Manhwa is a term that refers to South Korean comics and illustrated narratives. The term is derived from the Chinese “Manhua”.  This style of comic was first utilized in 1909 (during this time period it was called “taumotchi”), during Japanese occupation to criticize the colonial Japanese rule, although the term manhwa itself gained usage in 1923. They appeared mostly as comic strips in newspapers and children’s periodicals, the comics themselves were mostly satirical in nature.Although the genre continued to develop, with the launch of comic only magazines (called “manhwa segye”), and the expansion into genres such as romance, sports and drama, manhwa did not become popular until 1961 during the authoritarian command of South Korea by Park Chung Hee (1950-1974). Currently, manhwa is having resurgence in popularity despite slowing demand for like genres (manga and American comics). Since 2000, the Manhwa format has largely been transferred online into “webtoons” (online comics), which are episodic in nature and free through online Korean social portals such as Naver and Daum. Children’s educational and promotional comics have also become more prevalent.

In 1961, in effort to transform the country into an industrial powerhouse, President Park imposed strict censorship and limitations on freedom of speech after the successful coup of a nine-month old congressional government. It was during this time that manhwa became popularized against the backdrop of an oppression regime. It became a relief for citizens to escape their daily lives. The government encouraged the production of these “happy comics” and publishing houses embraced this, circulating comics to a wide audience across South Korea. The creation of myongnang manhwa (or “happy comics”) provided insightful social and political commentary under a guise of diversion.

In the 1970s, the export driven South Korean economy had reached a peak. The young and educated middle class felt the need for a more open political society to match that of their economy. The happy comics of the previous era turned to dark humor, and the influx of pirated Japanese comics only served to increase to popularity of manhwa. Stories turned towards more mature themes such as the urban poor and gender inequality and the art became more realistic. The 1980s are now widely regarded as the golden age of manhwa. With the 1988 Summer Olympics looming near, the South Korean government issued a crackdown on manhwa under the dictatorship of President Chun Doo Hwan (1931-), which allowed for underground manhwa to develop.  Political Reforms in the 1990s forced manhwa artists to diversify subjects, as political oppression became a less relevant topic. The Internet, while causing certain strain on some artists has lead to increase readership for free manhwa online, while printed and paid manhwa audiences start to dwindle.

— Shelly Qiu

Further Reading