IN LATE 2019, the story of a Korean “comfort woman” made a number of lists of the best comics and graphic novels of the year. This benign moniker, of course, belies the horrors experienced by these women. Authored by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and translated by Janet Hong, Grass (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019) depicts the life of Granny Lee Ok-sun, a woman forced into sexual slavery as a girl during the Imperial Japanese Army’s World War II occupation of Korea. Lee’s life transforms across black-and-white panels in which darkness swallows characters as they endure brutality and bright white spaces offer a biting reprieve.
Since its publication, Gendry-Kim’s novelization of Granny Lee’s harrowing story has received sparkling reviews and international praise and won several book awards, including the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year. Grass’s success was noteworthy in that this was a relatively new level of acclaim for a manhwa, the Korean word for comics.
Manhwa have been around for a while, with elements of manhwa making their way into Western comics and animation since the 1970s. Sanho Kim, considered the first manhwa artist in the United States, brought his manhwa art style to his work with Marvel Comics, where he was a penciller and inker for Monsters Unleashed (1973) and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (1974). Animation studios — think Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and your other Hanna-Barbera favorites — relied heavily on outsourcing their work to Korean artists to keep up with production demands.
Meanwhile, South Korean mass culture began emerging from the background as United States audiences gained wider knowledge of the country’s film industry, beginning with Kang Je-gyu’s live-action film Shiri (1999). Shiri fused Hollywood tough-guy action with Korean ideals and ushered in the hallyu, or Korean Wave. Major American manga distributor Tokyopop capitalized on this Korean cultural uptick by including manhwa among its serialized titles. Tokyopop’s prominence bolstered manhwa’s Western readership and opened a door for manhwa publishers such as Central Park Media, ICEkunion, and DramaQueen. These publishers had varying degrees of success, and their decline signaled a precipitous drop in the manhwa publishing industry. Hachette’s imprint Yen Press absorbed ICEkunion, while Central Park Media and DramaQueen filed for bankruptcy years later.
Webtoons became manhwa’s salvation. These digitalized, full-color comics were easier to read than traditional Japanese manga, which was read right-to-left. Webtoons were optimized for reading on a smartphone, essentially providing an infinite vertical panel or strip instead of multiple pages. The digitalized manhwa also skirted South Korean censorship standards, featuring more violent and pornographic content. LINE Webtoon and NETCOMICS set the stage for digitalized manhwa. In 2004, JunKoo Kim started LINE Webtoon (marketed as WEBTOON) in South Korea. WEBTOON gained rapid success by publishing manhwa daily. The following year, Netcomics, founded in the United States by Heewoon Chung, distributed serialized webtoons focused on romance and action. Most titles were in English, and consumers had to rent or buy them.
Webtoons changed the landscape of comics consumption. They provided a convenient entertainment form left unfilled by manga, and in the process, they thrived, keeping pace with the times by transforming in step with smartphone development. The popularity of webtoons rose in the early aughts and has been increasing ever since. In 2014, WEBTOON launched a global website and mobile app service that completely revolutionized how the comics world reads for entertainment. Kim reported that WEBTOON was used in 60 countries and had 55 million monthly users. It was also averaging 100 billion annual views.
Webtoons undoubtedly buoyed manhwa’s part in the Korean Wave. In 2019, The Japan Times reported that the growing popularity of webtoons had not only made digitalized manhwa competitive, but that the form was “overshadowing the global presence of manga.” Yet manhwa is still not as well known to Western audiences as the latest Bong Joon-ho movie, K-pop lyric, or Korean street food.
The omnipresence of its Japanese counterpart was the reason Tokyopop initially seized the opportunity to publish manhwa. It seems logical to think that manhwa would have a similarly ubiquitous presence as manga. And given the longevity and recent expansion of the hallyu — signified by the crossover success of pop band BTS and four Academy Awards (including Best Picture) for Bong’s Parasite (2019) — it’s surprising how little attention manhwa still receives, especially in print.
Manhwa has a rich and diverse literary history. Both manhwa and manga are cognates of manhua, the Chinese term for comics. Manhwa arose from Japanese influences during the country’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The presence of comics and cartoons fluctuated during the occupation. Social criticism found an outlet in political manhwa until government authorities began to censor and shut down media outlets expressing opposing views. Children’s cartoons rose from their smoldering ashes after Korea’s liberation in 1945, giving way to the comics craze that spiked afterward.
