Mighty Manhwa! | Stellar Panels

Korean and Chinese comics reach English-language readers.

Move over, manga! With the burgeoning popularity of webtoons, K-drama, and K-pop, manhwa—comics from Korea—have made a big impact on English-language audiences. Chinese comics, manhua, are growing in number as well.

Unlike manga, most manhua and manhwa available in English are in color and read from left to right. Almost all were originally published online in the vertical-scroll webtoon format and have shorter chapters than manga. And most of those webtoons started off as web novels that were then adapted not just into webtoons, but often into anime and live-action drama as well.

Manhua is a small but mighty category currently. Seven Seas Entertainment has been publishing the danmei (romance between men) novels of Mo Xiang Tong Xiu—often abbreviated to MXTX—and in 2023 published the comic adaptation of one of those stories, “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation.” Judging from the amount of danmei cosplay at anime cons, this category is likely to grow in the next few years.

[Also read: "There’s Not Enough Middle Grade Manga. U.S. Publishers Are Changing That."]

In addition to danmei, two key manhua genres to be aware of are wuxia, which involves martial arts, and xianxia, which adds a supernatural element; both are set in a fantasy version of ancient China. Wuxia and xianxia novels and films are growing in popularity with English-language audiences (the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is wuxia, for example). As more manhua is translated into English, it’s likely to be in those genres.

Manhwa has already spiked in popularity, thanks to the growth of the webtoon platforms WEBTOON and Tapas, which offer the stories, or at least initial chapters, for free. Because the art is designed for vertical scrolling, reading a webtoon on a smartphone or tablet is a very different experience from reading the book: on screen, the vibrant colors favored by many artists really glow, and scrolling allows for dramatic transitions. Some of that is lost when the comics are adapted for print, though the print format has the advantage of presenting the story continuously, without the interruptions of switching chapters and eventually having to unlock later chapters by watching ads or buying in-app currency.

The most popular genres of manhwa for teens are LitRPG fantasy and romantic fantasy, often with an element of isekai, stories in which the character is transported to another world.

Some manhwa series, such as “Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint,” incorporate elements of role-playing games into the story: a character is plopped into a fantasy world and levels up his skills, assisted by screens that provide statistics and information. This is already a hugely popular genre in manga, thanks to such series as “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.” Most fantasy romance manhwa has a fairy-tale feel, with empresses, villainesses, and lots of palace intrigue. While it may have magical elements too, the emphasis is on the relationships between the characters.

With the worldwide popularity of K-pop, the massive South Korean entertainment corporation Hybe has gotten into the game with manhwa that features the members of popular boy bands in fantasy stories. Here’s a look at some current manhwa series, as well one manhua for teens, “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation: Mo Dao Zu Shi.”

ALPHATART. “The Remarried Empress.” adapt. by HereLee. illus. by SUMPUL. Yen Pr./Ize. 2022–
Gr 8 Up–This fantasy series starts out with a dramatic ending: The Empress Navier agrees to divorce the Emperor Sovieshu, then triumphantly produces her new lover, whom she announces she will marry. Then we flash back to the beginning of the story. Although theirs was an arranged marriage, Emperor Sovieshu and Empress Navier were very much in love—until the Emperor took a mistress, Rashta. She is childish and manipulative, and Sovieshu goes along with her every whim. As Navier tries to stay ahead and maintain her dignity, a handsome but rakish prince from another land enters the picture. It’s a glorious soap opera, with all the trappings of palace intrigue, including strict class differentials, gossipy ladies in waiting, and gorgeous costumes. The manhwa is based on a web novel.

HYBE & Enhypen. “Dark Moon.” illus. by Hybe. Yen Pr./Ize. 2023–
Gr 8 Up–Sooha, a girl with a mysterious superpower and a deep hatred of vampires, arrives at a boarding school that goes to great lengths to be vampire-free. But it’s not, and she meets a group of cute vampire boys (modeled after the members of the boy band Enhypen) who become obsessed with her. Some are hostile, some are friendly, and one is extra nice and protective. Although Sooha’s new friends are harmless, a student from a nearby school was recently murdered by a vampire, and when a group of werewolves from that school come over ready to rumble, Sooha calms everyone with her powers and a good scolding. Overall, this is less a horror story than a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Enhypen fans (and other teens). The story starts with a potentially disturbing image of a dead boy in a coffin. It is Sooha’s childhood friend whose mysterious death, the work of a vampire, is blamed on her. Still, there’s no doubt that Sooha is going to be just fine, because those vampire boys are looking out for her. The art is similar to shoujo romance manga, but in color; everyone is tall and thin with big eyes and lots of flowing hair.

JH. “The Boxer.” illus. by author. Yen Pr./Ize. 2022–
Gr 8 Up–An aging boxing coach looking for one last boxer to mentor goes to a gym and encounters Baeksan, a white-haired boxing prodigy. As impressed as he is, he’s more interested in a boy getting pummeled by bullies outside the gym. That boy, Yu, takes the punches without flinching, but once he gets into the gym, his true talent comes through: he reacts to his opponent’s moves much more quickly than most fighters. Yu and Baeksan are classmates, and a third classmate enters the story as well: Injae, whose father was a boxer, and who thinks he can do anything if he tries hard enough. The story mostly follows Yu as the coach takes him away to train in his gym. The series explores the different attitudes and emotions of the boxers, but there is a darker side, with bullying, abuse, and the violence that is simply a part of boxing. The spare art packs a lot of emotion, with a limited palette, smoky blacks, and intense facial expressions. A tough but solid read. An anime is in the works.

