What makes comics so interesting is the way that different countries interpret and create comics. You’ve got the classic American periodical comic, the European comic album – which falls somewhere between a comic and a graphic novel – and, of course, the ever-popular Japanese manga.
There’s another Asian format that’s on the rise: the South Korean webtoon. This is a digital form of manhwa – or South Korean comics – that’s been widely circulated on the Internet since the early 2000s. Much like manga, the webtoon has also found much international success. In a recent survey, 40% of respondents from various countries stated that webtoons were very popular outside Korea.
Webtoon’s appeal only continues to increase as more comics are consumed online. If this continues, then it could redefine comics altogether. But what exactly is a webtoon? Why is it so popular? More importantly, why is it redefining comics?
What are webtoons?
Webtoon’s roots are in manhwa. According to the LA Review of Books’ 2020 Riding the Wave: The Steady Rise of Korean Manhwa, manhwa itself can be traced back to the first half of the 1900s. It was during this time that Japan occupied Korea and political cartoons were abundant. This paved the way for a comic books craze in the ‘50s and ‘60s — but comic artists were soon affected by an economic collapse in the late ‘90s. Manhwa creators then turned to the Internet to work around the issue. This avenue of innovation gave rise to the webtoon in the early 2000s.
At first, webtoons were simply scanned copies of physical manhwa laid out horizontally, so they could be easily read on a computer screen. Since then, webtoons have gone on to embrace a combination of the “web” and “cartoons” – and they’ve replaced the physical manhwa in the public eye. The next step in the format’s evolution turned its original concept on its head: instead of simply digitizing physical comics, webtoons now facilitate the creation of comics custom-made for it. Nowadays, webtoons make use of the “infinite canvas,” which allows full webtoon chapters or “episodes” to be laid out on a single vertical page. Creators can also add music and animations to the modern webtoon. This makes it more immersive to read.
Why are webtoons so popular?
The drive behind webtoon’s mass appeal is arguably its ability to adapt to reader preferences over time. Digital media specialists including web and graphic designers have used their skills and creativity with browser technology, to provide an “infinite canvas” for webtoons as they evolve with the times. Thanks to this vertical orientation, smartphone and tablet users can scroll through a chapter or “episode” with ease. The multimedia that can be added to a webtoon only further enhances its appeal.
This infinite canvas also takes into account South Korea’s “snack culture.” This refers to the modern consumer’s demand for bite-sized entertainment that can be consumed in 15 minutes or less. This makes webtoons even more accessible by catering to both today’s average attention span and our constantly busy lifestyles.
More importantly, the webtoon model supports creators by cutting costs throughout the publication process and giving them the opportunity to build global audiences. This is evident in the popularity of some of today’s top titles. Lore Olympus, which retells the story of Hades and Persephone, remains one of the most popular webtoons of all time with a total of 1.1 billion views as of June 2022. The romance True Beauty has seen similar success. The official English version of the comic alone already boasts almost 900 million views. It was even adapted into a highly acclaimed Korean drama that ran between 2020 and 2021. With multiple genres ranging from action, sci-fi, and drama to romance, comedy, slice-of-life, and even LGBTQIA+ tales, webtoons quite literally have something for everyone – and that’s another thing that makes them even more appealing.
Why will webtoons redefine comics?
The dynamic nature behind the webtoon’s appeal is also what puts it in the best position to redefine comics, as we know them. Its infinite canvas challenges creators to push boundaries, create new forms of art, and influence the reading experience in unprecedented ways. It can change how the reader views space and time. A well-formatted panel can help the reader feel like they’re falling. It can heighten suspense in a scene, with delays in the panels concealing shocking reveals until the reader scrolls down far enough.
Above all, though, the unique webtoons system creates a community. WEBTOON – a platform we’ve hailed as one of the 5 best websites for discovering webcomics – allows creators to publish webtoons online for free. They are then made available to a global audience through fan translations. This community has even reached the West, further influencing how creators make their comics. WEBTOON alone is host to hundreds of titles that fuse Western comics with the webtoon’s digital flair. These include David Tischman and Audrey Mok’s Heroine Chic; Molly Brook’s Power Ballad; Dents, which was written by American actress and 2 Broke Girls star Beth Behrs; and even DC Comics has entered the arena with Batman: Wayne Family Adventures and more.
The best part of comics is that there’s no one correct way to create or enjoy them. The South Korean webtoon uniquely harnesses today’s technology to revolutionize both the publication process and the reading experience – truly making it a format that’s redefining comics in the modern age.