Manhwa, or Korean comics, are something I am relatively unfamiliar with. I can spot the similarities and obvious influences from manga in modern manhwa, and I’ve looked at a few titles here and there, but I have neither the knowledge of history nor the personal experience to say I have a firm sense of how manhwa “is.” Given that my expertise (if you can call it that) is primarily in manga, however, I found it quite interesting when a manhwa title I’ve read recently, Dragon Who, takes elements clearly inspired by manga but cross-pollinates them in a way which normally never happens among Japanese comics.
A title from 2009, Dragon Who is about a dragon boy named Roa Coatl who travels to South Korea to find the descendant of Quetzacoatl to make her his bride so that they can prevent an impending global disaster. In other words, it’s a shounen-esque school comedy/romance/action title that probably wouldn’t feel too alien to manga readers aside from the decidedly Korean names for most of the characters. Given that comfortable familiarity I think one would expect certain stylistic approaches, and indeed Dragon Who looks the part of a shounen manga to a good degree, but take a look at this image:
(By the way, for those unfamiliar, manhwa reads left to right.)
The character designs look quite shounen, perhaps even closer to late 90s shounen titles, but the use of blooming flowers in the foreground to introduce a character (and this is the main heroine Go So-Ahn’s first appearance) is an element straight out of shoujo. When combined with the fact that So-Ahn herself is designed to be fairly normal as opposed to strikingly beautiful, looking closer to a best friend character than a main character herself, it makes for an almost defiant combination of visual elements: a shounen title with a shoujo-esque heroine with shounen heroine looks.
Not only that, but Dragon Who has its own fair share of attractive guys, and while the title is neither harem nor reverse harem, the following image can give a certain impression as to how the title skews.
At this point, I think it would be easy to chalk it up to the popularity of shounen titles among female reader inside and outside of Japan (and I would have to assume Korea as well), and the titles which are designed to appeal to girls in Japanese comics to varying degrees such as Black Butler and Kuroko’s Basketball, but I’m not so sure that explains it. For one thing, Dragon Who is still keen to include elements like beefy muscular guys who aren’t all lithe bishounen, as well as fanservice for male readers.
Just to be clear, this is not a matter of manhwa looking “enough” like manga or not, but rather seeing how the manhwa inspired by manga doesn’t have to play by the rules (or at least plays with chunks of rules from four different places). To me, it feels more like Dragon Who is the product of authors taking aspects and visual language from manga regardless of genre or intended audience and putting them all in one place, or like if a shoujo writer were paired with a shounen artist. It’s a crossing of assumed boundaries which can show how thin and permeable those walls can be if only we’d allow them to be.