There’s more to Korean comics than webtoons. While vertical-scroll digital comics have surged in popularity among English speakers since the Netcomics, Webtoon, and Tapas Media platforms started publishing Korean comics in English, the growth in popularity of print manhwa (the Korean term for comics) in North America has been more of a slow burn.
While manhwa overall remains a small category in the print comics world, the category is growing in the North American marketplace. Drawn and Quarterly has published several manhwa a year since 2017, and their 2019 manhwa, Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, a powerful story of sexual slavery during WWII, won the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year and was nominated for two Eisner awards. Chugong’s Solo Leveling, an action fantasy manhwa that started out as an online webtoon, has been a bestseller in print for Yen Press. Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada with art by Hyung-Ju Ko, a memoir of Sook’s college years under a repressive Korean government, was published by Iron Circus Comics and nominated for an Eisner Award this year. And in August, Ablaze Comics will publish the first volume of the action manhwa The Breakers, by Jeon Guk-jin and Kamaro, as a 400-page omnibus.
The growing popularity of Korean culture has also given manhwa a boost. In November, Dark Horse will publish the first volume of Yeon Sang-Ho and Choi Gyu-Seok’s The Hellbound, a popular horror tale which is being adapted into a live-action film by Netflix; and Yeon is the director and screenwriter of the zombie film Train to Busan. Last year, Bong Joon-Ho combined the storyboards and script for his 2019 Oscar Award-winning film Parasite into a graphic novel, which was published by Hachette.
Drawn and Quarterly’s manhwa list has grown steadily since the house published Yeon-sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily, the story of an urban couple that moves to the country, in 2017. Since then, D&Q has published Hong’s Umma’s Table, a story about the ways cooking brings a family together, as well as two books that look at young Korean women, Nineteen and Bad Friends by Ancco, and Yeong-Shin Ma’s Moms, a funny book about middle-aged women reexamining traditional Korean notions around romance and sex. In October D&Q will follow up Gendry-Kim’s Grass by publishing The Waiting, in which she tells the story of a family separated during the Korean War.
Drawn and Quarterly senior editor Tracy Hurren told PW that she first encountered Uncomfortably Happily in a French translation in the Drawn and Quarterly bookshop, but since then she has worked with Janet Hong, who not only translates manhwa into English but also works with D&Q find new titles. “Once you have a Korean translator, it is much easier to do research,” said Hurren. “I can send her covers of books I’ve found in Korea, where the art looks interesting, and she can read them. She has also spent a lot of time in Korea and in bookstores, so she is able to find works and send them to me so we can discuss them.”
What Hurren discovered, she told PW, is a rich landscape of literary manhwa. “There seem to be a lot of cartoonists producing very idiosyncratic single author, single vision types of books, the kind of books that Drawn and Quarterly publishes,” said Hurren. “That has been interesting to discover, and our cartoonists also have been able to tell us who their favorite Korean cartoonists are, so we have been able to put together a sort of rough map.”
Yen Press editor-in-chief Ju-Youn Lee, who grew up in Korea, was a voracious manga reader as a child and later became an editor working in the Korean comics industry. “I basically grew up reading manhwa,” she said. “In the early 1990s, soonjung manhwa—or, comics for girls—had its boom, with so many manhwa magazines, and I think I read them all.” While webtoons, native digital comics designed to be read on mobile devices, have replaced the print comics she once read and edited, Lee says, “It’s just a different format. There is a huge variety of genres from slice of life to high fantasy. The big titles right now seem to be fantasy titles such as Solo Leveling or romances.”
Yen Press launched in 2006 with a list that included both manga and manhwa. “I was in charge of a publishing program that was a consortium of the three largest manhwa publishers before joining Yen, which I actually brought over with me,” said Lee. “So all the books came under the Yen umbrella, and we continued books like Goong by Park So-Hee, Angel Diary by Lee Yoon-hee and Kara, Bring It On! by Hye-Kyung Baek, and so forth. They all did pretty well, but I think Jack Frost by Jinho Ko [a paranormal adventure] was definitely one of our best sellers at the time.”
During the manga boom of the early 2000s, most of the publishers who were licensing manhwa were also American manga publishers, including Tokyopop, Central Park Media, and DramaQueen. When manga sales dropped sharply in 2008, many of them suspended operations or went out of business altogether, and new manhwa became a rarity.
Now, however, manhwa is coming into its own as a creative medium in North America, not as a manga also-ran but as part of a rich cultural scene that broadly reflects on the art and artists of Korea. “We were fortuitous in the moment when we started publishing these comics,” said Hurren. “I think we have seen a surge in the popularity of K-pop, films like Parasite, and from a literary perspective, we have seen literary fiction from Korea and about Korea having a moment too, like Han Kang’s Vegetarian and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. I think there was a bit of a cultural moment and excitement for the content coming out of Korea.”