Welcome to a special year-end edition of Manhwa Monday! With “best of” lists popping up all over the manga blogosphere, I thought it might be fun to put together a manhwa-specific list of favorites for the year. Then when Michelle Smith expressed dismay over the lack of a manhwa category in this year’s Manga Recon round-up, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to invite some other bloggers along! So I asked a few of my favorite manga bloggers, Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue, Manga Recon), Danielle Leigh (Comics Should Be Good), and Connie C. (Slightly Biased Manga) to talk about up to five of their favorite series for the year, with one special mention, one special discussion topic, and a few words about what they’d like to see in 2010. To see what they came up with (and how we broke the rules), read on!
I’ll begin with my own list. As you know, I’ve been reading more and more manhwa over the course of the year, and it’s become a bit of an obsession for me–one I hope to share with all of you!
FAVORITE MANHWA OF THE YEAR:
Goong: The Royal Palace (Park SoHee, Yen Press) Set in an alternate version of modern South Korea with a constitutional monarchy in place, Goong follows the story of Chae-Kyung, an average high school girl who finds herself betrothed to the Crown Prince. Balancing soap-opera melodrama with strong, honest characterization (especially of its teenaged leads), Goong manages to be mildly trashy, wildly addictive, and emotionally resonant all at once. Now up to eighteen volumes (ongoing) in Korea, this series feels truly epic, even at Yen Press’ seven volumes. With its (mostly) gorgeous artwork and fantastic characters, this will likely be a favorite for years to come. Check out my reviews of recent volumes here.
Mijeong (Byun Byung-Jun, NBM/Comics Lit) For this item, I’m going to steal heavily from my list of favorites earlier this month at Manga Recon, where I listed Mijeong as my favorite anthology of the year. This anthology of short comics from up-and-coming manhwa-ga Byun Byung-Jun is uneven, unsettled, and artistically immature. It is also thoughtful, melancholy, and uncommonly beautiful. Wholly unlike most of the other English-translated manhwa hitting the shelves these days, this volume is a hidden gem, with glimpses of true brilliance that promise a great future for the artist. Read my full review here.
Full House (Sooyeon Won, NETCOMICS) From the author of boys’ love epic Let Dai, this romantic comedy is as wonderfully wordy as its famous successor, but completely different in tone, aiming for classic screwball comedy rather than dark melodrama. Originally licensed by Central Park Media, the series was recently rescued by NETCOMICS who began releasing their retranslated version online earlier this year. With its prickly, grown-up heroine, western setting, and rapid-fire dialogue, Full House evokes a vintage feel appropriate to the likes of Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, both classic and unique. Read my review of volume one here.
Small-Minded Schoolgirls (Toma, NETCOMICS) One of several recent NETCOMICS series geared towards adult women, Small-Minded Schoolgirls is currently my favorite, with its two tangentially-related heroines, novelist Miru and magazine writer Somi, struggling for identity in both career and love. Its characters are rich, its writing is brutally honest, and its artwork has a refreshing indie vibe, setting it apart from most licensed manhwa. The obvious lack of Japanese influence may not appeal to most manga fans, but suggests the potential for a new audience that may not yet be aware of its presence. Time to change that! To be reviewed at Manga Bookshelf in the near future.
Do Whatever You Want (Yeri Na, NETCOMICS) – Don’t let the cover fool you. This soapy series may have its share of pretty boys and BL undertones, but at its core, it’s a story about friendship, loyalty, and the meaning of family, biological and otherwise. Though the epic bromance (or is it?) between the two male leads is certainly a draw, it is their individual stories that drive the series forward, as they struggle with school, career dreams, and family tragedy. “We always dream about becoming some special thing,” one character muses as he ponders his own restless youth–a sentiment that rings just as true to me now as it did when I was a teen. “We wanna be acknowledged for something that is unique only to us, something extraordinary. That’s why our worries never end and we face trying days.” Most compelling for me, however, is the series’ focus on its seriously kick-ass female characters, their struggles, and their relationships with each other, which shape them more than anything else. Read my review of volume one here.