Manga was the blueprint for more than just manhwa’s name. Manhwa’s artistic stylings incorporate the aesthetics of its more popular manga counterpart to the point that it’s easily possible to pick up a copy of manhwa believing that it’s the latter. And like Japanese manga, Korean manhwa is often associated with a youthful audience. There are, to be sure, subgenres and classifications for children, preteen boys, girls, and young adults. Yet, like manga, manhwa also cater to adult audiences and have a significant adult readership.
While comics make up the majority of the genre, moreover, manhwa also includes unserialized graphic novels and memoirs. Yeon-sik Hong, a comics artists and graphic novelist, explains:
It was around this time, in the early 2000s, that many cartoonists became dissatisfied […] and broke away from scroll/webtoon style comics and educational comics. They began to focus on telling their own stories and exploring their inner lives and thus began to gain attention from readers.
These narrative forms often vary more than serialized comics in the manga-like way characters are drawn, while retaining elements of the traditional manhwa art style. They also touch on the complexities of life’s pleasures and pains in a way that expands on the potential of the manhwa comics-verse, as in Gendry-Kim’s Grass. One of the biography’s most fascinating elements is how Gendry-Kim illustrates difficult subjects with such care that scenes sketched in sharp lines and panels of deep black hold the narrative’s poignancy just above the surface of being oppressive. Like the best manga, the best manhwa situate readers in a detailed setting, play with mood, and tell stories in ways that go beyond captions and speech bubbles.
In Uncomfortably Happily (Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, tr. Hellen Jo), Yeon-sik Hong writes about life with his wife in the rural countryside of Seoul, South Korea. Hong’s minimalist detail speaks volumes as he enjoys snowy walks with his wife and languid swims in a nearby pond, wrestling with the anxieties of marriage, new parenthood, and imposter syndrome. One striking panel features several of Hong’s busts, all wearing different expressions, in a Where’s Waldo? of his clamoring mind. Hong followed his debut with Umma’s Table (2020, tr. Janet Hong), which portrays the challenges aging presents to traditions and kinship ties — told in the story of feline-humanoid Madang and his elderly parents. But it’s the joy of cooking (and Hong’s love for kimchi) that is most palpable from page to page of this book.
In a different register, Hyun Sook Kim and Ryan Estrada’s Banned Book Club (Iron Circus Comics, 2020), with art by Hyung-Ju Ko, is a young woman’s coming-of-age story set during the 1980s, when South Korea was ruled by an authoritarian regime. Kim and Estrada strike a balance between the more youthful elements of manhwa stylizations and the serious nature of the book’s depiction of torture, police brutality, and protest. Interestingly, Estrada is a Michigan-born artist based in Busan, South Korea, with a career trajectory that suggests the increasingly global reach of manhwa.
Canadian comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, which played a major role in bringing manga to North American audiences, has more recently emerged as a regular publisher of stand-alone manhwa graphic novels and memoirs. Their collection is small but mighty in range. Uncomfortably Happily and Umma’s Table touch on life’s varied beginnings and endings, and the hilly landscapes of parenthood. Bad Friends (2018) by Ancco, also translated by Janet Hong, is about the agony of adolescence, surviving abuse, and terrible friendships. Yeong-shin Ma’s Moms (2020), translated by Janet Hong as well, navigates the romances, unfulfilling jobs, and shifting identities of four South Korean mothers — one of whom is based on Ma’s own mother. HIV, toxic relationships, and alcoholism take center stage in Ancco’s cuttingly honest and mostly autobiographical story collection Nineteen (2020), again translated by Hong. As Tokyopop and other publishers did during the early stages of the Korean Wave, Drawn & Quarterly is investing in manhwa.
Manhwa graphic novels and memoir present a unique opportunity. These narrative forms build on the genre’s traditional roots while expanding its literary and cultural impact. They have the potential to become vanguards for a new aspect of the hallyu. What I find most attractive about manhwa graphic novels and memoirs is that they connect to major zeitgeists beyond South Korea. These relate to friendships and loneliness, the pressing weight of incurable diseases, the passions of body and spirit, and distresses that strengthen global connectivity. As North American graphic novels once did, they tap into and expand the range of comics as an art form.