Why is Manhwa not as popular as Manga?

Today I spent a good deal of time reading some manhwa, or Korean comics., and began pondering why the form is not quite as popular as manga.

I.N.V.U. Vol. 1

I.N.V.U. by Kim Kang Won, one of the first manhwa published in the U.S.

I have to admit, I don’t read much manhwa. There’s something about it that doesn’t connect with me as much as manga does,  although there are certainly some series that I really really enjoy. I decided to think about it some more and realized that the source of my lack of interest was really childish.

Basically, I was kind of a purist when U.S. publishers began releasing manhwa. I read manga and only manga. I didn’t really get introduced to American comics other than Archie and Friends until a few years later and manga was what it was all about for me. Manhwa was, in my eyes, a cheap imitation.

I can imagine how a similar mindset amongst manga fans would prevent a fairly good number of people from purchasing manhwa, but U.S. publishers have still had fairly successful manhwa releases with titles like I.N.V.U. and Demon Diary.

I thought more about why I’m not as fond as manhwa. I decided that a lot of manhwa come off as a little shallow to me. I can honestly say that I wish the series I’ve read just went a little bit deeper, even though I’m a huge fan of most of them. I sort of feel like I’m generalizing here, so I hope in the future I can read more manhwa to prove myself wrong, but…

Manga can get pretty deep, even if the reader is not expecting it or does not realize it at the time. Manhwa, I’ve found, pretty much focuses on rather petty dramatic issues.

For example, in a typical high school romance manga, a girl will try to find a deeper connection with the boy she likes by spending time with him and going through various trials and tribulations together. We get to really know both of them in this way and it creates an atmosphere of closeness between the readers and the characters so that our emotions ride along with their’s as the story progresses.

The same high school romance in manhwa won’t really show you all those high and low points, but will extensively cover the lengths at which the girl pursues a guy. This includes all the craziness that goes on inside a girl’s head (admittedly, that part is spot on,) the drama being boy-crazy creates and the wacky hijinks that ensue. I’ve found, more often than not, that this results in the potential couple fighting.  If there’s anything I REALLY don’t like, it’s two people arguing with each other over very silly things.

Which actually leads me to a strange conclusion here that may have to do with my own personal issues than actual fact. I don’t like to deal with couples arguing extensively with each other because my parents do it all the time.  Their’s is pretty much my stereotype of a bad relationship.

I imagine that, in a country with such a high divorce rate, other American manga fans have also been subjected to parents fighting over stupid things.  Why would American kids want to relate to people who constantly fight like their parents do? They probably don’t, so they probably don’t spend their money on manhwa. (Divorce in Korea is still pretty taboo. I wouldn’t find it too surprising if husbands and wives put up with fighting with each other because getting divorced would make them lose face. Thus, Korean kids are probably less likely to associate such fighting with something as traumatic as divorce.)

That being said, it’s really just a theory. I don’ t really have a way to prove it, but it’s an interesting thought.

Also, I don’t want to discourage any one from reading manhwa. I personally like The Queen’s Knight, I.N.V.U. and Tarot Cafe quite a bit and I would love it if Tokyopop continued to publish them. The manhwa I was reading today, Please, Please Me was hilarious and reminded me of wacky josei manga aimed at young professional women. (I am a HUGE fan of josei manga.)  I do wish good manhwa would get more love…

But I also wish they’d stop fighting…

ETA: There’s been some internet discussion about this post, so if you’d like to continue the discussion about manhwa, here’s the next post!

Related Links:

An article about manhwa that was probably written by one of my old bosses at Tokyopop

Wikipedia article about manhwa and its origins

Please, Please Me by Kisun (There’s a free preview of the first chapter!)

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28 Responses to Why is Manhwa not as popular as Manga?

