on the slow side when it comes to making their existence known abroad, what with fierce competition from Japanese “manga” and widespread illegal scanning across the Web.
Since manga is far better known around the world, many take manhwa as an imitation of the former despite a long history of its own. How long has manhwa been a part of Korean culture? Experts are still split between two illustrations: “Bo-myung-ship-woo-do,” a ten-cut illustration with narration which depicts a monk’s quest for truth was drawn during the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.~ A.D.668), and “Eui-woo-do,” a four-cut connected illustration drawn in 1745 during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) about a loyal cow. But to speak of comics in modern sense, we jump to the early 20th century.
1909~1945: Criticism, satire and later, brainwashing
In 1909 in the “Daehan Minbo,” one of the first newspapers in Korea, Kim Do-young, a traditional painter, started drawing the nation’s first one-cut political cartoon. His works mostly criticized Japan’s efforts to take over the nation. One of his works, “Mimicking another” poked fun of corrupt Korean officials aping the acts of the Japanese.
Shortly after Japan annexed Korea in 1910, Kim Dong-sung, the first cartoonist to use a four-cut style, blasted Japan for persecuting the free press. Ahn Seok-joo through his cartoons “A day of a dummy” and “Adventure of a boaster” attacked the authority’s treatment of common people and called for the liberation of the country. He was the first to introduce “Manmoon manhwa” a cartoon sketch put together with a short essay. Roh Soo-hyun’s “Imbecile’s vain efforts” in 1924 was so popular that it was even made into a movie.
Around 1930s Japan made an all-out attempt to uproot Korean culture. The schools did not allow children to speak Korean and tens and thousands of Korean history books were burned. Most manhwa during this time had to resort to humorous stories or epic talkes of legendary heroes. Then in 1940s manhwa was readily encouraged as propaganda to justify Japanese rule and recruit more soldiers. Korean cartoonists who collaborated with Japan at the time drew stories that glorified imperial Japan and the ongoing war.
1950s: Anti-communism, poverty and tears
During the Korean War (1950-53), the U.S. military too used manhwa as an efficient medium for propaganda to instill anti-communism in newly divided nation. Well-known cartoonists produced brochures and booklets to inform people about the war and convert North Korean soldiers to Seoul’s doctrine. One of these, Kim Young-hwan, later became famous for his political cartoon figure “Kojooboo,” who appeared in many of his satires. He also published the nation’s first single volume comic book “The Rabbit and the Turtle.”
This was the time when all children’s books — even playing cards — were required to bear three war pledges, and thin, shoddy comic books were no exception: Pledge 1. We, as proud sons and daughters of the Republic of Korea, will protect our nation unto death! Pledge 2. We shall stay united like steel to crush the communists! Pledge 3. We shall fly the Taegukki (South Korean national flag) at the top of Baekdu Mountain (North Korea’s highest mountain) and realize reunification of the country!
Deeply emotional family stories were also the rage in those days. Kim Jong-rae captured the loss and pain caused by the war with books like “Horizon of tears” “Dear Mother”, “Don’t cry Eun-chul” which portrayed people’s grief after the Korean War. Kim recounts that it was almost ironic to put the world “comics” in front of his works for life was gloomy indeed. “There was nothing but sadness all around. Orphans with empty cans were begging prostitutes for help. My stories had to be sad because that was all people could relate to at the time,” Kim later said in the book “The origin of Korean Manhwa” (2001).
1960s~70s: Jolly comics and birth of censorship
Manhwa established itself as an integral part of popular culture in the 1960s. The industry grew and fueled the rise of “Manhwabang” (comics rooms) where new comic books could be read for a fee.
The manhwa of this era began to show a much brighter side of life through fantasy, science fiction, detective stories and other genres. “Rai-pai” by San Ho was one of the major sci-fi comics that dazzled youngsters with super jets, UFOs and magic crystals that offered ever-lasting youth.
Girls fell for “Sun Jeong manhwa” (sentimental stories), usually about a destitute orphan with a heart of gold reunited with her long-lost (and often rich) father. Um Hee-ja and Kwon Young-seop was one of the major names. Despite portryal of pretty girls, however not much romance. As Park Jae-dong, a political cartoonist for the modern daily Hankyoreh, pointed out in a 1994 essay, “Love? What love? Everyone was just grateful to get by in those days!”
“Myongrang manhwa” (jolly comics) was the popular genre of this time. These adventure stories were often titled after the main characters. “Yak-dong and Yong-pal” tells the story of two country boys adjusting to life in Seoul. “Taeng-Ii,” with precise hunting, fishing and other diverse instructions, is an early example of educational comics.
This creative stage soon dried up as distribution became monopolized and censorship of the arts followed Park Chung-hee’s 1961 military coup. Park, bent on heating up the nation’s economic engine, imposed Spartan rules over the country. This included the outlawing of what seemed trivial or decadent like miniskirts on girls and long hair on boys. For comic book characters, the censoring committee not only prohibited mini-skirts but also ribbons, flowers and other fancy accessories that “encourage extravagance.” It was also “improper” for a boy and a girl to appear together in a single cut, and no matter how primitive their lodgings, brother and sister could not be seen sleeping in the same room.
Manhwa and modern Korea
A less-repressive military dictatorship followed Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. Leaders hoped to gain legitimacy by easing regulations. Comics in the 80s featured pranksters and troublemakers who flunked classes, messed up homework and confused grown ups. Unlike uptight characters from the 70s, “Kkeobung-ii” and other heroes of the 80s knew how to relax. “Dooly,” a baby dinosaur magically transported to the present who makes fun of grown-ups, was another mega-hit. Creator Kim Soo-jung later confessed that he had to use an animal because censors forbade him from portraying a child defying adults.
Along with the improved living standards, Korea’s “education fervor” and “bballi, bballi” (hurry, hurry) syndrome was rising fast. Comics like Lee Hyun-sae’s “The Terrifying Mercenary Baseball Team” (1982) reflected that competitive mood — go extreme to win — whether fighting for a sports team, scholarship, better house or job. Another big hit, “Run, Hanni” (1985) by Lee Jin-joo, portrayed a girl who finds a way to out run her frustrations by joining a track team.
Girls’ comics started moving beyond censorship and romantic stories of princes and princesses. Kang Kyung-ok uniquely described friendship and the everyday lives of people through monologues, while Shin Il-sook reflected tales through a feminist angle. Transsexual, lesbian and gay characters drew their own share of admirers along with philosophical themes that reached new viewers. Some big-name female cartoonists of the 90s like Hwang Mee-na, Kim Dong-hwa and Han Seung-won continue to show their prowess.
On the other hand comic book rental shops continued to spoil industry sales and the advent of the Internet, digital cameras, cell phones, role-playing games (RPG) and other modern inventions are stealing people’s attention.
But there is always an upside.
During the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003), Korea officially stopped seeing manhwa as “books that spoil children” and started to see an industry with potential. Government agencies were established to promote the field and encourage related exhibitions and fairs.
Over 125 animation or manhwa departments have been established in colleges and universities nationwide. Media are sharing popular stories.
Dramas and movies like Full House (2004) and Gung (2006) were based on manhwa, and the drama “Sad Love Story” (2005) was serialized in comic book form.
One popular K-drama “Dae Jang Geum” was even made into an animated film, and manhwa “Chocolat” by Ji Sang-shin and Geo will be made into a drama next year. Others like “Lineage” and “Land of the Wind” have become popular RPG. Some Korean cartoonists now try to win fame abroad before debuting at home like illustrator Yang Kyong-il and his writer Yoon In-wan with their work “Shin-Amhaeng-usa” and “Island.”
“It’s one source multi-use,” said Kim Mi-jeong, Rights Division manager for Seoul Media Group. “We’re currently exporting manhwa to China, Taiwan, North America, Europe and Southeast Asia. We’re also participating in world-renowned comic fairs as well like the French Angoulême International Comics Festival, San Diego Comic-Con International, Baltimore Comic-con and others. We make sure at least some participants make it to the fair and promote manhwa.”
Kim Nam-ho, director of international licensing for another major comics publisher, Daiwan C.I., pointed out one interesting fact regarding censorship: “We no longer have prior censorship but we still have after-censorship should a story go too far. The thing is, even Europe and America are pretty strict when it comes to children’s books. So sometimes, people there feel our comics are “safer” and sign contracts faster after seeing the first volume.”
Daiwon started out with about 200 million won ($210,000) in exports in the late 90s and began to see rapid increases in foreign contracts after 2000, hitting 1.1 billion won ($1.2 million) in 2004. Last year, the company was paid 1.6 billion won ($1.7 million) in royalties alone. Fantasy genres like Lee Myung-jin’s “Ragnarok,” Kim Jae-hwan’s “Maje” and Lee Kang-woo’s “Rebirth” is reportedly doing quite well in the western bookstore. Hyung Min-woo’s “Priest” is already set for film production.
Girl’s comics such as “Demon Diary” by Kara and “Model” by Lee So-young are also good sellers, according to Kim. “So far the ratio of Japanese manga to Korean manhwa in the U.S. and European markets is 80:20,” said Jung Hyun-chul, of the Content and Culture Agency (KCCA). “We aim to make it 70:30 within five years,” he said. “By then the export of comic books should reach 10–15 million dollars a year.”
By Kim Hee-sung
Korea.net staff writer
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