Scholars Kim Hanjae and Kim Jongik on sharing manhwa globally

By: Anime Feminist December 15, 20230 Comments
photo collage of Kim Hanjae, Kim Jongik, and the Dokkotak mascot

Manhwa has seen a huge boom with English-language audiences over the past several years. A few manhwa titles were localized during the manga boom of the 2000s, largely through Tokyopop, but online subscription service WEBTOON changed the game when it launched its global version in July 2014—beating Shonen Jump to the launch of their app by two months. Webtoons held a unique allure compared to online manga available at the time: they’re predominantly fully colored and formatted to be read on mobile, and services like Lezhin Comics featured an addictive pay-by-the-chapter model.

Though South Korea’s relationship with Japan remains fraught to this day, bans on Japanese media in Korea were lifted in the 1990s; and since the Webtoon boom, manhwa have become increasingly popular subjects for adaptation into anime, from The Tower of God and Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion to the upcoming Solo Leveling. And yet, there continues to be a relative dearth of manhwa-related guests invited to American conventions. 

Raeliana holding Noah's hand
Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion

Otakon 2023 decided to address this dearth by inviting several manhwa artists and experts, two of whom sat down with us for an interview. Kim Hanjae is a Manhwa, Animation, and Contents professor at Gangdong University whose convention biography described her as “one of Korea’s top Otaku professors. She debuted as a manhwaga at the age of 21 and majored in Cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has a master’s degree in animation and a PhD in Emotional Engineering.” Speaking through a translator, she elaborated on her study of emotional engineering as approaching the technical construction of art, marketing, and AI through the frame of human experience. 

She was joined by Kim Jongik, her fellow professor at Gangdong University who, according to his biography, is “a Korean animation judge for 10 years [who] now has a representative channel for photo and video archiving in the fields of Korean manhwa, animation, and characters.” While many of the translator’s responses specifically noted Kim Hanjae, several of the questions also involved conversation between the two colleagues in developing the response. Manhwa has been somewhat outside of Anifem’s coverage save for the occasional anime adaptations since, while similar to manga and anime, it possesses its own context and study that go beyond the purview of our site. However, this interview was a wonderful opportunity to get better acquainted with the subject for ourselves and our readers. 

classic Dokko Tak manhwa cover where he's being chased by a wagging dog
Dokko Tak

Both were eager to discuss the process of bringing awareness to manhwa as an artform, using the newfound popularity of webtoons as a way to introduce English-language fans to the history of the medium. This explained their third guest, Dokkotak, who wore an enormous mascot costume and chimed in alongside the two academics as they responded to questions. Questions were submitted for approval beforehand, and the three guests conversed roundtable-style before having their responses summarized by the attendant translator. One topic rang particularly clear from each response: the group was passionate about bringing a deeper understanding of manhwa to a global audience. 

In addition to the two academics and Dokkotak, Otakon’s 2023 guest lineup also included manhwaga Choi In Sun (founder of INSUNNY publishing) and Park Kyungran (creator of Imitation). The interpreter noted that the group wasn’t sure how their trip would go, as this was the first time non-K-pop guests would be there speaking about Korean art. But Kim Hanjae was pleased to note that Otakon went above and beyond in providing a support system, and that meeting many people who were clearly already fans of manhwa was a very emotional experience. 

cover of Imitation, featuring an idol heroine

While some wonderful manhwa were translated into English during the 2000s manga boom–including Park Sang-Sun’s The Tarot Café, Jo Eun-ha’s Les Bijoux, and Kara’s Demon Diary–much of even that small handful is now out of print, leaving very little prior to the advent of webtoons available to English-language audiences. Dokkotak’s inclusion at Otakon was planned with the intent of bringing some of that history along. Initially created in the 1970s, Dokko Tak has a beloved following in Korea on the level of a Sazae-san or Charlie Brown. Otakon’s press release for the Dokkotak mascot described their attempts to revitalize the character for a new generation.

“Dokkotak Company is trying to continue “the way of Dokko Tak” via various projects, with the most important project of all being compiling all of Lee’s Dokko Tak creations into one character, “Dokkotak, A Little Boomer.” Dokkotak, A Little Boomer has all of the memories and souls of Dokko Tak that have appeared in over 300 titles, and is therefore considered Dokko Tak’s meta level. Born in 1971, he has the body of an 8-year-old, filled with a very mature soul due to his past 300 lives. With his iron will, combined with a young child’s personality that never ages, he may look like a stubborn child but will surprise you.”

Beyond bringing Dokkotak as a mascot, the group behind the revitalization was working to create webtoon-style versions of classic Dokko Tak comics, making them accessible to new readers. 

Asked about specific recommendations, Kim Hanjae didn’t have any to note offhand, though she did shout-out Park’s Imitation. Mainly, she noted that she wanted to see more independent Korean comics–such as those by guest Choi In Sun–translated, because they offered a wider variety of storytelling and diversity than one might see in the most popular WEBTOON titles. Otakon, she hoped, would be a bridge for popularizing those smaller works.

The Star tarot card with a longhaired figure surrounded by stars and floaty fabric
The Tarot Café

The conversation then turned to anime adaptations of manhwa. Outside of director Park Sunghoo, who’s been lauded for his stylish action in the first season of Jujutsu Kaisen as well as the manhwa-based The God of High School, most manhwa adaptations are headed by Japanese creative teams and marketed as anime. 

 Kim Hanjae described this as a deliberate strategy, using co-productions with Sony or Japanese studios to take advantage of pre-existing familiarity with anime in the North American market. “They hire someone in Japan to do the work, but fundamentally it comes down to Korean animation companies actually working on the art.” Using that ‘brand name” of anime, which makes projects easier to get off the ground, Korean companies have thus been working to build a resume for themselves. 

She described the hope that, when those animation companies later go on to create their own independent work, their list of previous achievements will encourage viewers to give that new art a chance. “They already have the ability to do it. But we are hoping that [through the Otakon press tour], maybe they can get more energy that will lead to more Korean companies working on the animation, and hopefully it will lead to greater work.” 

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