Manhwa in Korea was born 100 years ago. From their beginnings as cartoons in the newspapers, they have grown into long-running graphic novel serials with spin-offs in online games and big screen adaptations.
Among the most celebrated of modern Manhwa series are Priest (Hyung Min-woo) and Ragnarok (Lee Myung-jin). Both of these have been translated into English and are available through Tokyopop. The original versions were published at the rate of one every couple of months. Priest, a gothic western which is to be turned into a Hollywood film, is still going, while Ragnarok, which was originally envisaged to carry on for forty volumes has ground to a halt after 10 as the author concentrates on building out the related online world.
They are, it has to be said, a specialist taste. The world of Ragnarok is Midgard – a strange geographical composite of Andalucia, Provence and the Cotswolds. It’s a world inhabited by demons and dragons, semi-divine swordsmen with mystic powers and female warriors with unfeasibly large breasts. Most of the men seem to have have clean cut, feminine looks and long flowing hair, and can only be distinguished from the female characters by their lack of prominent breasts and by the fact that they don’t expose their navels.
“It’s good to get out of that training gear and into regular clothes again”, says one curvy amazon, as she relaxes in skimpy briefs, bustier, stockings and not much else – though it has to be said that her fighting clothes are not much different.
Fearsome monsters are conjured up, babies are sacrificed in dungeons at the time of the full moon to bring about the return of the dark lord, Valkyries with massive chips on their shoulders scheme against the world of men, while the Fates look on and don’t do much at all. The Assassins Guild try to maintain the balance between the forces of good and evil, though their choice of which side to back at any one time seems to be a little arbitrary. Sounds like a recipe for Chaos? Appropriately enough, that’s the name of one of the characters.
Confused? You will be. There’s mayhem on every page as invincible warriors are slaughtered, impregnable fortresses razed to the ground, mysterious sprites conjured out of thin air to do the bidding of their masters and mistresses.
Ever wanted to know the Korean for Kerpow!! and Whoosh!!? The latter is 촤아아아, but there is a cornucopia of onomatopoeia in hangeul on every page.
There’s no end of energy and imagination in the story-telling and artwork, though sometimes the work is so stylised and there are so many explosions and exclamations littering the page that it’s difficult to work out who’s doing what to whom. Novices will have to rely on the potted summary at the beginning of the next volume to figure out that a whole community has been wiped from the face of the planet in the concluding pages of its prequel.
Emphasising the link to the online game, the key characters are given thumbnail sketches at the start of each book (divided into goodies and baddies), with their alignment (chaotic neutral, lawful good and the like), the magic powers of their weaponry, and points for wisdom, strength and charisma – rather like Top Trumps. It’s all good fun, and in a strange sort of way addictive. But at $10 per volume, it could turn out to be an expensive habit if consumed all at once.