Manhwa 100: A New Era for Korean Comics
KOCCA
252 pages/color
softcover/$19.99
978-1-60009-951-9

At least two of my favorite comics of the last few years have been Korean — Jung-Hyun Uhm’s gentle, low-key romance Forest of Gray City and Sooyeon Won’s brutal, melodramatic yaoi Let Dai. So I was curious to learn more about the manhwa (Korean comics) scene.

Unfortunately, this little volume is not quite what I was hoping for. Manhwa 100 is only a book in the loosest sense that it’s got a binding and a price tag. In its soul, it’s a glorified catalog put together by the Korean Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA) to promote Korean culture. To that end, a couple of short introductory essays are provided. In one, Korean comics creator (or manhwaga) Lee Hyun-se says he doesn’t think manhwa should be discussed in terms of manga, then proceeds to compare the two anyway while balancing a chip on his shoulder that looks to be roughly the size of a particularly glutinous giant panda who has just been force-fed every volume of Ranma 1/2. In another short essay, Kim Hyun-joo, a Tokyopop editor, talks about how great manhwa is, and then encourages Korean creators to dumb down their work for an international market by dumping the untranslatable wordplay and shortening the stories, since audiences are driven away by series which “drag on and on” (like Naruto?)

The bulk of the book, though, is made up of two page profiles of 100 different manhwa titles. Two or three illustrations are provided for each, and many look intriguing — the image provided for Marley’s Dokebi Bride for example, uses a striking combination of solid colors over subtle patterns to render a traditional folk dress in a style more evocative of (first rate) children’s book illustration than of your typical shojo.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a real sense of the various series’ strengths and weaknesses from the provided text. In part, that’s because the capsules are puff pieces, not reviews. In part, though, it’s because the English is…well, better than my Korean, but still a little shaky. For example, in the review of Chonchu, we are earnestly informed that: “Its characters are also very expressive. They are portrayed effectly to show whether they represent the good or the evil. Whichever side they are, they all boast well-built bodies and formidable costumes.” I do not think that word means what you think it means….

As a promotional tool, the book could work well enough; I went right over to Amazon and purchased the first volume of Dokebi Bride, and I suspect I’ll find other reasons to open my wallet as I continue to browse around. I’m certainly happy to have received it free as a review copy. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone is going to want to spend $20 on what is essentially an extended advertisement, no matter how thoroughly unanticipated the prose has been making itself.
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This review first appeared in The Comics Journal.

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