Framed for scrolling on mobile devices and laden with exceptional style and artistry, narratives that tap universal emotions, and strategic localization – Korean online comics, now better known as webtoons, are captivating readers worldwide.
A high-school girl with an inferiority complex because of her looks transforms herself with make-up. Will the boy she loves become smitten with her? It’s a coming-of-age formula seen over and over in movies and TV shows. But as a webtoon in the hands of artist Yaongyi, “True Beauty” is an international favorite. It began serializing on Naver Webtoon, Korea’s biggest webtoon platform, in 2018. For overseas readers, weekly episodes are uploaded to WEBTOON (distinguished from Naver’s domestic webtoon platform) and, starting with the Thai site, are serviced in Indonesia, Japan and Taiwan, as well as North America, France and Spain. Accumulated overseas page views have reached four billion.
Webtoons are a distinct type of digital comics that originated in Korea in the early 2000s. Each installment appears in a long, vertical strip, optimized for easy scrolling and readability on computers, tablets and smartphones. Webtoons also are noted for their splashes of color and some are even accompanied by music. But behind the reader-friendly aspects and “anywhere, anytime” accessibility are universal sentiments and experiences, paving the way for acceptance and popularity around the world.
Augmenting the spread of this addition to the Korean Wave is translation into English and other languages, as well as platforms that offer free viewing. And of course, attention to planning and the creativity of artists have remained the hallmarks of webtoons since their inception.
Fans of “Killing Stalking” buy books and related merchandise at Etna Comics, held in Catania, Italy, in June 2019. The author, Koogi, signed autographs in a meet-and-greet with readers. © LEZHIN Entertainment, Inc.
“Killing Stalking,” winner of the grand prize in the Second Lezhin Comics World Comic Contest, places a serial killer and a stalker in the same house, both unaware of each other’s history. It was serialized on the webtoon portal Lezhin Comics from November 2016 to March 2019. © Koogi / Courtesy of LEZHIN Entertainment, Inc.
Webtoons cover a wide variety of genres to attract readers and keep them satisfied. On the opposite end of the spectrum from sugar-coated works such as “True Beauty” are raw creations like “Killing Stalking” (2016-2019), an adult thriller with homosexual overtones and sadistic content. Praised for its unique style and suspense, “Killing Stalking” was serialized on the webtoon portal Lezhin Comics and disarmed readers in North America; now it’s enticing the European market as well. Not surprisingly, the author, Koogi, has been a frequent invitee to fan festivals, including Anime Expo held in Los Angeles; the Lucca Comics and Games convention in Italy, the biggest comics festival in Europe and second biggest in the world; and Etna Comics, also in Italy
Another major webtoon hit is “Solo Leveling” (2018), an adaptation of a fantasy web novel, “Only I Level Up.” It narrates the growth and development of the protagonist as he battles all kinds of monsters and other creatures. He rises to another level each time he completes a task, as in a role playing game that heightens emotional connections between players and their avatars.
The webtoon can be read in English on both Webnovel and Tappytoon. It’s also being serial-ized in China, Japan, Vietnam and France, ranking among the top titles in terms of page views. Likewise, in Japan, Brazil and Germany, where it’s been published in physical book form, “Solo Leveling” has been a leader in local online retail listings.
“Only I Level Up” was a popular 2016 web novel by Chugong. It was adapted into a webtoon, “Solo Leveling,” with writing by h-goon and illustrations by DUBU from REDICE STUDIO. An English translation is on Tappytoon. The comic book version topped Amazon’s comic book rankings in Brazil and Germany, and is also sold in Japan. © DUBU (REDICE STUDIO), Chugong, h-goon, D&C WEBTOON Biz
To ensure quality and success, webtoon platforms carefully screen creators. Those who survive multiple rounds of talks are given the green light to serialize their brainchild. Thereafter, at least six months (and at times, more than a year) of planning go into preparing a single title.
