I am an avid manhwa reader. It is what I automatically pick up during idle time, like when I am on the train or waiting for my lunch order to arrive. I never admitted this fact because, let’s face it, manhwa is pretty niche. Or so I thought.
What is “manhwa”?
For those of you who are new to the world of manhwa, let’s start with some basic terminology. “manhwa” are essentially Korean comics. They are usually issued digitally now, but some still are produced in hard copy. Manhwa are different from “Manga,” which are Japanese comics. Unlike manhwa, manga do not have any color and are always produced in hard copies. Manhwa are different from “manhua,” which are Chinese comics. Manhwa are also commonly referred to as “Webtoons,” which is a broader term that includes all web-based or digital comics. I will focus on Korean webtoons or manhwa.
Where can I access and read manhwa?
Some major platforms for Manhwa are Kakao and Webtoon, and Tapas. I use Webtoon, as it is available on the Apple app store, while Kakao is only available on the Google Play store. Stories can be accessed on these platforms for free. Fees can be charged for special requests, such as obtaining the newest chapters of a series before the general release date.
Why should you care about manhwa?
I don’t watch much television and I often give eyerolls to my family who seems to watch K-drama constantly, which I can hear playing for hours on end from my bedroom. But a couple of years ago I started to realize that I knew almost every storyline of the K-dramas that played in my household. Indeed, in addition to K-pop and K-drama, South Korea is also globally known for its manhwa series.
As someone who’s always on the go, I much prefer reading manhwa over watching TV shows or dramas, which require finding time to sit down for at least an hour to process one episode, especially if there are subtitles. In contrast, with manhwas, it only takes a quick few minutes to absorb a whole chapter. What’s great (and addicting) about Korean manhwa is that they are specifically designed for mobile smart phones, arranged vertically in single frames so they can easily be scrolled with your thumb while doing other daily tasks. Importantly, they are available in English, translated from the original Korean versions.
Importance of manhwa creators to K-drama and K-entertainment industry.
The demand for more and more Korean entertainment or K-drama has been unrelenting. For instance, Netflix recently announced its investment of $2.5 billion in South Korean content. The demand has become so strong that traditional K-drama writers for the industry cannot seem to keep up. Thus, studios are turning more to already written stories in the form of manhwa. This collaboration between manhwa creators and K-drama producers has resulted in some of the highest quality Korean content and helped the industry to meet the insatiable demand.
Top 10 Successful Manhwa Adaptations
1. True Beauty
The 257 chapter webtoon, “True Beauty”, made by Yaongyi, is about a girl named Lim Ju-kyung, who has always been discriminated against by peers and even family for being perceived as ‘ugly’. After binge watching beauty tutorials, she transforms her looks, transfer to a new school, but is still the same girl on the inside when she meets Lee Su-ho and his rival Han Seo-jun.
“True Beauty” is one of the most successful manhwas on the Webtoon app. Even before the manhwa was completed, “True Beauty” was adapted in  and became one of the most successful manhwa K-drama adaptations, starring Moon Ga-young as Ju-kyung, Cha Eunwoo as Lee Su-ho and Hwang In-youp as Han Seo-jun. Since the “True Beauty” manhwa was completed this past month in June 2023, many fans of the 12 episode drama eagerly hope for a season two.
2. Business Proposal
“Business Proposal”, created by Haehwa, is about a regular girl, Shin Ha-ri, who agrees to go on a blind date in place of her chaebol best friend, but the date just so happens to be the CEO of the company at which Ha-ri works, Kim Tae-moo. The hilarious story follows the couple’s relationship, with Ha-ri attempting to evade Tae-moo’s wrath while also keeping her job.
The drama “Business Proposal”, released in 2022, was a huge hit on Netflix, in part thanks to the chemistry of the stars, including Shin Hari portrayed by Kim Se-jeong, Kim Tae-moo played by Ahn Hyo-seop.
3. Itaewon Class
“Itaewon Class”, a manhwa created by Jo Kwang Jin, is an inspiring underdog revenge story of entrepreneur Park Sae-royi, who was arrested and sent to prison for beating a chaebol classmate, who both relentlessly bullied Sae-royi and killed his father. After his release four years later, Sae-royi labors to save enough to start a small restaurant business. Along the way, he hires a group of societal outsiders, including a genius sociopath, an ex-convict, a transgender chef, a black-Korean, who come together as a found family to overcome obstacles and build an empire.
The manhwa was adapted into a drama in 2020, starring Park Seo-joon, as Park Sae-royi, Kim Da–mi, as Jo Yi-seo, and Kwon Nara as Oh Soo-ah. Notably, the drama “Itaewon Class” received critical acclaim, including winning Best Drama Series at the Asian Television Awards in 2021.
