Musing on GEN Manhwa Issue 1
Now that the “manga boom” has ended and American readers have become sophisticated and discriminating enough to demand integrity and quality over flashy style and sheer quantity, few Korean comics are being localized into English language, but many of those which still are earn their publication. Independent publisher GEN is seeking to expand its horizons by expanding readers’, by branching out from indie Japanese manga into grassroots Korean manhwa comics translated for English speaking readers. Breaking away from the licensing and publication trend that dominated the early 2000s, typified by drowning readers in an overwhelming selection of mediocre manga and manhwa, GEN Manhwa has launched to hand-select outstanding little-known Korean comics that English speaking readers are certain to appreciate and enjoy. The debut volume of GEN Manhwa presents the two lengthy initial chapters of writer Kevin Han and artist Zom-J’s thrilling action/horror serial Stone Collector.
During the years surrounding 2004, when the manga boom was explosive in America and domestic publishers were scrambling to acquire titles in bulk for domestic publishing, attention expanded to focus on Korea’s parallel to Japanese manga, called “manhwa.” A degree of artistic & cultural discrimination may have prevented manhwa from achieving a degree of proliferation and popularity in America that rivaled Japanese manga – some manga fans may have rejected manhwa simply because it wasn’t of Japanese origin – but the medium’s potential also seemed limited by its innate characteristics. Korean manhwa emulated and even sometimes surpassed the stylistic visual design of Japanese manga but just as often lacked the narrative refinement of its Japanese counterpart. Countless manhwa brought to America looked fantastic but featured weak, unfocused, and uneven writing; they were visually sumptuous but narratively shallow. GEN seeks to buck this trend with the English language debut of Stone Collector, a book that matches is strikingly stylish art design with equally compelling writing.
In a barren frontier-like fantasy world reminiscent of Yasuhiro Nightow’s Trigun, “Stone Collectors” roam the land dispatching the hideous, murderous creatures that spawn from the novum stones that periodically fall to earth from the heavens. Nicolas is a stone-faced wandering stone collector with a tragic past whose expression only turns to vicious glee when the appearance of a novum stone monster grants him the opportunity to literally cut loose in a bloody dervish of wicked swordplay. The first two chapters’ 54 pages have Nicolas find a desperate girl and escort her her home to her “Holy Town” that hides a dangerous secret. The action starts right from the story outset and only ever lets up for the most brief of breaths.
Stone Collector is a godsend for fans of grim, violent action/horror manga like Hellsing & Claymore. Somewhat to its demerit, in fact, Stone Collector can be called a bit overly derivitive. Nicolas looks and feels exactly like a hybrid of Hellsing‘s Alucard and Trigun‘s Nicholas D. Wolfwood, right down to his identical name. His unique chest of weapons, especially in the wild western setting, distinctly evokes both Sergio Corbucci’s Django and Yasuhiro Nightow’s homage character Beyond the Grave from the Gungrave game franchise. A swordsman battling monsters in a holy city seems strikingly reminiscent of the Abyssal Ones’ seige of the city of Rabona in Norihiro Yagi’s Japanese manga Claymore. The abrupt arrival of zombies adds another satisfying degree of service for fans but simultaneously feels like another blunt attempt to capitalize on a bandwagon trend. However, Stone Collector ultimately overcomes any cliché by sheer force of style and pacing, whipping readers from one plot point to the next before they have any time to criticize a lack of originality. The dialogue is, at times, a bit bluntly expository, but never any more so than typical of Japanese manga, and it’s certainly nowhere near as distractingly artificial & expository as typical American comics are. The dialogue includes some strong language, and the art design includes some fairly intense graphic violence, making the serial satisfying for mature readers but probably unsuitable for children. GEN Manhwa’s presentation retains the story’s original visual sound effects and right-to-left layout. While sound-effects aren’t translated, the visual context makes their meaning obviously clear.
While this reviewer is personally saddened to see the monthly GEN Manga periodical go on hiatus, GEN Manhwa will be a rewarding substitue if the quality of its offerings matches or exceeds the debut of Stone Collector. The domestic presentation of this import comic is top-notch, and the manhwa itself highly enjoyable with barely a trace of the weakness that frequently characterizes Korean comics. Comic book fans of all varieties that enjoy thrilling and violent action rendered with style and verve should immediately collect Stone Collector, and manga and manhwa fans interested in supporting grassroots comics and independent efforts to bring outstanding Asian comics to America should invest in supporting this admirable and enjoyable effort from GEN.