Time and Again (JiUn Yun, Yen Press) So, let me be the first to break my “up to five” rule as I’m unable to leave this title off the list, despite its shaky first volume. Having read ahead in Yen Plus, I can confirm that this series’ strengths (creepy supernatural stories, compelling main characters, and a fantastic sense of place) quickly outweigh its early weaknesses (uneven storytelling, confusing panel structure, overly vague artwork) over the course of subsequent chapters. The story’s eighth-century setting and solemn tone paint an unforgiving picture of human weakness with just enough humor and humanity to make it palatable. Read my review here.
SPECIAL MENTION: I intended to mention one series only here but now that I’ve come this far, there are several vying forcefully for my attention. First of all, SangEun Lee’s quirky, appealing, 13th Boy (Yen Press), with its strange characters, supernatural overtones, and talking cactus has me feeling terribly impatient for the arrival of its next volume (review). Meanwhile, Kisun’s Please, Please Me (NETCOMICS) has charmed me completely with its willful cast of adult women braving the battlefields of dating and career. On a completely different note, Kyungok Kang’s sci-fi/fantasy classic In the Starlight (NETCOMICS) is a must-read for fans of classic shojo manga, which happens to include me.
SPECIAL DISCUSSION: Something that has struck me again and again is how much I enjoy the (admittedly few) Korean boys’ love manhwa I’ve read, most of which were published here, at least in part, in 2009. With one notable exception–Yen Press’ One Thousand and One Nights (reviews), a favorite which can’t quite be labeled as BL–all of these have been published by NETCOMICS, and here’s where I find myself unsure. From my recent review of Roureville: “On a personal note, I continue to enjoy NETCOMICS’ selection of Korean boys’ love stories, not only for what they uniformly provide (strong plots, thoughtful characterization, and engaging romance) but for what they don’t, particularly the twisted bedroom dynamics present in so much of the Japanese boys’ love manga I’ve seen published in English.” What I don’t know is whether this is characteristic of Korean BL overall, or simply a result of NETCOMICS’ good taste. Either way, I’m hooked. Two of my favorite BL series this year, Rakun’s (AKA Yeri Na’s) U Don’t Know Me and Hajin Yoo’s Totally Captivated came out of Korea, and that’s more than enough to motivate me to seek out more.
MANHWA IN 2010: Michelle has a number of license suggestions for publishers on her list below and I heartily concur! What I’d really like to see in the coming year, more than anything, is for manhwa to really establish its own identity amongst English-speaking readers, independent of manga–something that really has not happened up to this point. Though I’m immensely grateful to manga publishers who have continued to develop their manhwa catalogues (Yen Press deserves special mention here), many of the comments and broad generalizations about manhwa I see coming from manga fans are as distressing as attitudes about manga that still exist in western comics fandom. Exactly what the solution is, I’m less sure of, but I know I’d like to be a part of it. To that end, one of my personal goals is to read more manhwa, especially in genres I’ve neglected so far (Dark Horse, I’m looking in your direction). You can bet I’ll keep talking about it.
Hello, Manga Bookshelf readers! I’m Michelle Smith, keeper of the review blog Soliloquy in Blue and Senior Manga Editor of Manga Recon! Insider scoop: when we first tapped MJto join our ranks, she wasn’t sure she’d be any good at writing reviews. “P’shaw,” I hear you collectively scoff.
Anyway, before I started writing for Manga Recon, I hadn’t read all that much manhwa. In fact, before I received my first manhwa review copy (Rolling, a disappointing venture from the creative team behind Very! Very! Sweet), I had only read the first volumes of Kiss Me, Kill Me, Demon Diary, and A Kiss for My Prince. None particularly thrilled me.
Happily, in the past 18 months I’ve been exposed to a much greater variety of manhwa and have discovered some genuine gems! Here are my top five picks for the Best Manhwa of 2009.