  1. Rachel says:

    Hey there! I definitely understand how there may be a stigma about Korean vs Japanese graphic novels. (I actually employ that stigma more with American-made manga, a knee-jerk reaction I’m trying to lose.) However, I want to note that there are Japanese manga titles that also focus on petty drama, and not even in a particularly realistic way. _The Gentleman’s Alliance Cross_ has gorgeous art, but some of the interactions and incidents between the characters are just too over the top to have any sort of authenticity to me, and so the drama does seem petty. And as you’ve stated, we have seen really good manhwa titles that are more than petty drama. All this being said, Korean manhwa does seem to have a TON of emotional drama compared to most manga titles, so while I don’t think your theory is on the mark, I do think it has weight.

    Manhwa has absolutely stunning art, “Bride of the Water God” being my favorite example. I hope they pick up in popularity so more people can enjoy the artwork.

    • I definitely agree with you on the fact that manga does include petty emotional drama, but I don’t see it employed quite as often as in manhwa. But, like I said, I definitely don’t think my theory is complete or even very valid. I was really just trying to determine a possible cause as to why me and other manga fans aren’t as enthusiastic about manhwa. We’re actually on the same wave-length here…
      I honestly thought Bride of the Water God wasn’t as good as everyone was telling me it was, but then again I read it ages ago. I should really read it again.

  2. Connie says:

    Interesting post. Do you read Japanese or Korean, by any chance? I’m wondering how constrained a sense of manga or manhwa might be by what the English-language licensing market is, or by what scanlating groups choose to pick up.

    • I do read Japanese, but rather poorly. My infatuation with Korean culture is rather recent, so I haven’t quite had the chance to study it. I plan to do so in the future. Like I said in the post, I haven’t been able to read much manhwa, at first for my own stupid reasons and now because times are tough. It’s really just a matter of what I can steal from my friends or find online at this point, but I want to read more manhwa and more manga very soon.

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  4. Oliver says:

    Yes, I have tried to read manhwa, too, but I don’t dislike it for the same reasons as yours.

    For me, there are many manga series on bookshelves and they are way more flashy titles that scream “Buy me!” then any manhwa.

    I would say I’m tired of Japanese school girl romances and I DO think that manhwa romances can get into more depth, heartache, and drama then most manga.

    Manga sometimes seems like a machine made to churn out the same cookie-cutter characters and stories that’ll make the artists and companies money. How many Japanese school-girl romances are there? You couldn’t even count it on a millipedes’ legs. I had a mixed experience in high school and felt it a little too cliquish to act normally, so I don’t want to be reminded of that experience.

    Also, the characters’ problems are very “high school” themselves as they never experience anything of substance like what you would read in Josei. Fruits Basket goes into depth, but it’s not your typical manga.

    • Hmm that’s a very valid point. Manhwa doesn’t quite stand out as much as manga. Perhaps it’s because of all the saturation manga and because we’ve come to know certain Japanese artists very well. Manhwa doesn’t have that same kind of artist recognition since consumers aren’t quite as familiar with it. (I’ve found this to be true of Korean culture in general.)

      I can totally understand being tired of school girl romances. They are a dime a dozen these days and, yes, they are much like a machine. Let’s face it, it’s this way because the U.S. market caters to teenage girls. They have the money and this is what a lot of them want to see. I would love to see shojo cover some of the same life issues that josei does, but when you think about it, if shojo did that, it would more or less be josei.

      That being said, a lot of the manhwa romances I’ve read really only get the depth, heartache and drama because someone starts something. Hali Kang and Hajun Cho from I.N.V.U. especially come to mind. A lot of their relationship is about them fighting with each other because Hali wants Hajun to be her boyfriend. As you can imagine, being repeatedly spurned like Hali is often leads to a lot of heartache and drama. Does that equal depth to me? No, not really. It reminds me a lot more of my bad high school romances than high school romance manga does.

      Anyways, if you’d like to read a “high school romance” manga that isn’t quite like most, may I suggest Shinobi Life? I think, for all it’s zany-ness, it does quite a good job at getting to the real issues at hand in the story instead of following the typical route or centering around the way school life works in Japan.

