Clint Stamatovich
Clinton Stamatovich
Clinton Stamatovich, born in Bristol, Indiana, graduated with a degree in journalism from IUSB in May, 2012. He teaches English in Busan, South Korea and is a freelance writer, contributing to ARC (arc.pm) monthly. He has experimented with and enjoys poetry, essay, profile, fiction, short story, and recently a travel log of articles after a three month journey across Southeast Asia. He will be living and teaching in Korea for one year.

Manhwa: The world of comics South Korea

In South Korea, a thriving culture has formed around comic books called manhwa. Blogger Clinton Stamatovich attended an event celebrating the art form – here’s what he learned. 

Posted on July 15, 2014 at 4:17 p.m.

Twice a month in Busan, South Korea, the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO) stadium hosts Comic World, a convention for those interested in Korean comic books, web comics, webtoons and anime. I attended the 86th gathering on May 17.

By a considerable measure, the biggest crowd-drawer of the event is the cosplay. Cosplay is a performance art in which fans dress up in fictional character costumes to promote interest in series they are dressed to represent. For instance, in the U.S., many people attend Comicon dressed as superheroes such as Batman or Superman. At the BEXCO, fans wear costumes inspired by anime (Japanese animated television shows), manga (Japanese comic books) or manhwa (Korean comic books) to compete in the bimonthly contest.

The line outside the stadium snaked around six times and chiefly consisted of elementary and middle school students. It was difficult to find proper information as far as what to expect at the convention, as most mentions came from foreigner forums and blogspots. I wasn’t sure if I could expect illustrators, artists, actors or writers — the common Comicon crowd.

Fans flooded the lobby, taking pictures of elaborate costumes, having pictures taken of themselves in Cosplay garb or talking among friends. The event hall, a dimly lit, cement, rectangular room with a high ceiling, had two areas – one for trinket booths and one roped-off as a Cosplay area where attendees could get dressed and prepare.

The area for booths included close-quarter stations with large banners advertising products over tiny desks where vendors sat. There were many booths with themes I was unfamiliar with: “Mini Garret,” “Disco Drive,” “Toriko” and so on. Characters were posted on each station, ranging from cute to erotic. There were maybe two or three stations specifically for EXO (a Korean K-pop boy band) that sold CDs and caricatures of the band’s members on bookmarks and notebooks and key chains. There were also familiar booths for One Piece, Pokemon, Naruto, Spirited Away — all popular anime and manga series in the U.S. One exhibition booth, for no apparent reason, sold key chains, notebooks, pencils, etc., with cats as their theme. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any artists associated with comics or animes at the event.

There was a wide range of characters running back and forth in costume. I saw five Elsas (Frozen), soldier and naval cadet outfits, Metal Gear Solid (video game) characters, Bio Shock (computer game) characters, tons of school girl-based outfits, Naruto (manga/anime) characters and a fan dressed as Dead Pool (Marvel Comics character) wearing bunny ears. One elementary boy who walked around in a rectangular box with green and black pixels (which I think was supposed to be a nod to the game Minecraft) was my personal favorite for its homemade shabbiness.

The most popular reoccurring character was the Kumiho, which seemed to particularly appeal to young women. Kumihos are Korean supernatural shape-shifting foxes. They are a composite of older Japanese and Chinese folklore, with mostly the negative aspects of the creature translating – Kumihos are often portrayed as nine-tailed “werefoxes” that seduce men by transforming into gorgeous, womanly figures and ultimately eat their victims’ hearts or livers. Since 1994 there have been multiple Korean dramas with contemporary plots concerning the Kumiho. Those at the Busan Comic World in Kumiho costumes generally wore racier forms of Korean Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) with cat ears, whiskers drawn on their cheeks and bendable, strapped-on tails that would flair out from behind.

While I was waiting in line, I met a friendly foreigner who explained to me that since the first Comic World in 1999, sales prompted organizers to host the event more often to make a profit. He explained the focus was shifted to Cosplay, while artists, writers and actors tend to appear less regularly.

