K-comics, a new Hallyu driver
It has been 20 years since Korea started to export culture, in addition to cars, ships and TV sets. Korean movies, dramas and pop music are now booming globally in the phenomenon called ‘Hallyu (the Korean Wave).’ More recently, Korean comics are also emerging as next Hallyu driver. Here, we will look at the present and future of K-comics and what it will take for K-comics to be a sustainable culture.
The second largest comic market
One of the most well-known accounting firms, PWC (Price waterhouse Coopers), estimates the value of the world’s comic book market to be approximately $6.014 billion. If we take a look closer, the Japanese comic market is ranked first and worth a staggering $1.921 billion, and the US market, which shares second position with Germany and France, is worth $0.651 billion. In fact, the Korean comic market is the second largest comic market by revenue, at $0.668 billion [as of 2010]. However, the fact that the Korean market is not included in the statistics means, on the one hand, that the marketing and advertising of K-comics is still lacking, and on the other hand, its potential is still promising.
Sanho, the most popular comic creator with his ‘Rayphie’ series in the 1960s, crossed over to the US in 1966. He published about 600 comic books there, including Cheyenne Kid, as an exclusive comic writer for Charlton Comics in New York. After Sanho, many Korean-American cartoonists, such as Jim Lee, Frank Cho and Jae Lee, also worked flat out. However, even though Korean comics kept knocking on the door of the US comic market with various works that included localized ones and translated ones, this ‘little-bit-different manga’ could not make a significant dent in the US. In the 1990s, Image Comics, which is well-known for Spawn, asked the Korean comic writers Jang Taesan, Kim Jaehwan and Kim Taehyeong to publish a comic series. In the 2000s, a Korean publisher, Yacom, established its US branch, named Powerhouse Entertainment, collaborating with Lee Taehaeng, Hyeong Minwoo, Gang Chanho and Seo Seungwon.
One step forward to the US, Japan and Europe
Korean comics actively entered the Japanese market, which shares similar East Asian comic features and traditions. At first, ‘Im Kkeokjeong’ under the name of ‘Ijosuhojeon’ by Bang Hakgi, whose main field is historical dramas, was imported into Japan in 1985, followed by ‘Hwal (bow)’ by Lee Hyeonse and ‘Baekji (blank paper)’ by Park Heungyong. The French Angouleme International Comics Festival in 1991 was a watershed event for K-comics. After this festival, which featured a special exhibition of Japanese manga, Japanese comics tried to export themselves all around the world after absorbing diverse comic book elements. In a bid to take advantage of this strategy, a comic magazine, Morning, from Kodansha, began to carry Korean comics from 1993, including such titles as ‘Yunhee’ by Hwang Mina, ‘Fishing’ by Oh Seho, ‘Hoya’ by Ahn Sugil and ‘The River of Blood’ by Lee Jaehak. From the early 2000s, manga-style comics have been produced by Japanese editors’ requests. ‘New Secret Royal Inspector’ by Yoon Inwan & Yang Gyeongil and ‘Black God’ by Lim Dalyeong & Park Seongu became popular and made a softlanding in the Japanese comic market.
Some European countries, such as France and Belgium, import ‘original’ Korean lyrical comics dealing with Korea’s past and present. Simply translated K-comics are sold to European countries as their comic markets are relatively smaller than the ones in Japan or the US, but countries in Europe do also welcome such ‘unfamiliarity’ ‘Auteurism comics’ from Lee Duho, Lee Huijae, Gang Doha and Park Geonung have been continuously exported ever since the 2003 French Angouleme International Comics Festival that featured a special exhibition of K-comics. All of these writers are famous for their high creativity and original literary worlds. With these efforts and achievements, K-comics are spreading overseas. Recently, a Korean style digital comic form called ‘webtoon’ is getting more popular, expanding its reach at home and abroad. Various works from star webtoonists, such as Gang Pul, Gang Doha, Ju Homin and Ha Ilgwon have already been exported overseas, and read as ‘Korean learning materials’ and ‘the messenger of Korean culture’ among world netizens.