SEOUL, South Korea — In his bag, Park Jae Dong always carries a fine-point ink brush. The mellow, aging artist speaks in few words, preferring to communicate through Korean cartoons, or manhwa, which have gained such popularity across Asia in recent years.

When his fans approach him, he pulls out the brush — smirking, like it's a new idea each time — and strokes little streams furiously onto cardboard, arriving at an impromptu self-caricature with his signature below. Tough work for a national icon.

But that’s good news. In recent years Korean manhwa has reached a peak in popularity. That comes as Japanese and American comics — once dominant across the world comic book market — are losing their clout, reflected in their slumping sales and re-branding to the film and video game industries.

Since 1995, Japanese manga sales have more than halved, thanks in part to an aging fanbase that’s looking for something new. Unlike Japan’s gritty post-apocalyptic mangas for teenagers, manhwas are full of realistic dramas for aging fans, touching on adult themes like domestic violence, romance and gender inequalities.

Korean comic books

A replica of a Korean comic book store from the 1970s.
(Geoffrey Cain/GlobalPost)

Enter the “Korean Wave,” the recent trend of South Korean cultural exports gaining popularity abroad. Just a few decades ago, South Korea was a poor and isolated country, ruled by a military government that stifled pop culture. But Korea’s rapid growth, political liberalization and wiring to the Internet have spurred the creation of television shows, movies and magazines that have found new markets around the world.

Last month, one publisher announced it would sell manhwa in North Africa, a first after expanding into North and South America and Europe earlier this decade.

Yet manhwa wasn’t always like this. In Park’s golden years, the art was often a political tool used by dissidents and government officials. His fame came in the 1980s for lampooning his country’s military regimes in the Hangyeore Sinmun, South Korea’s first left-leaning political newspaper. With the fall of military rule in 1993 and subsequent economic growth, Park’s art form has moved away from politics and into today’s youth tastes for entertainment.

The first manhwas were drawn in 1909 to criticize the colonial Japanese administration. But they didn’t become widespread until Park Chung Hee launched a coup d’etat in 1961 against a nine-month-old parliamentary government, imposing authoritarian rule in order to build South Korea into an industrial powerhouse. Park curtailed freedom of speech, jailing dissenters under the slightest suspicions. Life for many South Koreans meant suffering, and manhwa gave them a reason to cheer up.

Knowing this, the government encouraged publishers to create myongnang manhwa, or patriotic “cheerful comics,” according to The Korea Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes Korean culture. Publishers jumped on the bandwagon, opening presses across Seoul and distributing the comics to all audiences.

Comic-book magazines catered to children, depicting unpatriotic, mischievous characters receiving justice and mocking the leaders of North Korea. Alongside the cheerful comics, South Korea saw an influx of pirated Japanese mangas during the 1970s, adding to the popularity of comic books.

The country’s export-led growth under Park Chung Hee peaked, and in the 1970s the young, educated middle class felt the time was approaching for the political system to open up as the economy had. Thanks to manhwa’s growing popularity, artists saw they could humorously use it against the government. After the student protests in the 1970s, manhwa shifted away from cheerful themes toward dark humor.

Many stories were highly taboo in Korean society, such as those depicting the urban underclass that benefited little from the country’s development, as well as gender inequalities and South Korea’s rapid economic growth set against repressive political rule. Artwork became more realistic, and storylines more oriented toward adults.

A Daunting Team, published in 1983, set the standard for the 1980s, what artists now call manhwa’s golden age. The comic book depicted a scruffy baseball player, Kkachi, who defied authority during the dictatorial regime of Chun Doo Hwan — the military ruler between 1980 and 1988 who continued the repressive policies of Park Chung Hee. Kkachi was an average kid whose rebelliousness fueled his baseball talents and earned him success.

Koreans wanted to see more characters like Kkachi, average people whose hard work, not their connections, catapulted them to stardom. Artists like Heo Youngman, Lee Hyun-se, and Park Bong-seong took the cue and molded characters who rose from extreme poverty to achieve success in government and business, often against the wishes of fictional aristocrats. Government censors, however, feared that such stories would taint South Korea’s image before the Seoul Olympic Games of 1988 and cracked down on the publishers. Pirated, underground comic books became common.

But when presidents made democratic reforms in the early 1990s, cartoonists said there was little left to satirize. They widened the scope of manhwa to general entertainment, like ghost stories, zombies, science fiction and romance. Call it a reflection of Korea’s changing national pulse — a country that decades ago was one of the poorest in the world, now curious but wary of what the 21st century will bring. “We have democracy now, so manhwa has become more diverse,” said Kim Dong-hwa, head of the Korean Cartoonists Association.

Now artists are feeling the effects of free online content, despite manhwa’s growing popularity. Ten million Koreans read free web comics, while only 3 million choose to pay, according to the Korean Culture and Content Agency, a government-affiliated body that promotes Korean arts around the world.

In the past two years, at least 10 Korean cartoon magazines have stopped publication due to a lack of subscribers. South Korea only has 12 such magazines now, compared to 300 in Japan. Kim Donghwa, head of the Korean Cartoonists’ Association, remarked that many Koreans view manhwa as something that should be free.

Yet manhwa is hardly dying. When Park oversaw the opening of a manhwa museum in September, thousands of fans showed up. Park is doing quite well, teetering in the film and print industries. But today, he’s widened his political focus to more general strips about the excesses of modern life for South Koreans: He satirizes the country's high suicide rate, gender discrimination and the often unrealistic pressures on students to perform well.

“My work became famous because people could laugh when political events were very serious,” he suggests. “All people are half emotional, half logical. My job is to help them find their emotions.”

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