Since their emergence in Korea a mere 20 years ago, webtoons have grown into a powerful medium with a resounding impact. This growth has been driven by the immense potential to create new value by variously combining the media, platforms, users and devices that make up versatile digital ecosystems.
The moniker “webtoon” [web+cartoon] came from Chollian Webtoon, the online comics platform launched in 2000 by Chollian, Korea’s first online communication service. At the time, online comics were no more than scanned print comics, very different in concept from today’s webtoons.
Around the same time, omnibus-style comics with non-linear narratives about everyday life started to appear. Some examples include “SnowCat” (1998) by Kwon Yoon-joo, “Marine Blues” (2001-2007) by Jung Chul-yeon and “Pape Popo Memories” (2002) by Shim Seung-hyun. Although stylistically different, these comics are often regarded as the prototypes of today’s webtoons in that they first adopted the vertical scrolling method.
The prevailing view, however, is that webtoons in their current form truly began with “Love Story” (2003-2004) by Kang Full, published on Daum, one of Korea’s largest search engines. Kang not only employed vertical scrolling, he made various experiments with the format. Most importantly, he opened up the era of webtoons by adopting the type of narratives seen in TV dramas and feature films.
Webtoon apps provided by the major webtoon platforms. They are, clockwise from top left: Daum Webtoon, Naver Webtoon, KakaoPage and Lezhin Comics.
“The Great Catsby” by Kang Do-ha (aka Doha Kang), which started serialization in 2004, is a love story of youthful angst and longing. Acclaimed for its delicate drawings and sensitive portrayal of emotions, the popular series opened a new chapter for dramatic webtoons. Kang’s romance stories marked a clear departure from the short episodes of everyday life featured in most online comics at the time. © Kang Do-ha / Courtesy of Daum Webtoon
Major Web Portals
The growth of webtoons was accelerated by Korea’s major web portals. In 2003, Daum launched a platform for reading serialized webtoons, and other portals like Naver, Paran and Empas followed suit the following year. The new market then expanded rapidly after Yahoo’s entrance a few years later. Initially, these portals offered webtoons for free to increase traffic and search volume, by which they hoped to give greater exposure to advertisements and other content.
As cartoonists found a new means of reaching readers through portal sites, they started to create comics tailored for online viewing, spurring further development of the webtoon genre. Kang Do-ha released “The Great Cats-by” (2004-2005) on Empas, but when the company subsequently closed its webtoon business, he moved to Daum. His sophisticated love story of youthful angst and longing was acclaimed for its delicate drawings and sensitive portrayal of emotions.
Ingeniously expressing the flow of time through the vertical scrolling format, Kang was recognized for his dramatic plot twists and distinct “webtoon grammar,” involving psychological descriptions based on metaphor, skillful coloring and frame composition. He honed his style even further in “Romance Killer” (2006) and “Kubrick” (2007), which constitute his Youth Trilogy along with “The Great Catsby.” While Kang Full laid the groundwork for webtoons with feature-length stories, Kang Do-ha built on it with story direction better suited to the online environment.
While Daum emphasized the role of editors for quality assessment, Naver relied on user statistics to select titles and determine fees for creators. In the meantime, competition between the two portals expedited the growth of webtoons in both quality and quantity.
The term “webtoon,” after going largely unnoticed in the early days, came into popular use with the launch of Naver Webtoon in 2005. However, Naver’s status in the market lagged far behind that of Daum, which was speeding ahead with star creators Kang Full and Kang Do-ha.
Naver made its winning moves by benchmarking Daum’s methods, adopt-ing them through modification or devising contrasting strategies. When Daum focused on dramatic narratives, Naver turned its attention to everyday tales. When Daum promoted comic dramas for women over 15, Naver catered to teenage boys under 15. While Daum emphasized the role of editors in quality assessment, Naver relied on user statistics to select titles and determine fees for creators. In the meantime, competition between the two portals expedited the growth of webtoons in both quality and quantity.