FAVORITE MANHWA OF 2009
The Adventures of Young Det (Gyojeong Kwon, NETCOMICS) Beginning with a prologue about two sorcerers, the significance of which is only gradually revealed, this main thrust of this story is about two village lads who head for the city to “make it big.” On the way, they fight off a bunch of monsters and encounter a legend about a dragon that’s prophesied to destroy their world. The art is supremely lovely and the world and characters are developed with a sure hand. Because of all the care and detail, the pace may be a little slow for some, but I’m sure the end result will be suitably epic. Three volumes have been released so far.
Goong: The Royal Palace (Park SoHee, Yen Press) The setup of Goong is deceptively simple: in an alternate universe in which royalty still exists in Korea, a commoner girl is married off to the Crown Prince because of an arrangement between their grandfathers. What follows is a delicious tangle of clashing personalities, political scheming, and heartache. Just when Chae-Kyung and Shin seem to finally be getting along, something happens to throw them into turmoil again. Their struggles can be frustrating for the reader, but they’re also incredibly captivating; one keeps reading for those little signs of progress that indicate that someday they will finally, finally work things out. Seven volumes have been released so far.
Small-Minded Schoolgirls (toma, NETCOMICS) I’m not sure what the manhwa equivalent of josei would be, but whatever it is, this is it! Small-Minded Schoolgirls features two career women, novelist Miru and literary magazine employee Somi, as they go to work, ponder existential questions, and deal with the men in their lives. Dissatisfaction and awkward missteps abound, and the series is full of keen observations balanced with moments of humor and poignancy. The art is in color and kind of scribbly, but I promise that it’ll grow on you after a while. At present, there’s no print edition of this series, so you’ll have to head on over to the NETCOMICS website to read the two volumes currently available.
10, 20, and 30 (Morim Kang, NETCOMICS) Here’s another entry in the josei-esque category. 10, 20, and 30 focuses on three generations of women in one family. There’s Krumb, a 30-something widow who faces both challenge and romantic opportunity in the workplace; Belle, Krumb’s 20-something, free-spirited niece who resists her mother’s attempts to pair her off with a suitable mate; and Rok, a teenager going through an awkward stage. Equal time is given to each character and they all have their own plots involving personal growth, which are wrapped up in a satisfying way in the conclusion of this seven-volume series. Print editions were produced for the first two volumes, but the rest can only be read on the NETCOMICS site. I highly recommend doing so; as I wrote in my review of the final volume, “It’ll make you feel like hugging your mom.”
Very! Very! Sweet (JiSang Shin and Geo, Yen Press) This is the story of Tsuyoshi, a Japanese kid whose grandfather capriciously relocates him to Korea so that he might learn about his secret Korean roots, and Be-Ri, the spunky Korean girl who ends up being his neighbor. Their personalities clash at first, but gradually they become friends, sometimes helping one another in times of need, be those related to heartache or a sick kitty. I love how Tsuyoshi sees the move as an opportunity to become a better person, and how Be-Ri is beginning to question why exactly she’s nurtured unrequited feelings for her sister’s boyfriend for so long. Sure, the supporting cast can be irritating at times, but there are enough original elements about this series to keep me interested. Five volumes have been released so far.
SPECIAL MENTION: (BL Pick) U Don’t Know Me (Rakun, NETCOMICS)
This oneshot about childhood friends moving into a romantic relationship is noteworthy in several important ways. Unlike some BL, in which the point seems to be to move the pretty paper dolls into bed as quickly as possible, the focus here is always on the characters. Both the drama and the intimate scenes flow naturally from the leads’ interactions and are much more affecting as a result. Too, I like that the series considers what happens after the relationship is consummated. How will friends and family react? Will one or the other come to regret being in a gay relationship if it means forgoing a wife and family? I’m a sucker for BL stories that actually consider the ramifications of homosexuality, and U Don’t Know Me does so admirably.