Webtoon episodes are typically uploaded weekly. This is a very short time frame to complete an installment, which usually consists of 60-90 panels. To reduce the workload and enhance quality, a specialized production system divides the main tasks – planning, story composition, continuity, sketches, background images and coloring – among individuals and teams.
Training at universities and organizations that promote cultural content has also contributed to raising the quality of storytelling and art, paired with critical perspectives of the art form that have arisen in academic circles.
The most popular webtoons among young international readers deal with the common experiences of their generation. Readers gain vicarious satisfaction as they follow the stories of protagonists who overcome obstacles to achieve their most ardent dreams.
Korean webtoon platforms began knocking on the doors of international markets years ago. Using their own social networking accounts, the platforms introduced some of their best works to readers and distributors abroad. But ensuring quality translations proved to be a major challenge. This prompted platform operators to source local translators, helping to accurately convey the context of Korean webtoons and at the same time encouraging local artists to create their own works.
One outcome of this process was the launch of the WEBTOON CANVAS Awards in the United States as a gateway for amateur cartoonists. This is the U.S. version of Naver Webtoon’s “Dojeon Manhwa” (or “Manhwa Challenge”), introduced in 2006 for aspiring comic artists to upload their work to be judged by readers. The most popular works are selected and their creators are given the opportunity to publish them online in serial form.
New Zealand artist Rachel Smythe’s global hit “Lore Olympus” is one of the works created in this open competition. It was nominated for the 2019 Eisner Awards, the comic book world’s equivalent of the Oscars. A Korean translation has been uploaded weekly to Naver Webtoon since August 2020.
“True Beauty” is webtoon creator Yaongyi’s debut work. It follows a bullied high school girl who decides to transform herself into a beauty through make-up. Translations of the webtoon have been a hit in several countries. © Yaongyi / Courtesy of NAVER WEBTOON
“Lore Olympus” by Rachel Smythe is a modern take on Greek mythology. It was discovered through the WEBTOON CANVAS Awards, Naver’s open competition for amateurs in the United States. The first chapter was uploaded to the English site WEBTOON in March 2018 and is still available. © Rachel Smythe / Courtesy of NAVER WEBTOON
Initially, the prevailing view was that webtoons had to be retrofitted for the culture and tastes of targeted overseas audiences. Yoon Tae-ho’s “Misaeng: Incomplete Life,” serialized in 2012-2013, upended this belief. The webtoon was about a young man whose world revolved around the strategy board game baduk (go). When he fails to become a professional player, he looks for a job. But armed with only a high-school equivalency certificate, his prospects are limited in a meritocracy. He is hired at a large trading company as a contract employee. Short-term contracts are a vulnerable way to survive.
In 2017, “Misaeng: Incomplete Life” won the Excellence Award in the manga category at the 20th Japan Media Arts Festival organized by Tokyo’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. The reasoning behind the win was that “readers empathized with a hero trapped in the cracks appearing in a society obsessed with academic credentials and economic growth. Japan has shared the same predicament for some time.” The basis for the sentiments in this webtoon was not confined to a single culture.
The most popular webtoons among young international readers deal with the common expe-riences of their generation. Readers gain vicarious satisfaction as they follow the stories of protagonists who overcome obstacles to achieve their most ardent dreams. This can be seen as the greatest strength of Korean webtoons. By catering to young people not only through their simple interests, like those in “True Beauty,” but also through the ordeals they face living in this age where it’s so hard to make dreams come true, like in “Misaeng: Incomplete Life,” webtoons are reverberating around the world.
Why I Love Webtoons
Webtoons are gaining popularity around the world. After K-pop, Korean digital comics are enticing young people on all continents. Four fans share their views – what about webtoons they find attractive and interesting.
Kang Young-woonReporter, Maeil Business Newspaper
“The genres are diverse.”
A Korean studies major living in Dortmund, Germany, Canan Kus, 26, is a self-confessed webtoon fanatic. She first started reading webtoons at the recommendation of friends when she was studying in Korea several years ago, and it has since become part of her daily routine.