4. See You in My 19th Life
“See You in My 19th Life”, a manhwa by Lee Hey, is about Ban Ji-eum, who remembers all of her past lives, and as the title suggests, the story tracks her 19th life. But this time, she has a mission to meet Moon Seo-ha, the boy she cared for and loved in her 18th life before she tragically died next to him in a car crash.
The highly anticipated adaptation of this manhwa was just recently released with the first episode airing on June 17, 2023. Ban Ji-eum is played by Shin Hye-sun, and Moon Seo-ha is played by Ahn Bo-hyun. While the drama is not completed yet, fans seem to be loving this adaptation based on its high ratings on Netflix.
5. All of Us Are Dead
“All of Us are Dead”, created by Joo Dong-geun, is about a group of high schoolers, surviving in a zombie apocalypse. The characters are in school when the apocalypse breaks out, and must survive as one by one their classmates turn into zombies.
The drama, adapted in 2022, was a massive hit with a cult following lasting for many months. It was swiftly renewed for a new season due to its astronomical success. It stars Yoon Chan-young as Lee Cheong-san, Park Ji-hu as Nam On-jo, and Cho Yi-hyun as Choi Nam-ra. Within 30 days, 474 million hours of the show were watched on Netflix, ranking “All of Us Are Dead” among the highest ever on the service. With a confirmed Season Two, many eagerly await the continuation of the story.
6. What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim
“What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim”, made by Jung Kyung-yoon, is about Kim Mi-so, who suddenly resigns from her job of 9 years as a secretary for her rich, handsome and narcissistic boss, Lee Young-joon. Young-joon works hard to retain Mi-so as his secretary, as she is extremely competent and trusted, while Mi-so seeks to find a man from her childhood. Along the way they fall in love and help each other heal from their past traumas.
The manhwa was adapted into a drama in 2018 with 16 episodes, starring Park Min-young as Kim Mi-so, and Park Seo-joon as Lee Young-joon. Viewership of the drama peaked at 10.5 percent according to Nielsen Korea, in part because of the popularity of the actors as well as their on screen chemistry.
7. Once Upon a Small Town
“Once Upon a Small Town”, a manhwa by Darangeo, is about Han Ji-yul, a big city veterinarian who reluctantly moves to a small town to run his grandfather’s veterinary clinic. He struggles to adapt to country living while running all over town to treat hurt animals. Ji-yul meets Ahn Ja-young, a rookie police officer, with whom he slowly falls in love, leading him to grow attached to his new country life.
“Once Upon a Small Town” was adapted in 2022. It stars Choo Young-woo as Han Ji-yul and Park Soo-young, A.K.A, Joy of the Kpop group Red Velvet, as Ahn Ja-young. It received critical acclaim, being one of the top 10 most watched shows in 2022 and receiving praise from critics. Personally, I think people enjoyed this series because it follows a familiar story line: I recall the same story being told in my childhood favorite movie, “Cars“.
8. Sweet Home
“Sweet Home”, by Kim Carnby and Hwang Young-chan, is about a young boy named Cha Hyun-soo, who after his parent’s tragic death, moves into an apartment alone. Before Hyun-soo can even settle into his new home, a horrifying, monster flooded apocalypse begins. Hyun-soo and the rest of the residents of the apartment complex must survive in the building in which they are trapped.
“Sweet Home”, the drama, was adapted in 2020. It stars Song Kang as Cha Hyun-soo. Due to its immense success, has both a season two scheduled for release later in 2023, and a confirmed season three in production which is very exciting.
“Tomorrow”, a webtoon created by Llama, is about Choi Joon-woong, a young man who is unsuccessfully searching for a job. After an accident, he meets actual grim reapers in an organization called ‘Jumadeung,’ whose purpose is to prevent the deaths of people who want to die, including bullying victims, soldiers, and grievers.
“Tomorrow” was adapted in 2022 and is currently available on Netflix. It stars Rowoon as Park Joon-wong and Lee Soo-hyuk as Park Joon-gil, the leader of the grim reaper management team. The drama ended earlier than the currently ongoing manhwa, so fans of both must ponder on how the manhwa will conclude.
10. Extraordinary You
“July Found by Chance” by Muryu, is about a girl named Eun Dan-oh, a student at a prestigious school. Dan-oh’s life is pretty lousy. She has a heart condition that won’t allow her to live beyond her teenage years, and she is engaged to her crush, who absolutely detests her. Dan-oh discovers one day that the entire world that she lives in is a novel, made and maintained by a writer, who also gave her such a bleak future. Rejecting her fate, Dan-oh teams up with nameless student 13 (later named Ha-ru) to change the story of the novel and escape their destiny.