Seoul muscles in on manga

Art December 16, 2013 00:00

By TOSHIYUKI YOSHIDA, TAKETO KUDO

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The South Korean government is actively pushing "manhwa" comics overseas



Look out, manga. South Korea is stepping up efforts to spread manhwa comics to the rest of the world. South Korea’s government is promoting manhwa exports by supporting firms that distribute comics online and subsidising their translation into English.
“We want to develop manhwa into a global brand and take the place of Japanese manga,” a government official says. The government is encouraging domestic publishers with aspirations of selling comics globally to take part in overseas book fairs. The government will subsidise exhibition costs and even travel expenses for participants.
At an October book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, one of the largest in Europe, South Korean publishers and agencies set up a booth among exhibitors of manga and anime from various countries. 
In addition, South Korea’s leading search engine, Naver, which also distributes comics online, organised an autograph session with a cartoonist and introduced “Noblesse”, a popular cartoon chronicling a battle among vampires living in the modern world.
“I read manhwa for the first time and it was better than I expected,” said Kathika Neuhaus, 15, who attended the fair in the costume of a character in “One Piece”, a popular Japanese manga. “As long as it’s interesting, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Japanese or South Korean.”
Many manwha are distributed free, and it’s common in South Korea to read them on mobile phones or tablets. Manwha that become popular are often published as books, while some firms start charging to read them online.
The fantasy manga “Kami to Issho ni” (“Together with God”), which started online, became a big hit in South Korea and has since been published in Japan.
Kim Na Jung, manager of Naver’s “webtoon” business division, says the firm hopes to penetrate the European market. It prepared English editions of 30 manhwa titles distributed online in South Korea, giving away 3,600 copies at the Frankfurt fair.
“Given the current Web environment in Europe, it’s difficult to enter the market right now, but we want to start a service in the near future,” Kim says.
German publisher Tokyopop has produced German versions of about 100 manhwa since 2004. It plans to publish five more between next April and July. “Some manhwa are more popular than Japanese manga,” says sales director Sam Fazli. 
With a population of about 50 million, South Korea has a significantly smaller domestic market is than Japan. The government has been actively supporting exports of Korean pop culture, including music, films and TV, since the late 1990s.
Seoul hopes that spreading pop culture will boost the image of domestic brands and increase exports of appliances, household items and fashion goods. The strategy also aims to raise interest in the country and attract more tourists.
Last year the number of tourists exceeded 11 million for the first time. This year about 86,000 foreign students are studying at South Korean universities, more than two and a half times the number in 2006.
South Korea’s 2011 sales in pop culture industries reached about 83 trillion won (Bt2.5 trillion), mainly from music, TV and film, but sales from manhwa-related products accounted for only 1.5 per cent. Yet its “Robocar Poli”, a children’s cartoon featuring a police car and other vehicle characters called Robocars, has been aired in more than 100 nations.
South Korea’s manhwa-related exports were worth about US$133 million (Bt4.3 billion) in 2011, an increase of about 40 per cent from 2009.
If its comic and anime firms intensify their advances abroad, it could change the landscape of the anime and comic market, which Japanese works currently dominate. “South Korea is trying to muscle in on a field in which Japan has been strong,” says a Seoul-based Japanese businessman.