Created in South Korea the webtoon is the comic strip and graphic novel for the digital age that is not only sweeping through the Korean entertainment sphere but is also taking the world by storm.
By the turn of the millennium, Korea still found itself suffering from the massive Asian Financial Crisis. The comic industry was in jeopardy and many publishers had closed their doors for good. The shrinking of the market, however, forced those remaining to be more inventive and adventurous.
In 2002 a comic using a new vertical format that broke away from its print predecessors was posted on a group blog on Daum, a Korean web portal. Although this new layout had been created, it was not widely used until the publication of Sunjeung manhwa by Kang Pul in 2003 that utilized the vertical layout to great success. This led to its quick adoption by other Korean comic artists, and the comic world as it was turned a new page.
According to Naver web portal sources, by 2014 a reported 17 million Koreans, or one-third of the Korean population, read at least one webtoon per month. The Korea Creative Content Agency estimates that the webtoon industry has created over 800 million dollars in profits and showed an average yearly growth of 43.5% in 2015.
Many in the industry attribute this success to three foundational elements. The first is that webtoons are accessible to anyone — that not only means consumers who would like to read them, but also to artists who can freely publish on many of the retailing webtoon websites.
Secondly, the vertical layout made webtoons adapt easily through the smart device revolution. Will Eisners, a prominent American cartoon artist, has explained that comics are a “spatial art” where images and words are put in a deliberate sequence. The vertical layout allows artists to manipulate the way that this sequence is consumed by readers.
Lastly, webtoons are almost entirely created and published digitally on the web, making it easy to distribute internationally. Furthermore, the digital format, easy serialization, global audience, and dedicated fan-bases make them easily translatable to transmedia production. More than a dozen webtoons have become live action series, including the popular Cheese in the Trap drama released early this year.
Webtoon artists themselves have risen to prominence as entertainers and have been featured guests on entertainment and variety shows, including MBC’s ‘I Live Alone’ and JTBC’s ‘Please Take Care of My Refrigerator’ to illuminate the lives of artists realistically.
All of this points to the fact that webtoons are here to stay and will only grow in importance and influence. If interested, LINE Webtoons and Webtoons.com are good launch pads into the new digital world of comics.
By Olempia Castillo