Manhwa vs Manga: what’s the difference?

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If you look at last year’s graphic novel bestseller lists, you might notice something. Namely, East Asian comics dominate the charts. My hero university, Demon slayer, Man with chainsaw – do these titles sound familiar to you? Dive deeper into these lists and you’ll uncover some other milestones. Like the fact that the manhwa Solo leveling is the biggest comic book debut of 2021 to date. Aside from the explosive growth of East Asian comics in the North American market, you might be confused if you delve into online discussions of manga and manhwa. Why? Because these two terms are often used interchangeably. Which begs the question: what is the difference between manhwa and manga?

The main differences between manga and manhwa

The most obvious distinction between these two types of East Asian comics is their country of origin. Manga refers to comics made in Japan while manhwa refers to comics made in Korea – specifically South Korea, for the purposes of this discussion; manhwa is also made in North Korea, but these comics are generally inaccessible to an English-speaking audience.

In some corners of the internet, you will see that manga refers to all types of East Asian comics, whether it is manga vs. manhwa vs. manhua. Technically, this usage is incorrect outside of Japan. Manga and manhwa come from different countries and therefore have different histories, cultural influences and approaches. Let’s respect that.

The parallel stories of Manhwa and Manga

While historians claim that manga as an art form dates back to the 12th century, the modern format as we know it developed after WWII. At that time, Japan experienced a post-war boom, and the burgeoning manga industry was one of them. The most influential creator to emerge from this period was none other than the Manga’s godfather himself, Osamu Tezuka. Highly prolific, Tezuka’s approach would shape the visual aesthetic and dynamic action sequences associated with manga today.

Other famous mangaka will also shape the manga landscape, adding to the thematic diversity and varied storytelling that remains the strength of the format. For example, Machiko Hasegawa, a contemporary of Tezuka, wrote a popular post-war manga about the daily life of a housewife. Hello, slice of life manga! Other creators, such as those of the Year 24 group, were going to lay the foundations for BL and josei manga.

In contrast, modern manhwa has its roots in political and social commentary. As you can imagine, this relationship has often ended in a rocky road for the format. For example, under the Japanese occupation of Korea, newspapers were suppressed and political cartoons – AKA manhwa – shifted attention to less controversial topics. Even after Korea emerges from Japanese rule, the relationship between manhwa and the government remains closely linked. From outright shutting down manhwa magazines to creating large conglomerates that distribute manhwa, the government has effectively shaped the current manhwa landscape in terms of content and influence.

For more details on the history of manhwa, see this article.

The visual differences between the two formats

Another practical difference between manga and manhwa is the way they are read. The manga is read from right to left, top to bottom. Manhwa, meanwhile, is read left to right, top to bottom. On the contrary, this crucial difference is why we need to be more specific in how we use the terms manhwa vs manga. It affects our entire reading experience!

Another visual difference is that the manga is mostly drawn in black and white. Although color manga does exist, it is relatively rare. Instead, full color illustrations are reserved for the intro pages to highlight a popular title or a first launch. Part of that has to do with the way manga is produced in Japan. Manga is serialized in installments via weekly or monthly magazines printed on inexpensive paper. These chapters are then put together in volumes known as tankoubon, which is the most recognizable format for us in North America. The whole process prioritizes efficiency and cost reduction. As you can imagine, switching to full color pages would radically transform their business model.

That could change as the manga industry continues to shift towards digital distribution models. Japan has been slow to embrace digital technology in the past, but a lot has changed in recent years. Legal and simultaneous publication of serialized chapters is now available on a variety of manga apps and even Kindle Unlimited. Who knows what the future holds? Even now, more and more digital-only manga magazines are popping up in Japan.

Manhwa, however, has not shied away from embracing digital platforms. Most modern manhwa now exist as webtoons. But before you continue, don’t be confused. While most manhwa are webtoons, not all webtoons are manhwa. It’s like squares are rectangles, but rectangles aren’t necessarily squares.

This transition led to another major format difference between manhwa and manga. While manga layouts are optimized for reading like the pages of a book, manhwa – like webtoons – are optimized for reading on cell phones. As a result, the manhwa images are long and vertical, and the panels are arranged for continuous scrolling.

The digital consumption of manhwa via cell phones has led to further stylistic differences. Webtoons are often in color. Some webtoons also use multimedia elements such as embedded music tracks. However, with these additions come a tradeoff: many webtoons don’t have the same level of artistic detail as the format often used when printing manhwa.

Current trends in Manhwa vs Manga

Manga and manhwa tell a variety of stories, targeting a variety of demographics. Even so, a bird’s-eye view reveals some interesting trends. A subtle difference is the emphasis on teamwork versus individuals.

The biggest manga titles revolve around teams in one way or another. Sometimes it’s explicitly teams like the Sailor Guardians of Sailor moon or team 7 of Naruto. Other times it is groups of people working together as in Tokyo ghoul. Even titles without action like Kimi ni Todoke using non-romantic relationships to advance the plot. The relationships formed by the protagonist are just as important as their ultimate goal.

In manhwa, this team dynamic does not exist in the same way. The protagonist may have allies to help him achieve his goal, but the journey there is very individual. Medea may have many accomplices and pawns, but Your throne is the story of her thwarting Eros and taking what is his. Hayan depends on Euntae, but Unholy blood is the story of his defeat against the vampires who ruined his life.

How does it affect the reader? Ensemble launches manga, while charismatic protagonists lead manhwa. In manga, you can keep reading a series even if you don’t like the protagonist because the supporting cast is stellar. The same can’t necessarily be said of manhwa because if one main character doesn’t work for a reader, the whole story will fall apart.

Another interesting difference is in the subject. While manga certainly tackles real-life issues, many manhwa titles stick to the format’s historical roots and make social commentary its central premise. Real beauty focuses on the social obsession with physical appearances. Many webtoons from YLAB’s Bluestring universe such as Be educated and The world is money and power depend on bullying and what can be done to address the dysfunctional school environments that promote it.

Even when the subgenre is similar, manga and manhwa approach them differently. The manga – and its cousin, the light novels – adore isekai, the genre in which the protagonist is transported to another world. In manhwa, this theme manifests as a world that is no different from ours, but on which game-like restrictions have been placed. Solo leveling is a perfect example, but series like The player. Both approaches involve characters moving through a changed world, but the execution is fundamentally different even though they can, and usually do, appeal to the same reader.

They both tell great stories

Regardless of the format, manga and manhwa will continue to gain worldwide popularity. And as their popularity grows, so will their influence. We’ve already seen how webtoons now encompass digital comics around the world. More and more North American publishers are continuing their efforts to launch original manga in English like World coin. Time will tell how the widespread availability and accessibility of the two formats will affect the similarities and differences in the years to come.

About Wendy Hall

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