Incorporating all the defining characteristics of Naver Webtoon is “The Sound of Your Heart” (2006-2020) by Cho Seok, a comedy in omnibus format that was an immediate hit. Serialized for 14 years up until 2020, it’s also Korea’s longest-running webtoon. This is the title that drove Naver Webtoon’s initial success, and Cho remains one of the platform’s most iconic artists.
The narrative quality of Daum’s webtoons, established by Kang Full and Kang Do-ha, was reinforced by Yoon Tae-ho in “Moss” (2007-2009), which was billed as a cold-blooded thriller.
Although it started out on an obscure webtoon site, “Moss” made a splash early on. It depicted human nature laid bare, based on a solid thriller structure, intense characters, detailed psychological descriptions and powerful metaphors. “Moss” won an excellence award in the comics category at the 2007 Korea Content Awards. Yoon’s compelling narratives are the key factors behind the success of his webtoons and their adaptations: “Misaeng: Incomplete Life” (2012-2013) became a TV drama, and “Moss” and “The Insiders” (2010-2012) were made into movies, all successful.
A scene from the 1,000th episode of Cho Seok’s “The Sound of Your Heart,” featuring the cartoonist himself and people around him. A total of 1,237 episodes were uploaded to Naver Webtoon from September 2006 to July 2020, making it Korea’s longest-running webtoon. © Cho Seok / Courtesy of NAVER WEBTOON
“Gimlet” by Choi Gyu-seok deals with labor issues in a foreign-based superstore. Its serialization began in December 2013 and ended in August 2017, with the 30th episode of the fifth chapter. It is credited with expanding the range of webtoon subject matter. © Choi Gyu-seok / Courtesy of NAVER WEBTOON
From Free to Paid
Improvements in webtoon quality coincided with a major change in the market. While webtoon access had largely remained free in the past, major platforms began to introduce a paywall in 2012. Daum’s system allowed users to pay to read completed works, with 90 percent of the revenue returned to the creators. For starters, all the completed works of Kang Full went behind the paywall. Despite market concerns, the paid content system was implemented successfully. This was significant not just as a revenue model but as a solution to build sustainable practices to ensure the continued creation and consumption of webtoons. Providing fair compensation to creators was crucial to cultivating a healthy environment.
In 2013, Lezhin Comics also launched a paid webtoon platform with the belief that it would be viable if premium value could be tied to user convenience. This system helped establish the model of either paying for new content or waiting until it became free. Lezhin Comics has since been especially successful with its offerings for mature audiences.
“The Chat of the Three Kingdoms,” written by Superpink and illustrated by YiLee, is a modern adaptation of the classical Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Readers can flip the pages rather than scrolling down, one of the webtoon’s remarkable experiments. It has been running on Naver Webtoon since May 2018. © YLAB, Superpink, YiLee
“Moss” brought widespread fame to its creator, Yoon Tae-ho, amid readers’ enthusiastic response to his absorbing plot and refined composition of frames. © Yoon Tae-ho, SUPERCOMIX STUDIO Corp.
Subject Matter and Expression
The mid-2010s saw webtoons dealing with more diverse subject matter. In “Gimlet” (2013-2017), set in a foreign-based superstore, Choi Gyu-seok highlighted labor issues interwoven with his signature black humor to tell the story of workers facing wrongful dismissal. Works exploring gender issues also emerged. As exemplified by Gi Maeng-gi’s “My ID is Gangnam Beauty” (2016-2017), feminist webtoons began to address the oppression of women against the backdrop of patriarchal traditions, sexual abuse and workplace discrimination. Their easy accessibility allowed webtoons to become a medium for social discourse.
It is also worth noting that radical experiments have been made to exploit the versatility of online platforms – incorporating sensory effects into two-dimensional displays, telling a story in the form of instant messenger chatting or introducing interactive features so that readers can “communicate” with the fictional characters. Taking advantage of the latest technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and machine learning, these experiments have produced mixed results, but have significantly expanded the range of expression for webtoons.