RSS Feed



Make Mine Manhwa!:

Exporting Korean Comics

This article formed the basis of a presentation I gave at the BICOF Festival in Bucheon, Korea, in September 2009.

Cover detail from Korea: As Viewed By 12 Creators
published by Ponent Mon/Fanfare

For my title -  “Make Mine Manhwa!” - I have come up with a variation on Stan Lee’s old catchphrase “Make Mine Marvel!”. The American writer-editor became a very public spokesman, a company figurehead, and created this phrase to instill brand loyalty in the Sixties among “True Believers” or “Marvelites” to his one particular American publisher, Marvel Comics, and its complex interconnected universe of characters. Stan Lee even jokingly insulted his main rivals DC Comics as “Brand Ecch”. For a while as a kid, I became a “Marvelite” in England, at one stage buying nothing apart from their titles. I only lost my blinkers and re-connected to DC when Jack Kirby, Lee’s principal co-creator, quit Marvel and jumped ship. From there I soon realised that great comics could come from any company, and any country, past or present.

Now of course there is a world of difference between hyping Marvel, one publisher’s close-knit line of superhero comics, and Manhwa, a whole country’s incredibly diverse output of comics. Yet from my perspective, as an English-reader and cultural critic coming into contact with manhwa, a good deal of the official exportation and promotion of manhwa to the Western publishers and public since the millennium seems to have tried marketing Korean comics en masse, as one overall distinct brand and national product. In some ways, this approach has been modeled on the proven success of manga in the West, establishing comics from Japan as a brand. In turn, Korea has seized the opportunity to “ride their coat tails” in order to break into the English-language market. Part of the strategy seems to emphasise similarities with Japanese comics in terms of certain styles, themes and tropes, while at the same time to distinguish manhwa subtly as somehow different from and superior to manga, for example, because they do not read from right to left and so do not have to be flopped or reversed, and because they are better behaved and so tend not to include less erotic content or “fan service” for teenagers.

In this new millennium, manhwa have been placed in a privileged position. Few other countries take their comics, and the related areas of animation, games, merchandise, toys, and other spin-offs, so seriously as a priority export as Korea. Manhwa have become highly visible on the international publishing and content scene, at bookfairs and tradefairs, most prominently in January 2003 at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the largest in the world, including America, outside of Japan. For me and many visitors, this was a surprising and revelatory exposure to a comics culture most people had never heard of. I can remember how astonished visitors were - professionals and readers I talked with - at how huge and varied the manhwa medium is in its country of origin.

On the back of exhibitions of manhwa abroad targeted at the fans, the general public and the professionals in the industry, a lot of effort has been put into publishing high-quality annual samplers and books with extracts translated into English, such as the four-volume survey by the Bucheon Cartoon Information Center in 2006, through to KOCCA’s Manhwa 100 catalogue this year and the accompanying touring exhibition, which came to the Korean Cultural Centre in London this June. The Bucheon books broke down the authors into The Founding Fathers (5), The Future (7), The Sensibility (6) and The Visuals (15), mainly single-panel cartoonists or illustrators). Manhwa 100’s approach is to divides works by audience or delivery platform and categorise them under girls’ (38), boys’ (30), general including adult (26), and webtoon (6). Promoting Korean comics broadly as a specific brand or label, strongly rooted in its national origins, seems to have been the principal guiding strategy of the main cultural export agencies towards the English-language market.

But I wonder is it possible to promote “manhwa” as a brand, following the trail blazed by manga? And is this desirable? Is this what is necessary for manhwa to achieve the sort of global export success and cross-cultural impact which Japanese comics have achieved? These questions raise a number of presumptions. For one, it presumes a competitiveness between Japanese and Korean comics, a striving to compete and beat a rival nation, a “battle of images” to be won. In fact, that term battle of images was previously used by manga publishers when they were confronted with the hugely powerful pop culture exports of America, which have dominated so much of the 20th century entertainment industries and which they were determined to challenge it head on. In terms of manga, that process has not happened overnight, or even in less than a decade. It goes back at least to the late 1980s and to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, both the manga, translated and “colorised” by Marvel’s imprint Epic, and the anime movie, and to Lone Wolf and Cub, championed by Frank Miller who drew special covers and wrote introductions for the American editions. Another presumption is that manga must hold some secret, some key, some special techniques, which it is vital to emulate to market comics internationally. It presumes that lessons could be applied to make it work for Korean comics as well. Certainly, some ideas could be gleaned from the manga marketing model.

Before I consider how the 21st century promotion and export of Korea comics to the West might move forward, I think some context would be useful, so let’s look back to how manhwa first arrived in the West in English. Personally, growing up in the Sixties outside London and buying British and American comics, I was unaware of many other approaches to comics, apart from the Franco-Belgian successes, Tintin and Asterix. Family holidays in Europe and studying French and German in school led me to explore the European range more widely. With very few Japanese animated series on British television, however, comics from Asia remained a mystery.

