K-comics and the 2012 Bucheon International Comics Festival

Written by on August 21, 2012 in Arts, Travel

To be honest, unless you go extremely overboard, liking comics doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a geek in Korea. It’s a valid genre of reading; it just happens to have a lot of pictures, and the subjects dealt with in Korean manhwa(만화, comics) are much more than fantasy or science fiction or superheroes; there also were and are many which had everyday life as their major themes, much like a Korean TV drama or sitcom.

Korea Manhwa Museum in Bucheon

Bucheon is home to the Korea Manhwa Museum, which was established in 2001 but moved to its current location in 2009. The museum is the main venue for the annual Bucheon International Comics Festival (BICOF), which was held this year from August 15th to August 19th.


Detective Hyeok of Son Eui-seong’s 1965 comic “Tokyo #4” greets you

 2012 marks the 15th year of the festival, whose theme was “The Language of the Future which spreads throughout the World: K-comics Manhwa”. (It sounds simpler in Korean; this was the official translation.) I was intrigued by this year’s theme so I went for a look. Although I go to SICAF (Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival)every year, this was my first visit to BICOF and the Manhwa Museum.


100 years of Korean manhwa

Special exhibitions and festivities are put on during the festival but I decided to check out the permanent exhibitions at the Museum first, most notably the “100 years of Korean Manhwa”. Korean modern cartoons made their debut as narrative illustrations in newspapers in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, much Korean media was suppressed during the Japanese occupation from 1910 and it was only after independence in 1945 that Korean manhwa started to resurface. Political and children comics were very popular at the time.

A diorama of a manhwa street stall in the 1950s

A collection of manhwa covers from the 1960s

Friendly ajumma at the manhwa gage counter

As the Korean War erupted in 1950, manhwa were used to convey many messages and also provide comic relief. In the 1960s and 1970s, manhwa flourished, as “manhwa gage” (만화가게), i.e. “comic book shops” popped up here and there all over the country. Not many could afford to buy books, so these shops were more like “renting libraries” – you either pay per book or per time and read in the shop, which usually also provided snacks at a cost. (These shops still exist today, although the internet and its pay-per-view have made it quite obsolete.)

Old Man Go Ba-woo is a classic

Political and social satire has always been a major theme in manhwa, especially for those printed in the dailies. First created in 1950, cartoonist Kim Sung-hwan’s Old Man Go Ba-woo (김성환, 고바우 영감) was featured daily in Donga-Ilbo (동아일보) from 1955 to 1980 and then moved on to Chosun Ilbo (조선일보) and Munhwa Ilbo (문화일보) before being retired in 2000. It is a classic 4 cut cartoon; a concise illustrative political and social commentary, which caused it to get in trouble from time to time over the years. No manhwa has yet touched its level or status in its genre.

A hall dedicated to Ko Woo-young and his work

The museum has a hall dedicated to one of Korea’s most noted manhwa artists, the late Ko Woo-young (고우영). His works dominated the 1970s and 1980s. His talent and wide range of knowledge enabled him to excel in all genres of manhwa possible: the comical, the historical, the dramatic, and even the erotic. I admit I first read his manhwa “Records of the Three Kingdoms” before reading the actual (difficult) book and still imagine the characters as he had drawn them.

“Treasure Island” was one of the thickest manhwa magazines published

“Renaissance” was full of romance manhwa

Baby dinosaur Dooly and friends are still popular today

The 1980s were the heydays of manhwa magazines. Most manhwa weren’t printed in color; they were in black and white with occasional pages of color inserted into individual volumes. But not many manhwa artists, particularly newbies, didn’t have the chance to get their work published. Monthly manhwa magazines offered many opportunities for these artists. With the exception of the 4 cut cartoon dailies, most manhwa were visual novels; drama, comedy, fantasy, or romance, so the artists of certain genres were able to publish their work as serials in magazines specializing in their field. Many manhwa ran for a year or more; some even ran for 10 years, like the Korean Snoopy, “Baby Dinosaur Dooly” (아기공룡둘리).
From the 1990s and onward, manhwa have been adapted to the small screen, the big screen, and also the stage. The new genre “webtoon” has been a big success as well. And, as the exhibitions at this festival indicated, Korean manhwa are gradually finding their way into the world.

