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Meet My Korean Cousin
By Janet Houck
May 24, 2007
"Land of Silver Rain"
© Net Comics
Manwha, the Korean terms for comics (a combination of the Japanese manga and Chinese manhua), always seems to get the short end of the stick, being regarded as cheap manga knockoffs. Many people have a hard time seeing the difference between manwha and manga, as manwha is manga-inspired comics from Korean creators, with Korean sound effects, names and themes, but the name also includes Korean comics created before the manga explosion.
Korea still has a rather tentative social relationship with Japan, stemming from WWII imperialism, although modern manwha heavily borrows from manga. The manga explosion hit Korea, along with the rest of Asia, in the 80s and 90s, in the form of retouched and bootleg popular weekly manga titles. The Korean government censored the comics to remove all references to Japanese culture, with the motive of removing any lingering Japanese culture in Korea from the era of Japanese occupation and colonization. This led to many young Koreans having no idea that these comics were originally Japanese, and in the early 90s, when these restrictions were removed, many long-time readers were shocked. However, manga continued to be popular, and native artists began to imitate the manga art style in their own works.
Manwha and manga do differ in their art style. While manwha borrows manga’s “big eyes, small mouth” character design and toning, manwha tends to be closer to realism, with characters with elongated arms and legs and more realistic faces. However, male characters do tend to be more feminine than your average male manga character, perhaps as a form of female fanservice (or would that be male fanservice, as the guys get to look at another pretty “girl”). Additionally, manwha aimed at teenage girls (incidentally the majority of translated titles) has an angular style, instead of the curves and focus on “cuteness” in shojo manga. In general though, manwha tends to be more detailed than manga, with labels and signs, and detailed backgrounds and accessories.
Another point of difference between manga and manwha is its themes. Manwha tends to focus more on aesthetics, with the fictional “historical” manwha, set in a mythical Ancient Korea with magicians and warriors, and “high school” romantic dramas, set in modern Korea with a cast of beautiful young men and women. These two genres are the most popular and numerous in manwha. As Ancient Korea is closer to Chinese culture than Japanese culture, characters have elaborate costumes and Western readers are treated to an incredibly rich, yet entirely different experience. (Additionally, there are no samurai or ninjas in manwha.)
Manwha had a rather quiet entry into the American manga scene, initially being labeled under “manga,” with all Korean sound effects and any other indications of its origins erased. (Kinda like what the Korean government did, huh?) The only indication was the Korean creator’s name on the book and their biography in the book. However, as awareness of manwha has increased, publishers have become willing to label manwha for what it is, and even leaving in the original sound effects. Two companies in particular that have embraced manwha are Infinity Studios and Net Comics. Just like manga, there are a number of mediocre titles for every high-quality book. Here are some manwha titles that I’d recommend.
Land of Silver Rain (Net Comics) is a historical title, involving a human girl, Misty-Rain, who was raised by Dokebi, a magical race separate from humanity. The spell disguising her true identity is broken when she loses the trust of her protector, the King of Darkness. Thus she is cast out of her home kingdom, but all is not lost. Misty-Rain meets Sirius, the prince of the neighboring Unicorn Kingdom, who promises to marry her.
Another title involving these Korean folk tale spiritual beings is Dokebi Bride (Net Comics). Sunbi has the power to talk to spirits, just like her grandmother, a renowned shaman. However, there’s a dark side to having such powers, as Sunbi learns along with her family’s history.
The Tarot Café (TOKYOPOP) uses the tarot deck to tell a series of short stories involving supernatural beings. Pamela is a fortune teller and the owner of the café. What makes her different is that her fortunes do come true, and the price for her readings is a pearl from a mystical necklace. Set in modern times and with an elaborate gothic style, The Tarot Café is a beautiful manwha that succeeds at telling an evocative tale. Also check out Les Bijoux, a tale of the masses rising up against the ruling class, under the leadership of Lapis Lazuli, who frequently swaps her/his gender.
Pine Kiss (Net Comics) is a school-based romantic drama that easily holds its own against its manga brethren. Orion is the gorgeous new teacher, loved by “Princess” Sebin, the daughter of a gangster, and Dali, who has had a crush on Orion since she met him years ago. Each of the central characters has their own secrets, while the supporting characters aim to date the person that they want. It’s a spider web of love and hate!
So-Young Lee has two excellent series, Arcana and Model (both from TOKYOPOP). Arcana follows the path of your typical fantasy title, with the young orphan Inez, with the talent to talk to animals, sent out on a world-saving quest. If you enjoy old-school RPGs, you’ll like this. Model, on the other hand, takes a page from Anne Rice, with an artist, Jae, who sketches a drunk man that her room mate brings home one night. Then he wakes up and bites her. Our model, Michael, happens to be a vampire. In exchange for blood feeding rights, Jae gets to use Michael as her model, as he was an artist himself in his mortal life. Only naturally, love begins to spring up between them.
Priest (TOKYOPOP) is something of a rarity in manwha; a horror-western with more than a little of the supernatural. The story crosses time with the Crusades, the Wild West, and modern times, with fallen angels and demons battling for revenge, while using humans as pawns. Priest is an epic on the level of Angel Sanctuary, with love lost and God denounced.
Manwha contains some amazingly creative titles, such as The Great Catsby (originally a webcomic) and Madtown Hospital (Mad Magazine comedy in a hospital setting), both from Net Comics, and Banya the Explosive Delivery Man (Dark Horse), which takes working at FedEx to the exteme. Don’t be intimidated by the name; manwha is just as rich as its more famous cousin to the east!