‘Webtoons’ become S Korea’s latest cultural phenomenon

Popularity of the ‘webtoon,’ an amalgam of web and cartoon, is rapidly rising, creating a multimillion dollar industry.

It has become commonplace in South Korea that people scroll down their smartphone or tablet screens to read their daily dose of cartoons, while commuting by bus or train, or walking on the street.

The popularity of Korean ‘webtoons,’ a mixed word using web and cartoon, has been rapidly rising, spilling into dramas, movies and games.

We all remember the time when the only way to get weekly comics was to wait at a bookstore and buy cartoon magazines.

But now, with the advent of the internet and smartphones, for many South Koreans that has become only a nostalgic childhood memory.

Korea Manhwa Museum in Seoul [Al Jazeera]
Korea Manhwa Museum in Seoul [Al Jazeera]

In the early 2000s, people began to scan published comic books and share them illegally through file-sharing websites.

The image quality of scanned comics was not satisfying but free. It was a significant blow to the already faltering comic industry with the market shrinking to $389m.

Fortunately, the industry began to see business opportunities.

Cartoonists started to draw bespoke, original content specifically for online consumption – designed in a way that people can easily read by scrolling down the screen.

Now, a new generation of webtoons, taking full advantage of the digital space, feature sound and visual effects.

Growing market

The webtoon industry in South Korea, which continues to thrive, was estimated to be worth $153.5m in 2014, according to an estimate by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Research shows there are 4,661 webtoon artists drawing 4,440 webtoons and publishing them through online platforms such as the country’s largest portal services Naver and Daum.

They allow users to easily access and share webtoons through their messenger services, as well.

Webtoonist Kim Yang-soo, who writes and illustrates for a few webtoons, with a huge fixed fan base, was originally a music journalist who drew cartoons as his personal hobby.

He told Al Jazeera that he switched to become a full-time webtoonist as he saw an opportunity in the growing webtoon market, and that his current income is much higher than he could imagine as a journalist.

Webtoonists publish their pieces through major online platforms. Primarily, they make a living by earning cartoonist’s fees for each piece.

Some famous webtoonists earn as much as $5,000 to $6,000 for each episode from platform companies.

In addition, they make profits by drawing commercial advertisements, participating in product placement advertisements, or having readers pay to read the latest episodes in advance.

Some webtoons are translated into other languages such as English, Japanese, Chinese and Thai. Kim’s latest collaborative work, ‘Aisopos,’ is also translated into English.

Promoting Korean culture

The South Korean government aims to promote another wave of Korean culture with its growing Webtoon industry along with its K-Dramas and K-Pop, which have already swept across Asia since early 2000s.

The government hopes that webtoons could become the next generation of killer content and used as a medium for one source multi use (OSMU)

More than 50 webtoons have been recreated into more value-added dramas and movies with some even remade into games.

“Incomplete Life,” describing everyday struggles of white-collar workers in a fiercely-competitive and hierarchical Korean corporate culture, drew more than one billion hits on online portal Daum and its TV drama caused huge sensation.

According to an industry report, the sales of character products and office supplies went through the roof after the drama went on air.

Oh Jae-rok, president of state-funded Korea Manhwa Contents Agency, told Al Jazeera that the government is ambitiously providing various supports such as accurate translation and stable environments for artists.  

Source: Al Jazeera