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Manhwa and Manga: Similar but Different Art Forms

by Rebecca Silverman,

The door to English-translated manga opened in the 1980s, and despite some fits and starts, essentially never looked back. Manhwa, or Korean comics, have had a much more troubled journey to popular visibility in English. Around 2006, manhwa began to make itself known to manga readers, but as those of you who were around and reading at that point may remember, they weren't often billed as such.

The manhwa 'Model' by So-Young Lee, published by Tokyopop in 2004.

According to David Walsh in his 2007 article Warriors, Doctors, and Exploding Deliverymen, “Early Korean releases were published as manga, with no marketing effort to distinguish their true origins.” Jeremy Ross, Tokyopop's director of new product development in 2007, supported this statement, saying, “While we acknowledge the nationality of all our creators, we don't believe it should be advanced as a primary factor for categorization... Americans, for better or for worse, tend to accept only a few new foreign products or concepts at a time, and we felt we would fail if we tried to introduce to a mass audience the terms manga, manhwa, and manhua [Chinese comics]." Whether you agree with that statement or not –and certainly things have changed a lot since 2007–here in 2024 we're seeing the seeds sown by early manhwa localizers truly beginning to bear fruit. But it would be disingenuous to write off manhwa as “Korean manga” in the conceptual sense; it is a product of its own culture and brings its storytelling approach and sensibility to the table.

Part of appreciating that is wrapped up in understanding the concept of hallyu. According to Jean-Yves Colin, hallyu is the exportation of Korean pop culture, including manhwa, Kpop, and Korean TV dramas. Because of the proliferation of internet access and smartphones, these became much more accessible to anyone interested. That led to the explosion of webtoons. Those specifically have benefitted from the smartphone explosion, and sites and apps like Webtoon, Manta, Lezhin, Tapas, and others have made it even easier for people to find existing webtoons to read and to create their own. At this point, “webtoon” doesn't always refer to Korean comics, although that's still the default; series like Cursed Princess Club (Webtoon) don't originate there, and webtoon adaptations of Western properties like the Bromance Book Club (Manta) drawn by Korean creators also exist within the sphere.

An example of a scrolling panel from the webtoon, Home Plate's Villain'

So, is there a difference between a webtoon and a manhwa? “Manhwa” means comics, so while print magazines and black-and-white manhwa still exist, webtoons are still technically also manhwa. According to scholar Dalma Kálovics's article Manga Across Media, webtoons specifically refer to vertical scrolling comics, regardless of country of origin. Some visual traits of this style, apart from the use of full-color artwork, involve wide gutters and a storytelling pattern intended to “carefully create a wavelike visual flow.” (Kálovics) The idea is that the story naturally draws the eye downwards, mimicking how ancient picture scrolls would have been read in some senses. There is no page to turn, just a path to follow, and that can be very appealing and easy to read for a generation raised online.

It's not perfect, however. As an art form, webtoons eschew some of the more traditional elements of the comics medium. Kálovics points out that the format particularly endangers the two-page spread. That's something easily seen by looking at any webtoons transferred to physical pages—WEBTOON Unscrolled, Ize Press, and Seven Seas have all begun publishing physical editions of webtoons. While some work just fine—Ize, in particular, seems to have fared better with titles like The Remarried Empress and Villains are Destined to Die—looking at books like Noblesse show that the transition isn't always an easy or comfortable one. Noblesse's wide gutters, and small, staggered panels work very well online, where the blank spaces allow time for your eyes to take everything in as the screen moves downward. But in print, we're confronted with swathes of white space and images that don't read naturally when going from left to right. The entire flow of the story is lost, dragging the narrative down and making it less entertaining and engaging. Waves, after all, flow continuously, while turning pages creates an artificial break.

Also important to think about is how online serialization creates pressure on creators. In a 2019 interview with manhwaga Taeho Yoon, who transitioned from traditional manhwa to webtoons, scholar We Sung Yi pointed out, "Online serialization can increase the author's burden, from immediate reader responses to volatile political contexts.” The latter was a particular concern for Yoon, whose work is historical fiction dealing with the Korean War and Japanese colonization, but it has a broader context. We're all aware of manga series canceled early because of unenthusiastic reader responses and vituperative commentary that crops up online when readers dislike or disagree with a particular work. That's increased tenfold when readers can comment on a creator's social media and directly under a new chapter as soon as it's published. Much as writers may all tell ourselves not to read the comments, it's difficult to resist, and the pressure and self-recrimination creators can feel to appeal to their readers can be damaging.

Then, there's a specific consideration to bear in mind when discussing the differences between manga and manhwa: Korea's history with Japan. Many manga readers are aware of the atrocities perpetrated on the Koreans by the Imperial Japanese Army in the mid-twentieth century, and that has led to an uneasy relationship in pop culture comparisons. Chloé Paberz's 2020 article Communities of Craftsmen: Reflections on Japanese Manga from South Korean Manhwaga explores this in-depth, but the major takeaway is that there's a very uneasy relationship that many Koreans have with Japanese culture, popular or otherwise. It's not a monolith, and manhwa, especially in the black-and-white print magazines that were prevalent until the late 1990s when a financial crisis shuttered many, does have some distinct visual similarities to manga. But perhaps the shift to digital, full-color webtoons can be seen as a way for manhwa creators to distance themselves from manga and work in a form that is viewed as predominantly Korean.

Just some of the webtoon series hosted on Lezhin

Certainly, the structure of webtoons is distinct from the more traditional comic form seen in most manga. Along with the wave-like digital scroll, online manhwa is often divided into larger “seasons” along with shorter, more traditional chapters, and the stories don't shy away from controversial topics, sex, or gore; larger sites will have an R-rating toggle (or, like Manta, not publish the R-rated version, opting for an all-ages variation) and divide their offerings by genre. Although gender divides exist, perusing sites like Lezhin or Webtoon shows that genre categories are more prevalent, which feels more inclusive. Also, because of the online publication, creators may have more freedom to cross gender barriers and create works tailored to their individual preferences as artists, which is shown in some of the original stories. (Like manga, a fair amount of webtoons are adapted from novels, web or otherwise.) The full-color nature also allows for a lushness in the art that we don't always see in manga, although the tradeoff is that it becomes more apparent when someone is using digital assists, like filters if they're not done well.

Manga and manhwa, like comics and bandes-desinées, are two approaches to the same art form. We should be glad that more manhwa is being translated into English and other languages (both the French and Italian markets have a good amount in print), but also that the days of hiding manhwa's origins are behind us. One of the early purveyors of manhwa in English, Netcomics, is still going strong. You can see the evolution of what's being localized by browsing their site, which contains a mix of traditional manhwa and webtoons. The most important thing to remember is that neither manga nor manhwa is superior to the other. Both evolved in their respective cultures and have a lot of good stories to offer, online and in print.

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