  5. minikui says:

    you might want to try “Shin Angyo Onshi”. It’s series by a korean author and artist, published in Japan. And it is one of the best mangas I ever read.

    Personally I believe that there are just as many shallow and bad mangas as there are manhwas. But with mangas we have a bigger choice xD So far I also found most of the manhwas I read very shallow and clicheed (Boy Princess was extremely funny though), but I’m sure there are really good ones out there as well. I just haven’t found them yet. Apart from Shin Angyo Onshi 😉

    • Ooo! Actually! I have seen the Shin Angyo Onshi movie that they made. It was a number of years ago, but I really loved it! I didn’t even know it was a manga! I will check it out for sure! Thank you for the suggestion and the feedback. ^_^

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  7. TSK says:

    You definitely need to check out more series…This type of post just shows your lack of experience with Korean manhwa and graphic novels in general. Unfortunately, alot of the really great ones aren’t license over at the US. Some of the best ones are actually webcomics (Korean manhwa publishing industry is going down but the webcomics are doing surprisingly well – Koreans are truly turning it into their own art.) Some examples are Kang Full’s comics (Soon Jung Manhwa, I love You, Babo, etc), The Great Catsby (this author’s stuff is AMAZING as well… his works are VERY deep and the artwork is amazingly detailed…), Welcome to 305 (addressing homosexuality (NOT addressing yaoi, real homosexuality within Korean culture which is considered super taboo with humor), and SamBong Barbershop (addressing people’s superficiality)

    • TSK says:

      OH and since you work at tokyopop, check out Aspirin – it’s printed there and its not deep but it is one of my favorite manhwa… ever… It’s just so light and funny.. and weird…

    • I definitely need to check out more manhwa, but I am trying to gain more experience and that is the reason for this blog. I’ll check out Aspirin and some of the other manhwa you’ve suggested.

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  9. Ashen says:

    I can definitely sympathize and understand where you’re coming from with the manhwa vs manga discussion.

    Admittedly, I’ve been very similar for a long time. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve come to discover a handful of ‘hidden gems’ per se in the Korean comics market. Namely “One Fine Day,” “Black God,” “Angel Diary,” and “Legend.”

  10. Megami says:

    I think manhwa is poor …and i will still love manga !..

  11. Guest says:

    Manga was around for ages and it’s been selling around the globe and it looks way better than manhwa. I mean, Japanese popular culture more popular worldwide than Korean pop culture.

  12. Lisa says:

    Manhwa or korean comics in general have been around for a long while so theyre not cheap imitations…

    But i get your drift. I listen to kpop and only kpop no matter how good a jpop song might be because im biased. Same with dramas or variety shows.

    But have you read stuff like Flowers Of Evil by lee hyun sook (i think)? That stuff gets pretty deep. The storylines arent always so cliche.

  13. lovelyduckie says:

    “Basically, I was kind of a purist when U.S. publishers began releasing manhwa. ”

    Hahahaha me too! I believe Demon Diary is what got me warmed up to manhwa, now I have quite a few manhwa series I read and enjoy. I think Angel Diary is my current favorite, BUT in general I have a higher (enjoyment) success rate with manga. One issue that’s a bit hard for me to overcome in manhwa is the art style. Back when I read just manga I thought that I was able to overcome how girlie some bishie characters look. But in quite a few manhwa series the men are drawn with such detailed beauty I have a harder time looking at them and seeing them as men. I love horror manga…but the characters that have made me shiver in discomfort the most are from a romance manhwa (specifically Goong). In Goong there is a manhwa character version of Prince William that feels weird, as well as a little servant guy. But on the flip side…the female characters are often drawn with such ornate beauty on the cover pages that I can’t tear my eyes away from it (ex: Bride of the Water God).

    Just this year I’ve started tring out some comics too, so far Chew is the series I like the best. Even though it can get a bit gross at times. I’m trying to be more open minded lately about what I’ll try out.

