Monday, April 13, 2009

Korean Manhwa: Zoolanders of Shoujo?

I'm pretty indiscriminate when it comes to reading manga, but I find it difficult for me to remain as open minded with the Korean counterpart, manhwa. My first exposure to manhwa was Narration in Seventeen, and while I did finish it, there was nothing truly remarkable about it. After that initial series, I have read numerous other titles in manhwa, among which include Goong, Bird Kiss, It's Love, You're So Cool, Hwa, Utopia of Homosexuality, Hot Blooded Woman, and Red Lion. Looking back on all these different titles, I have arrived at the conclusion that Korean manhwa is rather bland and recycled, uniform in both story and art and lacking sorely in originality. Similar to how Derek Zoolander, that infamous male model, claimed to carry a repertoire of modelesque expressions that turned out to be the same face over and over again, I am overcome by an unshakable feeling of déjà vu as I read through series after series of manhwa.

The most striking similarities appear in the art. Many manhwa character designs have triangular shaped heads, with all the features drawn towards the bottom of face, resulting in huge foreheads and an ape-like impression . There also seems to be a ridiculous elongation of body parts, especially in regards to the head. Typically, a human body is about 7 or 8 heads long, whereas manhwa characters are stretched out like Gumby on the Inquisition rack to lengths of 10 or 11 heads . There's also a tendency to make hands GIGANTIC, sometimes larger than the character's entire head.

My masculinity is defined by the length of my...finger!

Another tendency in style is to emulate the starry-eyed doll look from the 80s in Japan, calling to mind styles like that of Candy Candy or Glass Mask. The pronounced eyelashes and sparkly eyes seem like an updated style of Japanese retro.

Glass Mask's Himekaw..err, actually no.

Repetition is also seen in plot, and character type. For some reason, there is always some sort of turf war going on between the main protagonists, as they are all members of school gangs. Reminiscent of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story, jjangs (gang leaders) are expected to uphold gangster honor, and engage in rumbles (with physical violence, not just snapping and singing like West Side Story). Almost always, a girl catches a guy's eye due to her ability to kick his ass or physically injure him; his sustained injuries light the fires of passion (read: masochistic) within his soul, and the story progresses from there. These heroines are always loud, rude, obnoxious, eat a lot, sleep wherever, and are completely opposite to every single other girl presented in the series. The typical male response? "Wow, here is this girl who isn't afraid to tell me what a complete jackass I'm being! She's rude, loud, obnoxious, and completely not what South Korean culture promotes in a woman...but no one has ever done that to me before! I am seized with an undefinable emotion! This must be LOVE!"

Of course, like that well known spelling rule "I before E except after C," there are always exceptions. But I feel like there have been enough "I before E" cases for me to make this generalization, and the "after C" exceptions have not been remarkable enough to entice me to read as much Korean manhwa as I do Japanese manga.

In general, I place Korean manhwa lower on the graphic novel hierarchy due to the aforementioned reasons. I shall still probably continue to read manhwa, as I am a sucker for cliches and the so-unconventional-she-is-convetional heroines, though these thoughts will still run through my mind every now and then.


PS: credits for pictures go to mangafox and onemanga!

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