But all this changed in 1973 when as a teenager I bought for six new pence a copy of Ghostly Tales #101. Who would have thought that forty years ago this year, the work of a Korean emigrant would start appearing in comic books on American newsstands? From my researches, the first Korean artist to be published abroad in English was San-ho Kim, who started working for the American comic book publisher Charlton in 1969 and later contributed to black-and-white horror magazines from Warren, Skywald and Marvel. Born in 1939, Kim studied Western painting and began his manhwa career in 1958. The Grand Comics Database lists one unverified story from January 1964 as possibly drawn by Sanho Kim, in Navy War Heroes #1. But otherwise, his work began to be regularly and widely published by Charlton from January 1969 in the war, western, space and ghost genres. His first confirmed war story, Honeycomb Hill in Fightin’ Marines #83 in January 1969, dealt with US troops attacking Japanese snipers hidden underground. His big break was taking over the ongoing western series Cheyenne Kid, written by Joe Gill. Kim drew almost every issue from #72 (May 1969) through to #98 (September 1973), and from only his second episode, #73, was also designing and signing the striking front covers.

It is his contributions to Charlton’s line of “ghost” comics that are especially intriguing. As early as March 1969, he was contributing a 23-page cover story to Ghost Manor, where he went on to produce many stories and covers, often entire issues. Few horror comic covers at that time, when artists were still constrained by having to conform to the Comics Code Authority’s censorship, compare to the chilling mood of Kim’s imagery. But none compare to my shock of discovering The Promise in Ghostly Tales #101. Here was an American comic book with extraordinary dual-language narration in English and Korean of a traditional Korean folk tale, written as well as drawn by Sanho Kim. Only three other Charlton stories seem to be credited as written by Kim. Unusually, Kim is given a special feature page, including a photo of him, where he explains about the origins of and twist to this tale. He comments, “That ending may have shocked some of you - the hero of the story dies. However, remember that he dies for a very good reason, at least as far as the Korean reader is concerned. He didn’t fulfill his obligations as a husband: he must live with his wife, whether he likes it or not. You must realize that to a Korean, there are very few things more important than a family and its name, and perpetuating the family name is absolutely vital. Of course, today, young Koreans feel less strongly about it. The generation gap isn’t only a Western invention.”

Ghostly Haunts #101 interior

Kim’s work stood out and was a real revelation for me and other Western youngsters at that time, a vital initial glimpse into a whole other world of comics out there. Kim seemed to be the right artist at the right time, because by the mid-Seventies American publishers were cashing in on the craze for martial arts action, from Bruce Lee’s movies to David Carradine in Kung Fu on television. Charlton accepted Kim’s proposal to write and drawn a period Western along these lines, entitled Wrong Country about a young Korean martial artist lost in the old west. Sadly, it never appeared. It seems Kim was not in the right place; he was not in the USA, but in Tokyo. According to Roger Stern in Charlton Bullseye #3 in 1975, “Somewhere between Tokyo and Derby [Connecticut, home of Charlton Comics], the postal authorities saw fit to lose all of the originals to Wrong Country. And to further complicate matters, Sanho was in the process of moving Stateside at the time and couldn’t be contacted.” In a panic, Charlton hurriedly commissioned Americans Joe Gill and Warren Sattler to cook up a substitute, called Yang. Eventually, the artwork from Wrong Country #1 surfaced, but by then there was a paper shortage and it was left on the shelf. Instead, Kim was given a Yang spin-off prequel in 1975 entitled House of Yang, set in late 19th century China, which ran to four issues with fully painted covers. In the end, Wrong Country saw print only in 1975 in the small circulation black-and-white fan magazine Charlton Bullseye #3. Its opening page is telling as Kim narrates: “The Chinese had their Kung Fu, the Japanese, Karate, and the Koreans (don’t ever forget the Koreans), had their Tae Kwon-Do.”

Kim single-handedly pioneered manhwa in America. His Charlton comics were cheap, 12 cents, and cheaply printed, 32 pages of smudgy colour in newsprint inside a glossy cover, and sold on sale or return from newsstands, drugstores and supermarkets. By the mid-Seventies, plummeting sales and high returns put this distribution model into dire straits. It soon came to be largely replaced by specialist comics stores, run by fans for fans and selling more expensive comics supplied to them on firm sale, with no risks of returns. Many smaller publishers entered the field and several opted for cheaper black-and-white interiors. This in turn opened the market for Japanese comics like Lone Wolf and Cub, endorsed by hot artist Frank Miller, Mai the Psychic Girl, Kamui and others to be serialised in the comic book format.

On the back of this, in 1987 Eastern Comics, presumably a Korean offshoot based in San José, California, attempted to introduce manhwa using this format. They started with two historical martial arts series, Jae-hak Lee’s Demon Warrior and Sung-nam Ha’s Forbidden Kingdom and gave the translator/adaptor Franz Henkel cover billing. These were joined by contemporary action dramas such as Hyun-Se Lee’s baseball series Team of Aliens, translated as Untouchables, issued weekly, Jong-Jin Lee’s wrestling drama Blackmask and Tae-san Chang’s The Wild, issued bi-weekly. The problem was that The Wild‘s slow-paced, psychological drama was not suited to being sliced up into 32-page slivers with arbitrary endings. As the editors explained in the first issue, “The Wild was first published in eight 96-page volumes in 1987.” This was the format they were designed for. In the end, Eastern’s longest running title managed only 11 issues, and a further attempt in 1998, with Hyung-Jong Choi’s Trickster King Monkey, based on the Chinese legend, failed after only two issues. The lesson should have been learnt by then that exported manhwa were not suited to the standard American comic pamphlet.

For manhwa to cross over properly into English, they had to wait until early 2002 when the paperback book format of around 200 pages took off thanks to expanding publisher Tokyopop pricing “unflopped” manga one cent below ten dollars. 2003 was a key year, the start of America’s manga boom and Tokyopop led the field in translating manhwa starting with I.N.V.U. They labelled their whole range as manga, choosing not to highlight or demarcate Korean material, and many manhwa were mistaken as flopped manga. Instead of waiting for American publishers to license their products, several Korean publishers decided to do it themselves starting in 2005, such as Netcomics, the American branch of eComix, and consortium Ice Kunion. Despite a few major hits such as Priest, King of Hell and Ragnarok and American sales of manhwa by 2005 estimated at $3.25 million, this was still miniscule compared the manga phenomenon.

As a rush turns into a stampede, there is always the risk of a boom-then-bust cycle. Overstretched, putting out more product than the market could stand, a number of companies importing manhwa began suspending or ceasing operation, such as DramaQueen, CPM and ADV, leaving some major series such as Hyun-se Lee’s Mythology of the Gods and Nambul incomplete. The tragedy of such series left stranded in part-translation is that it seems unlikely that another publisher will pick up and re-start the series. If it hasn’t taken off for the first time, why will it work a second time? There is the concern that it will be hard to sell new editions of the early parts which have been published already. More positively, in 2007, Ice Kunion’s manhwa line, left hanging, was luckily absorbed by Yen Press, as new hopes were pinned on this imprint of Hachette Book Group and their YenPress monthly serial magazine. Nevertheless, last year further growth of manhwa in English was also hampered by the recession and American publishers having to cut back, such as Tokyopop restructuring and reducing their output in 2008.

There are lessons to be learnt here still. For instance, concerning translation, the quality has not always been high. Few factors are more offputting than awkward translation. Readers want to be immersed in the story and believe in the characters, but this illusion is shattered by odd, clumsy or jarring English. As a case in point, Doha’s excellent Great Catsby got off to an unsatisfying start due to the first volume’s translation failing to convey the everyday youth-speak and rambling thoughts of the main protagonist.

Another issue remains, how long is a series going to run? Admittedly, some are open-ended and may never conclude, and if a manhwa is currently being serialised in Korea, the final number of volumes may be unknown. But does a manhwa author set out with no ending in mind, no idea of how many books will be needed? If J.K. Rowling could assure her readers that Harry Potter would conclude in seven volumes, why can’t manhwa authors do the same? Of course, there is always the Lost strategy, based on the elongated TV serial. This is why some series may deliberately be spun out for far longer than originally envisaged, if they prove popular, but patience can wear thin. Similarly, if an author has all but abandoned a series, or is taking too long to deliver even one more episode, many fans will become frustrated and give up. Kim Hyun-joo from Tokyopop is right to caution about overlong serials which can drives fans away. She writes, “I would suggest, that unless it compromises the integrity of the story, the series be kept short and not unnecessarily drawn out.”

There is also no avoiding a further problem: to be honest, not all of the manhwa so far translated into English represent the medium and artform at their very best nor across a wide enough spectrum of styles and subjects. By playing safe and relying on tried but tired formulas, exporters and importers alike have at times been overly focussed on the youth audience and predominantly teenage girls. Comics, like any mass-market entertainment, can be slaves to fashions and fads, pouncing on whatever happens to be selling and repeating it for too long, until it outlives its welcome.