MANHWA IN 2010: A cursory scan through upcoming series debuts reveals only a handful of manhwa, though many good ongoing series will be continuing into the new year. Quite a few of the currently licensed titles seem to come from Wink magazine, so here are a few others serialized there that I’d love to see someone acquire:
Chronicles of Choon Eng This historical drama is about the life of a famous Korean singer and dancer.
DIY Girl Sometimes all it takes to pique my interest is a gorgeous cover, but the fact that this is the new series from the creator of The Antique Gift Shop certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Lingerie This series is about lingerie designers in a historical Korean setting.
Real Purple Here’s another series from an established creator (Park SoHee of Goong fame) with a gorgeous cover. This was her first series-length work—perhaps not technically from Wink—and I’d love to see it available in English.
Finally, please permit me to indulge in a moment of piteous whinging…
Yen Press, I will give you many moneys if you’ll rescue DVD!
Originally licensed by DramaQueen, who unfortunately released only two out of a total of eight volumes, DVD is the story of Ddam Shim who, jilted by her boyfriend, decides to commit suicide. On what was to be the last day of her life, she meets Venu and DD, a couple of strange guys who immediately begin to change her life. The story is told in a playful style that “lapses frequently into flashbacks, daydreams, Ddam’s illusions, and Venu’s stories, many of which are quite amusing,” and it’s extremely good. DVD was the first manhwa to really blow me away, and I continue to hope that one day I’ll be able to read the rest of it.
Greetings everyone! My name is Danielle Leigh and I cover manga and manhwa over at Comics Should Be Good (a blog site oriented toward American superhero comics) and was delighted when MJinvited me to participate in her “Favorite Manhwa of 2009” survey. Probably because it gives me an excuse to put off gathering my own comprehensive list of favorite ‘09 releases for my own site…. And, of course, I’m just generally delighted to be included!
FAVORITE MANHWA OF THE YEAR:
Very! Very! Sweet (JiSang Shin and Geo, Yen Press) – this romantic comedy offers a lot of surprises thanks to its focus on a very funny, true-to-life clash of cultures. A wealthy, high-class Japanese high school student (read: spoiled) is essentially banished to Korea by his grandfather so that he can get in touch with his roots. Unfortunately, his high handed manner gets on his new neighbor’s bad side since she is just a normal, middle-class Korean girl…which, of course, means they are destined to fall in love. As they get to know each other better, the two have to deal with interfering admirers on both sides, as well as a daily struggle to overcome the language barrier in order to communicate. Not to mention meddling family members on both sides with certain ideas about what sort of person each one *should* be dating. This title is surprisingly realistic about representing culture shock / cultural assimilation in spite of the fact it relies upon a number of familiar conventions from East Asian teen romance comics.
Totally Captivated (Hajin Yoo, Netcomics) – Young go-getter Ewon finds his life turned upside down by virtual indentured servitude to a charismatic and violent young mobster. Although it gets a touch too melodramatic for my taste by the end, this six volume series were one hell of a ride. You’ve got sexual betrayal, mob life, inter-gang violence, childhood trauma, obsessive desire and a smart alecky protagonist. Somehow this lighthearted tale of same-sex attraction becomes an epic journey about two people falling in love.
Bride of the Water God (Yun MiKyung, Dark Horse) – When a young girl is sacrificed to a “water god” by her dying and dusty village, she wakes up to his mythical world to find she is to become his bride. Oddly this “god” takes the appearance of a young boy, but appearances are definitely misleading in this work. This title has achingly beautiful art but a slightly incomprehensible plot. In spite of my confusion, I find myself transported to a new world every time I pick up a new volume. While I’m not entirely sure I follow the mystical logic governing this title’s plot or other-worldly setting, the dilemma of the heroine is quite moving as she moves from world to world, never quite finding the place she truly belongs.