Choi Gyu-sok’s characters are true and raw

A chance to “bother” the artist and my participation

A special exhibition, Choi Gyu-sok (최규석)’s “Ecology Report” was being held. Choi won a manhwa contest in 1998 and officially debuted with “A Sad Homage to Dinosaur Dooly”, a manhwa charged with social issues, depicting the beloved baby dinosaur Dooly in his older age and a disabled laborer. His following work also touched on various social and environmental issues, mostly talking about “real” people and sometimes autobiographical. The exhibit showed the scope of his works and also offered insight into the artist’s thoughts.

Manhwa library for those who like it quiet

The museum has many interesting nooks and crannies including a 4D video theater and other small viewing rooms, along with many interactive areas and kid-friendly exhibits. In fact, everything in the museum was highly amusing. There was so much attention to detail in the décor as well.

Familiar characters peek in from the “open” ceiling

They are also on every corner

Lego Figs inspired art from the “Brick Comics” exhibit

The genie appears on the elevator doors and asks you your wish inside

You can read some of your favorite manhwa on interactive screens

Take a photo at a saloon of popular martial arts manhwa “Yeolhyeolgangho”

Trying to copy the expression of the cartoon character wasn’t easy

Kids try drawing manhwa on lightboxes

As I mentioned before, the major theme of this festival was “K-comics”, i.e. Korean manhwa. Manhwa started to be “exported” in the 1990s, mainly to Asian countries. It was at the 2003 Angoulême International Comics Festival where manhwa started to break into the western world. Some artists’ works started to be produced on a global level with funding from the Korea Manhwa Contents Agency, and these artists were showcased in the “New Frontier” exhibit. Some which caught my eye:

Do Gado

Yo Rik

Moon Jihun

Choi Haeung

Kim Yeongpil

Moon Jihyeon

Jang Hyemi

Perhaps it’s because France is renowned for art; many young Korean manhwa artists have made their home in France and are publishing their work there. Despite the language barrier (which many of them have overcome), and with an interesting mix of French and Korean culture, they are steadily making their way to an international audience with their work. Four of these promising artists and their work were displayed in the exhibition titled “B.D. Franco-Coréene”.

Visitors viewing the work of Choi Juhyun

Choi’s “Halme”, i.e. “grandma”

Fragile shadow silhouettes in a short film by Choi

“Twins” by Lee Junghyun

“The Adventures of the Man-Dog” by Park Yoonsun

“Under Water, Obscurity”, also by Park Yoonsun

“The Banal King” by Park Kyeongeun

The exhibitions continued with a special “Avengers” themed pavilion, a showing of comics with an environmental theme, and the contents fair zone displaying various manhwa related merchandise. I thought the latter so much smaller in volume compared with SICAF and realized it wasn’t the main attraction of BICOF.

Special “Avengers” display

Toontoy’s merchandise at the Contents Fair Zone

Cheon Beomsick’s one cut cartoons with a message

It took me hours to take in the museum – and I didn’t have time to completely view all the videos they were showing – and a bit less to take in the other exhibitions, but I think a whole day would be needed to fully enjoy the whole festival. Not only are there meet-and-greet autograph signings from manhwa artists, there are conferences and seminars, concerts and shows, contests, cosplaying events, a character parade, and other fun things to do within the festival grounds.

Cosplay booth with colorful wigs

Mascot balloon waves good-bye

If you’re a manhwa or comics aficionado, the museum is definitely worth going at least once, and as for the festival, I think I would go again in the future depending on that year’s theme.

Bucheon is located in the outskirts of Seoul, in the south-west. For more information:
* Bucheon International Comics Festival: http://bicof.com
* Korea Manhwa Museum: http://comicsmuseum.org
* Korea Manhwa Contents Agency : http://www.komacon.kr

More posts about comics on the Korea Blog: http://blog.korea.net/?s=comics

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul