Comic books become major exportThe Korean comic book industry is enjoying a boom in the United States and Europe, with exports, which only totaled $70 million in 2002, hitting $600 million last year.
Daiwon CI Inc. has sold 60 million copies of the cartoon series “Ragnarok” in the United States, and the total royalties earned there, and in France, Germany and Italy, amount to 200 million won ($195,000) a year.
Liberation, a French daily newspaper, wrote last year that the Korean comic book industry is no longer an extra on the international scene, but stands as a star of the Asian industry, although it was only a few years ago that Korean comics (manhwa) were considered a generic version of the Japanese manga.
Last year an international comic book festival took place in France, and Korea was one of the major participating countries, exhibiting more than 200 comics, including famous Korean stories such as “Yongbibulpae” (Yongbi the Invincible), “Full House” and “Nambeol” (Conquering the South), which were translated into English and French. More than 8 million visitors attended the festival, and many asked questions about how the Korean works were produced, and what the differences were between manhwa and manga.
Young people in France showed a lot of enthusiasm in particular for Korean comics and culture, said Park Seong-shik, head of characters and comics at the Korea Culture and Content Agency, adding, “I saw a young student wearing a backpack that said ‘sarang’ (love) in Korean. Some students said they were learning Korean in order to read the cartoons in the original language.”
At the Angoulem International Cartoon Festival in France, held from Jan. 27 to 30, Hyeong Min-woo and Lee So-yeong, the creators of the popular Korean stories “Priest” and “Model,” respectively, were participants and had several book signing sessions.
Domestically, however, comics are considered to be just for children and adolescents, and the industry has only focused on appealing to this demographic. Ironically, this weakness is what has made Korean comics successful overseas.
Commentators note that comics in Europe and the United States appear to lack “sensitivity,” usually dealing with heroes like “Superman,” “Batman” or “Spider-man.”
In American cartoons, characters fight for justice, and the theme is mostly about bad guys eventually paying for their evil deeds, while European cartoons are more educational than sentimental, “The Adventures of Tin Tin” and “Smurfs” being examples.
This may explain why Korean comics have become more popular in the United States and Europe ― the different genre appeals to the sentimentalism that teenagers feel. Korean romance stories have been tear-jerkers for American and European teenage girls, and the different styles in the action comics appeal to teenage boys’ imaginations.
Japanese comics seem to have always been successful in the United States and Europe, but Korean storylines are catching up fast. Jeong Hyeong-cheol, a team manager of the Korea Culture and Content Agency, says, “Currently, the Japanese and Korean comic markets can be described as being at an ‘80 to 20’ ratio. In five years, however, it will soon become 70 to 30.” He predicted that the annual profit from the exports of Korean comics would be between $10 million and $15 million by then.
In the comic export market, sales mean profits, according to industry experts, since the concept of raw materials doesn’t really apply. It’s a licensing industry, meaning that sales directly turn into profits. If the success of the Korean comic book industry extends to other fields such as animation, online games and character sales, the economic benefits could be dramatic.
by Baik Sung-ho, Choi Sun-young