MILCHA. “Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion.” illus. by Whale. Yen Pr. 2022-
Gr 8 Up–Raeliana ended up at the duke’s mansion because she was reincarnated into the world of a mystery novel, and having read the book, she knew her fiancé was going to kill her. To save herself, she had to break the engagement, so she recruited the handsome but untrustworthy Duke Noah Volstaire Wynknight as her new romantic interest, using her knowledge of the plot of the story to leverage her power with him. When she moves into his mansion so she can start learning to be a proper bride, the adventures really begin. Raeliana is smart and sympathetic, with a cool-headed approach to both friends and enemies. The art is lovely and clear-lined, with great costumes and backgrounds. The anime is available on Crunchyroll.

SAN.G.“Tomb Raider King.” adapt. by Yuns (REDICE). illus. by 3B2S. Yen Pr./Ize. 2022–
Gr 8 Up–In the year 2025, mysterious tombs suddenly spring up all over the world, each containing magical “relics” that grant superpowers to the possessor. This leads to a worldwide scramble for the relics and a general breakdown of society. Tomb raider Jooheon Suh is forced to work for a multinational corporation that exploits his work and finally double-crosses him, sending him on a mission guaranteed to end in his death. But he gets a second chance and moves back in time to 2025, just before the tombs appeared, with his memories, skills, and physical fitness all intact. This is an opportunity not only to get rich quickly, but also to exact revenge on the evil CEO who tried to kill him. Despite being rated for teens, this is a very sweary manga with many F-bombs, and the ruthless Jooheon is unlikable. It’s like a hard-boiled crime novel with a supernatural element. The art is by Redice Studios, which also did the adaptation of the 16+ series “Solo Leveling.”

SINGNSONG. “Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint.” adapt. by UMI(REDICE). illus. by Sleepy-C. Yen Pr./Ize. 2023–
Gr 8 Up–Dokja Kim is an ordinary guy working a mediocre job. For years he has escaped his problems by reading a web novel, Three Ways to Survive the Apocalypse —a novel so obscure that he is the only reader. So when life suddenly imitates art and the world transforms into a sadistic survival game overseen by dokkaebi (Korean goblins) for the entertainment of enigmatic, far-away beings known as Constellations, Dokja has a unique advantage: he has read the book. He knows the world and the characters, and to a limited degree, the future. The story moves forward in a series of disaster-movie scenarios and there’s a lot of violence, but it’s not explicit. Several live-action films are in the works.

SPICE&KITTY. “A Stepmother’s Märchen.” illus. by Orka. Seven Seas. 2023–
Gr 8 Up–Shuri, the teenage daughter of a family in the lower echelons of the nobility, is whisked away to marry an important stranger, the Marquess of Neuschwanstein. He dies almost immediately, though, and Shuri is left to raise his four resentful children and deal with his grasping family, who want to take his riches and power for themselves. It goes badly, and Shuri ends up estranged from her stepchildren. Then, on the day of her stepson’s wedding, she dies and returns to the day of her husband’s funeral 15 years earlier. Given the chance for a do-over, she resolves to change the course of her and her children’s lives. Her remembered experience helps her secure the family fortunes, and with more confidence, she is a better stepmother. The art is full of period detail and the characters are varied and expressive, occasionally shifting to cartoony, chibi-style.

YAONGYI. “True Beauty.” illus. by author. WEBTOON Unscrolled. 2022–
Gr 8 Up–Jugyeong Lim hates the way she looks, and she is convinced that if she becomes more beautiful, she will be more popular. She tries the suggestions she finds online and comes up with a look that transforms her to the point where people outside her family don’t recognize her. After she meets a cute boy who only talks to her in the manga store where she doesn’t wear makeup, you’d think the “true beauty comes from within” trope would pop up, but that’s not how this story proceeds. He blackmails her instead, threatening to expose her secret, although it’s pretty mild stuff (she has to get him an apple juice and go to a movie with him). Then an even prettier girl comes along and starts causing trouble. This story is not deep, but it is a fun read, with smooth, attractive art and good-looking characters. This is one of the most popular series on the WEBTOON platform, and an animated series will be released later this year.

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX). “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation: Mo Dao Zu Shi.” illus. by Luo Di Cheng Qiu. Seven Seas. 2023–
Gr 10 Up–Wei Wuxian was a powerful cultivator—someone who pursues superpowers and immortality through magical means—but he chose an evil path and came to be feared and reviled. He dies in a battle, but 13 years later, a desperate man named Mo Xuanyu—a low-status member of a powerful family—summons his spirit by sacrificing his own soul, commanding Wei to avenge the wrongs done to him. Wei’s immediate challenge is dealing with the violence wreaked upon his new clan by ferocious dismembered corpses, but the larger story is about his reunion with his old friend and romantic interest Lan Wangji. The characters are divided into clans, each with a distinctive costume, but following the story is challenging because many characters look similar and everyone uses several different names. Offsetting this, though, is a fast-moving, intrigue-filled story and beautiful art featuring willowy men with flowing costumes and hair. The series is based on novels also published by Seven Seas, which have been adapted into the Netflix live-action series The Untamed.

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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