Manhwa- Korea gets biz-ay

June 14, 2010

Manhwa is Korean manga/comics, and it never gets the space that Japanese manga so often occupies in major bookstores like Barnes & Noble or Borders. So I want to talk about two great South Korean artists and the Manhwa series they do, Kim Young-Oh‘s Banya, and Park Joong-Ki‘s Shaman Warrior. These are two of the most exciting and dynamic looking books I’ve ever seen, and there is a cinematic nature to their work that isn’t often found in a drawn image. I’m always a little apprehensive when talking about asian comics, as many of the books are produced in a studio system, where no one artist does an entire work. I’m often concerned that giving credit to the artist whose name is on the book may be misleading. Regardless, these two series, are some of the most striking I’ve seen. I think any artist can look to these books and find inspiration for their own work.

I won’t claim to be an expert on the careers of the two artists listed here, but Kim Young-Oh‘s work on his Banya series (from what I’ve read) has influenced the work of Park Joong-Ki. To look at the books off hand you can’t help but notice the similarities in the visual approaches of the two. What impresses me most about them is the sense of motion they bring to the art. There’s an energy in the action, that I think comes from the combination of more realistic figures and motion blurs added directly into the art by hand, and not thru some trick of Photoshop. I equate this to film- special effects artists who would say it was done directly “in the camera” and not in post. It gives the action and honesty that a Photoshop blur doesn’t- this on top of the great camera angles really pushes the action off the page.

Interior page from Shaman Warrior

Additionally, I really enjoy the heroes, appearing larger than life without being drawn anatomically larger than humanly possible. The body types are realistic, and while the actions are super-human, the heroes are rendered in normal proportions so we can still be astonished by their acts, not by their anatomy. When I see someone of normal build do feats of strength, I tend to be more impressed by what they do, and I’m not standing around saying “What else did you expect that 300lbs of muscle to do?”. Think of it in terms of a Hong Kong action film where people are doing things we know aren’t possible, but because it’s handled in a realistic way our suspension of disbelief is never pushed beyond its limits. This is totally different from scenes in CGI dominated films where it’s obvious the actors have been replaced by digitally rendered figures doing insane things. It’s gets to a point where it feels as if  we’re actually watching Warner Brothers cartoon, because suddenly people are eating dynamite and living after the explosion. In these books, despite the insane action, there’s a level of realism maintained where we can still feel it’s actors performing, and not some computer animated figures we can’t relate to.

Interior page from Banya

Between the two series I have to admit I think Banya is a stronger story, with a more coherent plot. It’s the less realistic in terms of setting, and the feel of the book is something of a combination between Dune and Hero.

Shaman Warrior though, to me, has the more dynamic art, and seems to expand on the visual language that is established in Banya. If it’s true that Joong-Ki was influenced by Banya, then it’s easy to see that this is the next step artistically. The story does get a little convoluted at times, and where Banya has a sci-fi feel, Shaman Warrior is more fantasy, with mystical roots rather than alien worlds.

I have to recommend these books for any artist needing inspiration to bring more excitement to their own work. Unlike other artists, they bring exaggeration of action to their stories without sacrificing realism in their figure work, and without falling back onto cartoonish tricks. It’s excitement we can believe in, and not something that constantly violates our sensitive suspension of disbelief. They’re just keeping it real.

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