What is Webtoon?

With the emergence of smartphones, webtoons are quickly gaining popularity around the world

Ji Hyeon Yun
Aug 30, 2019 · 4 min read
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Credit: Naver Webtoon

If you clicked on this article, you’re likely into comics. You may have even come across the word “Webtoon” or “Webcomic” on the internet.

So what’s the difference?

Webcomics are digitalized versions of physical comic books for online reading. The thing is, it wasn’t optimized for smartphones. It stuck with swiping left and right. Worst of all, it’s mostly in black and white (though some might disagree on the color scheme)

So you might be asking yourself, “Just what exactly is webtoon?”

In layman terms, it’s colorized manhwa (Korean comics) made just for smartphones where you scroll vertically instead of the standard page flipping.

The First Generation

Originating in Korea, the word “Webtoon” is relatively new in the comics industry. It’s a combination of “world wide ” and “car

It started with Chollian, a now-defunct Internet service engine, that established Chollian Webtoon to provide webtoons to readers in August of 2000.

What made it different from other online comics was its introduction of the vertical-layout. Most online comics at the time followed the traditional horizontal layout designed for PCs (landscape style).

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Marine Blues (left); Pape and Popo Series (right). Credit: Kim’s Licensing

Following the emergence of webtoons, an influx of indie webtoons jumped into the scene.

Early webtoons were recognized as standalone (known as an omnibus in Korea) slice-of-life stories. Some popular comics include Snow Cat, Marine Blues, and Pape and Popo Series. Unusual at the time, each was self-published online by its authors rather than through magazines or editorials.

Not too long after, webtoons quickly became widespread as the internet took off and became more accessible.

Leaning on the fast-growing popularity of webtoons in the early 2000s, Korean internet portals like Daum and Naver took advantage of webtoons to increase their website traffic.

As their pivotal internet growth strategy, Daum and Naver pumped vast sums of money into webtoons. And it paid off. They achieved massive commercial success far beyond their predictions.

The Catalysts

Webtoons are incredibly popular now. To give you an idea, Naver has over 46 million monthly active users (July 2018). How’d this happen? Two reasons why.

First of all, from 2003, Daum recruited cartoonists like Kang Full to publish webtoons on their internet portals called “World in Manhwa.” It featured works like Kang Full’s Love Story (a record-breaking hit). Other successful comics include Kang Do Ha’s The Great Catsby and Yang Young Soon’s 1001.

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The second reason has to do with accessibility to smartphones. You were probably envious of people playing Angry Bird on their brand new iPhone while you miserably held your flip phone back in 2010. Smartphones were just too expensive.

But in the 2010s, more and more people bought smartphones capable of playing games far more technically demanding than Angry Birds like Pokemon Go and PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds).

To no surprise, South Korea quickly rose to 67% smartphone ownership in 2013. And to boast the numbers further, a 2019 report indicates that it’s now at an astounding 95%, holding the record today as highest in the world.

The rise of smartphones correlated with the accessibility to the internet that’s available almost anywhere, at any time. And along with those came webtoons.

Far behind is the frustration of finding disgusting stains and torn pages on library copies of comics. Instead, it can be conveniently read on their sometimes unsanitized phone. It’s completely changed the pattern of content consumption in Korea.

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Webtoon art style in the 2000s. (left) Webtoon art style in the 2010s. (right); Credit: Daum

The Emergence of Snack Culture

Snack culture” quickly became the meta of Korean culture. Defined as consuming media between 30 seconds to 15 minutes, it’s representative of a snack that can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. Like devouring a bag of chips.

Of course, snack culture includes other forms of media like web drama and web fiction books. But webtoons are the flagship of the cultural phenomenon.

Crafting Webtoons

Before webtoons, comics were hand-drawn. Manually intensive and time-consuming, mistakes were more unforgiving and full coloring nearly impossible. Thanks to modern software and technology, it’s much easier to draw, edit, and color comics.

Webtoons today is also influenced by modern culture. If an artist finds himself criticized for his work, he can easily make changes to reflect the feedback.

Ease of Publishing

Traditional comics like manhua and manga are black and white hard copies. Costly to produce and distribute, it means that getting published is hugely competitive.

Webtoons disrupted the hardcopy business. With the rise of webtoons and the internet, it’s easier than ever to self-publish comics.

Anybody can share it on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform. It’s much easier today than it was in the 2000s and pre-webtoons.

Final Thoughts

Webtoons are a fantastic form of snack-sized entertainment. The beauty of it is that it’s continuously evolving. The list of genres keeps expanding. And new features like cinematics and physical effects (phone vibration) are being introduced to enhance the reading experience.

As long as we have smartphones and the internet, webtoons will always thrive.

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