SPECIAL MENTION: Sugarholic (Gong GooGoo, Yen Press). Country girl is practically banished to city by her no-nonsense grandmother and extremely unlikely hijinks ensue. It certainly isn’t a great comic but it is an entertaining one and I’m fond of its special brand of lunacy. Everyone is a complete chore in this title and no one more so than the lazy, useless and incredibly dense “heroine.” Somehow the weird, dumb idiot side-character from American sitcoms has landed a starring role – it shouldn’t work, yet it does. She’s absolutely exhausting and yet she’s got enough energy to keep the title on track in spite of its strange quirks. In the end, I like this title because “dumb” doesn’t mean predictable and I’m never entirely sure what insane thing she’ll do next.
MANHWA IN 2010: I couldn’t help but notice this became a very girl-oriented list as all these comics are clearly aimed at female readers. I suspect that because there is a lot less manhwa licensed for the American marketplace than manga, my reading habits have settled firmly in my comfort zone. While in the past five years I have become bound and determined to read manga oriented toward many different readerships and tastes, I haven’t yet done the same with manhwa. Therefore, next year I would like to expand my horizons and see what other pleasures manhwa has to offer.
Hello! My name is Connie, and I have blog called Slightly Biased Manga where I talk about the comics I read. I first got into manga in 1998, and I believe I started reading manhwa around 2003, when I.N.V.U. first appeared. Years later, I’m still reading I.N.V.U., but its good impression has served me well in my manhwa habit.
FAVORITE MANHWA OF THE YEAR:
You’re So Cool (YoungHee Lee, Yen Press) – I love cutie Korean comics to death, so I was quite surprised when I caught myself up on this series and found that I liked it a lot more than the others. I don’t really like the setup (Seung-Ha is a perfect student with an evil streak that he uses to torture Nan-Woo, the ditzy girl that asks him out), but Seung-Ha and Nan-Woo rise above the cliches and wind up trading insults and helping each other through weird situations. There are also a few entertaining side characters, including Nan-Woo’s mother, who shares a mutual and hilarious hatred with Seung-Ha. It got darker in the most recent volumes when Seung-Ha’s strange family situation was revealed and he and Nan-Woo weren’t seeing much of each other, but I’m hoping for an ending consistent with the rest of the series when we see the final volume next year.
Goong: The Royal Palace (Park SoHee, Yen Press) – There is humor in Goong, but for me, it’s all about the drama and the terrible things that happen to Chae-Kyung. The main selling point is that it’s a modern-day fairy tale, with a regular girl who finds herself in an arranged marriage to the (completely fictitious) Crown Prince of Korea. It shows the dark side of this scenario, with the royal family making for depressing companions driven, for better or worse, by public expectations. Chae-Kyung is treated like garbage, especially by her husband Prince Shin. This is sadly not uncommon in girls’ comics, but at least here Chae-Kyung has the presence of mind to hate herself a little for it. The drama is irresistible, if a bit of a guilty pleasure, and the sense of humor and attention to detail (especially in the art) seal the deal.
Totally Captivated (Hajin Yoo, NETCOMICS) – The last volume of this series came out earlier this year, but I’ll be totally honest and admit I read all six volumes in one sitting about a week ago and am still riding a kind of giddy high over how much I enjoyed it. Again, the sense of humor was spot-on and the two main characters involved in the romance seemed to enjoy nothing better than trading sly digs and torturing each other as much as possible. There was plenty of drama, since Mookyul is short-tempered and even more so around Ewon, but the humor more than made up for that, and I still can’t get over how the characters (especially Mookyul) have no problems discussing the details of their sex lives in front of whoever happens to be around. It took me a bit to believe the romance, but when it finally got going, it was quite sincere and very heavy, one of the best I’ve read in a BL series like this. Everything about it was catered to my tastes, and I enjoyed it immensely. It probably also helped that I had all six volumes available to tear through at my leisure.