    • I really like some manhwa, particularly some of the more josei stuff from Netcomics and the stuff iSeeToon puts out (warning: I’ve worked on some manhwa for iSeeToon), but I definitely agree with you on some of the romance manhwa. It’s kind of hard to look at some times in an inexplicable way. I have no problem with titles like Queen’s Knight or I.N.V.U., but some other artists’ styles look too garish to me.

      I also find that some of the romance manhwa is just too petty for me, which I had addressed in this post, but it turned out I was looking as manhwa as a whole.

      As for comics, I love comics! I got started on comics as a kid through Archie. When I discovered manga, it was like everything I wanted from Archie but couldn’t get because of the wholesome nature of that franchise. I still read a wide variety of comics, mostly of the graphic novel/small press sort with a few Vertigo or DC titles mixed in.

  14. not all manhwa is cheap and crappy, take Ragnarok: Into The Abyss for example. that was one of the greatest comic titles in history, and it was published as a MANHWA rather than a MANGA because the author was Korean and not Japanese.

  15. manhwareader says:

    I dont think you’re talking about “manhwa” to be exact. You’re only talking about “shoujo manhwa” or “josei manga”, which i will admit is usually really crappy, both in art and plot. They’re highly superficial. If, however, you’re considering manhwa as a whole there are some really amazing ones. There’s Noblesse. Fairy Tale for the Demon Lord, and one of my favorites, Annarasumanara (which is a shoujo but its incredibly unique). Since you seem to be a shoujo fan i suggest you read Annarasumanara, but i’m warning you beforehand that it deals with very complex issues so if you dont understand the meaning behind it it’ll just seem odd to you and you wont like it. Btw all of the above are web manhwas. That means the writer posts them online for free. Might i add that web manhwas are usually fifty times better than most published mangas and manhwas, which sometimes makes you feel guilty that the artists arent receiving any money for their work. If you’re looking for something lighter though i suggest you read these web manhwas: The Old dog and the Young Cat, Nineteen Twenty one, Speak Through Colors. I wont bother ranking any of the works i’ve listed so far because all of them are highly recommended and will change your view of manhwas entirely. Hope i helped 🙂

  16. laniessa says:

    The main reason why I usually stick to Japanese manga is because of the art – I find it hard to take shoujo manhwa characters seriously when they look so… old-shoujo, and I usually laugh during the serious scenes, which isn’t… well. I’m a bit biased towards comics with good art since I’m a (wannabe) artist and art is important to me.

    Shoujo manhwa seem to stick to that art-style, while more shoujo manga are switching to the moe-bandwagon now (Hiyokoi, Stardust Wink, Watashi Ni xx Shinasai, etc.), so I happen to read manga more than manhwa.

    Another important thing is the amount of manga to manhwa. If a manga sucks, it gets pushed aside and a better one takes over, and by the time it reaches us, the worse mangas are already out and we see mainly the better ones, while the less amount of manhwa means that we see both the better ones and the worse ones. …maybe? I’m just assuming here, so yeah.

    And then there’s just the fact that most of us are more used to manga so the vibes of manhwa might just feel completely off. We don’t understand their culture as much, their names feel weird (for me, at least,) and like you wrote, we don’t like their bickering too much (in kdramas, we find that most rom-coms are just ‘2 people hate each other, someone falls for each other, something significant happens, someone finally confesses, happily ever after with some petty, meant for comedy fights. That’s most of them, from what I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t many. Those dramas are popular, so the conclusion is that the Korean audience like that.) and we find it harder to relate to the characters for that reason. Another thing that bugged me about shoujo manhwas are how petty the rivals are. They don’t have any redeeming points and seem to exist just to pester the main character, which makes the character lack any real depth and just makes me dislike the whole manhwa in general. (It happens in manga too, like Sae to Momo in Peach Girl – I didn’t really like that manga.)

    This is just my opinion, and I’m probably wrong on many parts, but it’s not like I’m saying I hate manhwa, but why I think they don’t do as well. I’m not trying to be racist or something – I’m part Korean, but I prefer manga. …well, I haven’t read enough manhwas, so I can’t make an accurate judgement.

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