I am convinced that there remains enormous scope for a far wider variety of manhwa to crossover in the West to all kinds and ages of readers. Essential to this is the emergence of the English-language graphic novel market, spanning from the very youngest readers to adults of both sexes who are used to literature. The children’s book market is ripe for expansion and Korean material made a substantial impression at this year’s Bologna Bookfair. More and more children’s book publishers such as Bloomsbury, Walker, Scholastic and Henry Holt are adding comics to their ranges and major retail chain Borders reported an 800% increase in sales since introducing a dedicated graphic novel section for children. The right manhwa for kids could really take off here.

Similarly, the growth in graphic novels overall has been vigorous, with sales up by 5% in the US and 21% in the UK in 2008. Balancing that, however, last year saw the first drop in manga sales in America, falling 17% to $175 million. Another strategy may be to associate manhwa less with manga and more with the literary and artistic graphic novels for adults. NBM has already issued some interesting examples, such as Run, Bong-Gu, Run by Byun Byung-Jun and Buja’s Diary by Seyeong O, while British outfit Fanfare is translating the Korean-French anthology Korea compiled by Casterman this year. But the most significant graphic novel manhwa translation yet must be Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Earth, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven. Originally published as The Story of Life in the Golden Fields in five volumes starting in 1995, this lyrical evocation of Korea’s past through the love between mother and daughter has been exquisitely repackaged into 3 substantial volumes with quality paper, design and translation, including a 9-page guide for reading groups and helpful footnotes about cultural references. Sensitive, poetic, erotic, and illustrated with exceptional refinement, this is bringing manhwa to a different readership, just as it did in Korea. As critic Hwang Min-ho commented, the author “...has produced a book that can warm even the toughened hearts of men.”

Jung Kyung-a’s Comfort Women

It might be deeply rooted in Korean culture and history, and conceived with no calculated plan to appeal to anyone beyond its local audience. But some works that are personal and integral to one culture can still speak about such universally human feelings, that they can transcend cultural barriers and communicate loud and clear. A fresh path of opportunity has been opened here. Fascinating historical, autobiographical and experimental manhwa for adults by Koreans in Korea or abroad teem with possibilities, such as Jung Kyung-a’s Comfort Women;  Chiu Juhyun’s Under the Wolf’s Skin; Colour of Skin: Honey by Jung, a Korean orphan raised in Belgium; or the work of the American-based Derek Kirk Kim.

Colour of Skin: Honey by Jung

Equally significant are the prospects for virtual and digital delivery systems, alternatives to print and paper, from webcomics or webtoons to mobile phones, iPhones, e-books, electronic paper and other handheld devices. Netcomics are building up a following for their serials by charging a very modest price for each chapter. A community is developing around each series as readers review and share opinions. It’s perfect for test-marketing series before issuing them in book form. The internet has already given birth to Doha’s surprising, quirky Great Catsby and the English-language market has yet to discover Kang Full’s deceptively simple but compelling cartooning. Surely serialising his Apartment chiller online in English would capture numerous surfers and internauts. Manhwa is already finding new blood, new stories, new approaches, through web-based creators like Doha and Kang Full. I am sure more will follow, because they can enjoy more freedom, self-expression and autonomy online and they have a direct route to their readers, bypassing editors, publishers and middlemen.

Same Difference & Other Stories by Derek Kirk Kim

Print is not dead, of course and those editors and publishers within the comics field in Korea still have a lot to contribute. Cross-media and multi-platform marketing can help a manhwa reach a far wider audience, whether through movies, games and merchandise, such as the forthcoming film adaptation of Priest, or through cultural events, exhibitions and exposure. Manhwa cannot be sold as one product, by the pound, like apples or oranges, defined only broadly by subject or age category or by their resemblance to manga. For Korean comics to take their rightful place on the world comics stage, a vital player is the publisher or editor who can encourage and support that special creator and creation. The key, it seems to me, is the ability to recognise and nurture the originality, appeal and content of specific works that are truly distinctive and individual. What excites me is that we have barely begun to see the wonders of what comics can do, wherever they come from.

Posted: September 27, 2009


If you found this website helpful, please support it by making a donation:

My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Featured Books


As Viewed By
12 Creators

Great Catsby
by Doha

Run, Bong-Gu, Run
by Byun Byung-Jun

Buja’s Diary
by Seyeong O

The Color of Earth
by Kim Dong Hwa

Comfort Women
Jung Kyung-a

Colour of Skin: Honey
by Jung

Under the Wolf’s Skin
by Chiu Juhyun

Same Difference
& Other Stories

by Derek Kirk Kim

Demon Warrior
by Jae-hak Lee

The Wild
by Tae-san Chang

Trickster King Monkey
by Hyung-Jong Choi

Priest, King of Hell
by Min-Woo Hyung

by Myung Jin Lee

Mythology of the Gods
by Hyun-se Lee

by Hyun-se Lee