Korean publishers woo overseas licensors

ICv2 has an interesting report from the Bucheon International Comics Festival (Bicof) in Bucheon, South Korea. Korea is an interesting case because it actually has a government agency, the Korea Manhwa Contents Agency, dedicated to promoting the nation's comics industry, and indeed, the manhwa (Korean comics) market is worth about U.S. $32.6 million for a population of 49 million.

While a number of American companies publish licensed manhwa, they usually don't brand it as such. Tokyopop and Central Park Media started bringing it over in the mid-2000s to supplement their manga lines, which led many fans to dismiss it as an inferior version of manga. I remember sitting in the CPM panel at NYCC in February 2007, when CPM managing director John O'Donnell asked the crowd of mostly manga and anime fans what they thought about manhwa. Hoots of derision echoed off the concrete walls as fans ticked off the things they hate about manhwa, weak art and fractured storytelling looming large among them.

But that had a lot to do with the selection available; at that time, most of the manhwa available in English were second-string genre titles, and a lot of them did look like crappy imitations of manga. What's more, people didn't have a sense of manhwa the way they do of manga; the highest-profile manhwa property in the U.S. is probably Tokyopop's Priest, especially since the movie came out this year, but people don't necessarily know it's Korean. Tokyopop made a good try by publishing a number of manhwa by Hee Jung Park that could hold their own in any selection of American indy comics, but they never found their audience, which is a shame. And no discussion is complete without a mention of Bride of the Water God, the beautifully drawn but oft-delayed series published by Dark Horse.

Since then, however, manhwa has been quietly blossoming in the U.S. Netcomics, an online manhwa site owned by the Korean company Ecomics, has done a lot to bring over quality manhwa, and series like Let Dai, Dokebi Bride, and 10, 20, and 30 have developed fan bases among English-language readers. Netcomics was one of the first online comics sites, and it avoided many of the pitfalls that manga sites are prone to for two reasons: Korean licensors are not quite so tight with the rights, and Korea is a heavily wired country where comics sites are already common, so no one was reinventing the wheel. Netcomics had been quiet for quite a while but recently started updating again.

NBM and First Second have had some success with marketing manhwa to indy comics readers, NBM with Run, Bong-Gu, Run and First Second with their Color of Earth trilogy.

The biggest print publisher of manhwa in the U.S. is Yen Press, which purchased the catalog of Ice Kunion when that company went defunct and has since brought over a number of new series—again, not specifically branded as manhwa. Their catalog includes Goong, one of the most popular girls' comics in Korea, and the violent supernatural story Jack Frost (which I hate but seems to do very well for them).

So manga is here and there, but outside of Netcomics, it's not particularly celebrated for what it is. That may be about to change, however, as the Bicof people invited a number of movers and shakers, including comiXology CEO David Steinberger, ICv2 honcho Milton Griepp, and representatives from Bluewater Comics, as well as publishers from other countries, to the festival. If you want to get ahead of the game, check out Kate Dacey's list of 10 must-read translated manhwa and follow Melinda Beasi at Manga Bookshelf, as she has a longstanding fascination with manhwa in English.

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