For Kus, the strength of webtoons lies in their accessibility and the diversity of genres. “Everyone has different tastes and individuality, but there are so many different styles of webtoons that it really is possible to satisfy everyone,” she says. “It’s a great advantage that such a large number of works can be seen on a smartphone.” Reading webtoons on the way to school alleviates boredom and makes time pass more quickly, she adds.
In Europe, webtoons are still less familiar than manga, but Kus thinks that this is gradually shifting. As webtoons reflect so much of Korean culture, she says that, like K-pop, they can be used for Korea’s national branding efforts.
“It won’t be long before webtoons are widely popular throughout Asia, America, Europe and other places,” she says. “If more works are translated, that is. Because the world inside webtoons is fun and full of great stories.”
“The artistry is outstanding.”
Nida Karim, 30, left India to get an MBA degree in Korea and fell in love with webtoons when she started to read “Cheese in the Trap.” Now she stays up late reading webtoons two or three nights a week. “They have a special meaning for me because I’m learning the Korean language,” she says, and with a laugh, adds, “As I read them only in Korean, I’m almost forgetting my English.”
For Karim, the attraction of webtoons is the realistic depiction and beautiful art style. Unlike the print comics of old, which were basically limited to black and white, webtoons are richly colored and have much more depth. She also extols the quality of the storytelling.
“Movies and TV dramas have to worry about commercial success, so they face many limitations because of all the varied interests involved. But with webtoons, the artists can give flight to their imagination and results can be fantastic,” she says.
Ubiquitous, 24/7 accessibility via mobile devices is another strong point. “Sometimes I lose myself in reading webtoons and end up losing my way on the subway. I sometimes find myself reading webtoons in the middle of a boring lecture.”
Webtoons are not yet widespread in India. But Karim expects that as the Korean Wave carries further, they will gradually gain a foothold in her home country.
“I find the characters and pace enticing.”
Noriyoshi Sasaki, 35, was studying translation at a Korean graduate school when he fell in love with webtoons and began translating them into Japanese.
“There aren’t too many characters, and each one is brilliantly drawn to maximize the appeal,” he says. “The simple yet gripping stories move quickly. The content is short but well structured.” Sasaki appreciates how readers can immediately post reviews in the comments section and communicate with the artists, as well as the rapid pace of updates that come once or twice a week.
Considering the number of highly popular film and TV drama adaptations they’ve generated, Sasaki believes webtoons can promote Korea to the world alongside K-pop and Korean literature. Such adaptations are what led Sasaki to read the original works.
“Compared to Japanese, the Korean language has so many onomatopoeic words that it’s hard to express them. I make efforts to find a way to convey to Japanese readers Korean-style expressions that don’t exist in Japanese, as well as acronyms and trendy language used by young people, all within the limited space afforded by comics,” he says.
“My interest in Korean culture has grown.”
North Carolina resident Chelsey Moore, 25, found webtoons by chance. Two years ago, she learned about “Lore Olympus” through an ad on social media. After devouring the series, her curiosity about other works led to more reading. Eventually, she became so absorbed that she would pay for immediate access to the latest chapters of her favorite titles instead of waiting for free uploads later.
Moore considers creative imagination the main attraction of webtoons. She spent a lot of time reading manga and watching anime as a child. “These days, webtoons are taking their place,” she says.
She believes that the COVID-19 situation has probably played a role in enhancing webtoon readership. As she spends more time at home, she finds herself increasingly watching Korean dramas on Netflix and reading webtoons.
In fact, it was webtoons that gave Moore a thirst for Korean dramas. “Now I’m interested in Korean culture as a whole,” she says. She also actively reaches out to make Korean friends on social media platforms such as Instagram and the language exchange app Hello Talk. Certain that small steps can lead to big changes, she says, “If people gain a deeper understanding of Korea as they enjoy reading webtoons, they’ll come to hold Korea in higher esteem.”