Did you know that some of Netflix’s recent hits are adaptations from webtoons? From the thrillers “All Of Us Are Dead” to popular romances like “Love Alarm” and dramas such as “Itaewon Class”; webtoons are taking over the streaming services.
Webtoons have created a remarkable shift in the comic industry. Originating in South Korea in the early 2000s, the term “Webtoon” is formed by combining the words “web” and “cartoon”, and refers to digital or online comics. With the growing popularity of the internet and the decline of traditional print media, webtoons were created to fit digital platforms and attract new audiences.
But their influence does not end here, as webtoons adaptations are also present on the big screen with big hits like “Along with the Gods”, a mix of fantasy, drama, and slice-of-life movies that has won the hearts of the audience. Nowadays the reach of webtoons is so spread that their presence can be found in commercials, tv-shows, movies, video games, etc These cross-media collaborations have pushed further the popularity of webtoons. But this increase in popularity has led to market saturation, putting at risk the innovative essence that made Webtoons shine in the first place.
What are webtoons and how did digitalization contribute to their popularity?
If you are like me and grew up reading famous comics like “The Adventures of Tintin” or Japanese mangas such as “One Piece” or “Detective Conan”; you might be wondering what the differences are between comics, mangas, and webtoons. The main differentiator here is their origins: mangas come from Japan, comic or graphic novels from Western countries, and webtoons from South Korea. Yet, we can also find “manhwas” from South Korea or even “manhuas” from China.
With the decline of paper culture, all kinds of artists and authors had to adapt to the new platforms. And South Korea found the perfect alternative. Webtoons are characterized by having long chapters– not broken into pages– with a publishing schedule of one chapter a week and by breaking it down into seasons. Nevertheless, unlike traditional comics that are read from left to right or on strips, the vertical format of webtoons facilitates its reading on new devices. In fact, webtoons are optimized for smartphones thus, the Webtoon structure.
Their rise in popularity has been promoted by their accessibility and ease of consumption. The digitalization phenomenon has been incredibly beneficial to South Korean graphic artists and authors, as it led to the creation of numerous job opportunities such as creators, editors, or translators; as well as generating a diversified source of revenue. The digital format has saved on
printing, delivery, stocking, and other costs of traditional comics. It has also created revenue through multiple channels like advertisements inside the stories, subscriptions to reading platforms, merchandise sales, licensing, and so on.
However, the main challenge webtoons had (and have) to face was creating a profitable, yet accessible platform for all. As such, these comics are offered on multiple platforms with 3 to 4 chapters for free and in order to continue reading, consumers had to gain coins via subscription payments or watching ads. Although subscriptions are not expensive, it is unavoidable that the “paid” chapters are filtered on illegal sites. Since the popularity of webtoons did not stop in Korea and they also gained fame in countries like the United States, Indonesia, and Thailand; other official apps and platforms, such as Tapas and webtoons.com have emerged since.
Jumping to new markets: Transmedia Storytelling.
As we can see, webtoons have expanded globally and had a significant impact on the global comic industry. The format challenged the traditional concept of comics and has given room to new storytelling and creative styles. For instance, using one of the biggest attractions of the country, music, South Korea is aiming to gain more readers every day. In the past years, it has been usual to see authors and illustrators partner with Korean signers to create songs – or at least a music video – concerning a specific story. One of the many examples one can find is this song dedicated to “Painter of the Night” which has over 15 million views. Another strategy is partnering with K-pop idols and actors to promote their work. For example, the marketing team of “The Villainess is a Marionette” created a series of commercials with the popular Korean actors Cha Eun Woo, Han So Hee, and Lee Soo Hyuk: you can watch the compilation of their ads here.
Another success of these scrolling comics is the boost in Korean cultural exports. The success of webtoons is undeniable and has led to the adaptation of several popular titles into other media, including TV series and movies. Some of the most popular adaptations are, besides the ones mentioned above, “Cheese in the Trap” which turned into a popular K-drama; “The God of High School” which got an anime and two video games; or the Webtoon “Gangnam Beauty” which firstly got a Korean adaptation, and now is going to be adapted into a Thai live-action. South Korean comics is also becoming an important source of material for the animation industry, with many webtoons (such as the mentioned “The God of High School”) being adapted into anime. The popularity of adaptations like “Tower of God” has contributed to further the relevance of webtoons in the animation world, which was previously dominated by adaptations from mangas (Japanese comics). It has been noticed that the format of these Korean comics has helped in various areas, as it also has allowed smooth transitions from the original to the animated series.
An uncertain future.
“Not everything that shines is gold”, says the Spanish idiom; and Webtoons, although looking like a profitable market, suffer the same issues with all artistic sectors: copyright and intellectual property issues. The accessible scrolling characteristic of webtoons makes it easier (just one screenshot away!) to illegally share and profit from these creations. Protecting intellectual property rights and acting to prevent piracy issues may be the biggest current and future challenges of Webtoons.
These creators are in search of beauty and that has translated into beautiful illustrations. So beautiful that fans want to have it printed. Physical copies will– I hope– always exist, but they need to be seen as collectibles, limited or “too pretty to miss out” to keep a sustainable profit. As such, if the physical copies are not highly desired and if the digital versions are very accessible to piracy, webtoons will face challenges in finding sustainable monetization models. Another challenge to watch out for is the difficulty to adapt the contents and stories to fit different markets. Different cultures have different preferences, sensibilities, and styles, so it would be complicated to kee webtoons loyal to their “Korean background” while also aiming to penetrate into new markets.
However, from a personal perspective, I believe the biggest challenge will be facing market saturation and remaining original. As an avid reader and consumer of webtoons, mangas, novels, and books, I have realized that recently, some publications are very similar. It is not that the concepts are similar but rather, their plot is almost identical. For instance, under the subgenre of Isekai there is a similar storyline: a twenty-first century girl dies in the real world by a truck (“truck-kun” for fans) and enters an unknown world. Nowadays, the victims of “truck-kun” all enter, reincarnate or possess a character of their favorite novel or game. Some are even the authors of said stories! And if you think I am exaggerating, please read the plots of these titles: “The Duchess’ 50 Tea Recipes”, “The Reason Why Raeliana Ended up at the Duke’s Mansion” or “Villains Are Destined to Die”. Although these ones have different stories, once you click on one, another ten with almost exact plots will be recommended. You can also find almost similar works under the action category, where an MC (main character) is all-powerful and becomes the leader in some type of quest, war, dystopian world, etc.
Therefore, while South Korean comics received lots of praise due to their unique format and storylines, market saturation and lack of originality are already affecting the market and increasing competition. Market saturation will become an even bigger challenge for the future of webtoons; with such increased competition, creators need to find unique ways to differentiate their
content and engage readers.
Overall, Webtoons have become a popular form of entertainment worldwide, with a huge variety of genres and styles. They have changed and revolutionized the way comics are created, distributed, and consumed; and have opened up opportunities for creators and readers alike. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Webtoons continue to evolve and shape the future of the comic industry, both in Korea and around the world; and how it will adapt to the new technologies and keep innovating to keep readers hooked.
Rocío Beteta Chinchón is Spanish and is double majoring in “International Security and Foreign Policy” and “Global Strategy and Management” at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. What started as a passion for legal TV shows, took her to Law School, later on to her first master degree in Mediation and Conflict Resolution and currently, Yonsei. In her free time she enjoys volunteering and reading about more casual topics such as music, fantasy, history or psychology.
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