Manhwa and Animation Studios

Manhwa, in Korean culture, is an umbrella term for comics of any kind, print cartoons or illustrations. To avoid confusion, international critics of manhwa widely conside and refer to them as comics modeled after Japanese manga.

During Japan’s annex of Korea in 1910, one law implemented persecuted the free press, which received artistic backlash in comic form from Koreans. Justin Muir, in his History of Manhwa Comics, cites Imbecile’s Vain Efforts (which was made into a film), A Day of a Dummy and Adventure of a Boaster as popular comics of the time that challenged Japanese rule. Korean comics also saw censorship when strict laws were set into motion during Park Chung Hee’s leadership in the 1970s.

During the rapid economic, political and social progression that followed the Korean War, Korea put a strict ban on cultural imports from Japan so it could develop without the influence of long-standing disputes and differences with the country in mind. Muir suggests Korean manhwa developed a notable difference in theme from manga, with special attention to female characters.

When publishers adapt manhwa titles for publication in the western world, they usually group them with manga, which could attribute to foreigners confusing the two. Many Korean studios disdain the coupling of the comics, as it stunts the popularity and influence of Korean titles. However, others appreciate the mix-up, enjoying the profit of sure-fire manga sales.

In terms of style, manhwa and manga are mostly drawn and inked in black-colored issues that appear rarely. Thick lines, accentuated eyes and physical action are common for most books. Softer lines, attention to hair and dress, intricate design and enlarged eyes are a template style for manhwas targeted toward girls. It is common for manhwas to portray exaggerated, melodramatic emotions illustrated with thick lines over characters’ noses, enlarged mouths or giant tears positioned over characters’ heads.

Some manhwa titles include:

  • Kubera: a girl’s quest for revenge in a fictional world of tangible gods
  • Girls of the Wild’s: a misogynistic boy attends a high school of only girls who must battle to the death
  • Banya: the Explosive Delivery Man: a young, apolitical delivery boy battles fantastical creatures in a post-apocalyptic world
  • Bride of the Water God: a young girl in a distant historical period sacrifices herself to a water god for her people but is saved by a prince who relocates her to his kingdom, where she must adapt
  • Priest: a priest must battle demons and such after an ancient evil is released
  • Chocolat: a young girl loves a K-Pop band but cannot become a part of the official fan club, so she joins another K-Pop band’s club that tours alongside the original band

Manhwa offers a wide range of themes for all age groups that retain a common thread – a young adult main character who is featured in a kind of “coming of age” story. 

Currently webcomics and webtoons are hugely popular with Koreans, thanks to the popularity of mobile devices and smart phones. The Korean web browser Daum offers free portals to particular titles. Webcomics and webtoons are simply comics or cartoons that are published online in a public domain. The medium is wider than print, as webcomics can utilize any multimedia. Popular titles in Korea include The Great Catsby, Ability, Orange Marmalade, Noblesse and Tower of God.

Webcomics in Korea are distinctive in that no formal training or degree is required to create and publish a popular series. One example of this is Kang Do Young, a Korean webcomic artist who had no drawing or writing skills before becoming hugely popular. Since he created a hit webcomic, he has been associated with many other branches of media and has extended his celebrity to other projects.

As an aside, it is important to note that alleged artist “Banksy” created a personalized opening sequence for The Simpsons that featured workers animating the show in sweat shop-like conditions and who were implied to be Asian. The Korean workers (AKOM) that actually animated the sequence protested until parts were altered.

In fact, this stretch into other forms of media by Korean artists has led to profit in other countries – not just in terms of manhwa and K-Pop, but animation studios. With a healthy number of animation studios in Seoul and contractors searching for the cheapest routes available, many prevalent western television shows end up being animated in Korean studios. AKOM, a Seoul-based studio, lists a staggering number of animated series including The Simpsons, Batman: The Animated Series (a personal favorite), Animaniacs and X-Men. Rough Draft Korea, another studio, has animated episodes of Beavis and Butthead and Spongebob Squarepants. Korean animators, artists and writers have made a heavy impact internationally – not just in manwha and at Comic World, but on western televisions and in book stores.

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