Adventures of Young Det (Gyojeong Kwan, NETCOMICS) – A lot of the Korean series I read are cute, manic romances, so I’m always taken aback when I happen across a more mature work. This is a female-oriented fantasy story that starts by slowly developing a relationship between two unlikely characters. What is initially a sort of good-natured rivalry turns slowly and beautifully into a relationship based on need and trust. A foreordained apocalypse takes place in the second volume, and the plot switches to the titular Det and his adventures. The pacing and characterizations are perfect, and for a magic-focused series, the spells and what the characters do is surprisingly easy to follow. I also liked the simplistic art, which lent itself well to the feelings that were developed between Lazarus and the Great Ferat. Mature and quite excellent.
Please, Please Me (Kisun, NETCOMICS)- I fell for this series hard after I immediately associated it with Happy Mania by Moyoco Anno. It’s manic and silly, and mostly about twentysomething women. Well, it’s about a pair of roommates, and one of them is boy-crazy while the other is stoic and provides much-needed stability. They support each other and embarrass themselves mightily over the course of the volume I read, but the event that makes this one for the books is the completely agonizing ride home that Nagyoung experiences towards the end of the first volume. We’ve all had that ride home before, but maybe not with those results. The humor and the strange promises the characters make and break to themselves are what made this a joy to read, and I’m looking forward to the future volumes.
SPECIAL MENTION: 13th Boy (Sang-Eun Lee, Yen Press) On the surface, 13th Boy seems to be an unremarkable romance comic. There’s jealousy, romantic triangles, unrequieted love, childhood relationships, and camping trips. It takes these common plot devices and spices them up with some of the weirdest embellishments you can think of, which involve a girl too shy to ask a boy out using national TV as a confession venue, a bizarre fascination with fate, and a talking cactus that periodically turns into a little boy. For whatever reason, we find out that one of the characters is a magic user, which wouldn’t normally make sense in a series grounded in reality like this. And yet, in 13th Boy, it makes complete sense. The character relationships haven’t quite jelled as of volume 2, but I have high hopes for the future of this series.
SPECIAL DISCUSSION: (Cutie Korean Comics) I lacked the term soonjeong for a long time, so I had no handy word like shoujo to describe series like You’re So Cool, Sugarholic, and Bird Kiss… basically, Korean girls’ comics that usually featured romance and were… well, cute. They share more in common than a lot of shoujo comics, or at least the ones I’ve read have. This may be due to the fact that they only come from two or three different magazines (I think Party and Wink are the two big ones), but the formulas used in these soonjeong comics are somehow completely addictive in a way that light shoujo fluff is not. Perhaps it’s the heroines who frequently fill the ditzy stereotype, but are strong and usually hold their own against the other characters. Perhaps it’s the sense of humor, which is based more in sarcastic banter than some of the more tired over-the-top gags used in manga. Or maybe it’s just that I secretly enjoy the more mean-spirited characters and drama. All I know is that I read a ton of Cutie Korean Comics this year and loved them all, and it made me realize how many I had already enjoyed over the years.
MANHWA IN 2010: What I’m looking forward to most is seeing resolutions to some of the current Yen Press series. I’ve been following many of them with great interest this past year, and several will see their final volume sometime in 2010.
Netcomics license-rescued and began releasing Full House a few months ago. While I didn’t enjoy the volumes I read from CPM, it is supposedly one of the most popular manhwa of all time, and I have high hopes for it since Sooyeon Won has already proven how well she can write romance in Let Dai.
Part of me would also love to see some of the DramaQueen series resurface, either in their hands or the hands of others. DVD, Audition, Peter Panda, and The Summit are all things that I would dearly love to see released. I also just now realized The Summit is by the same author as You’re So Cool, and given the fact I wanted to read it based on the strength of its artwork alone, this is an unexpected bonus that only makes me more impatient.
Perhaps I should make it a personal goal to read a male-oriented manhwa sometime next year. Precious few have been licensed, and I’ve only read a handful of eclectic volumes. I’d love to see the manhwa equivalent of a Shonen Jump series.
Tune in next week as we return to our regular collection of discussion and reviews. Until then, Happy New Year!