Smartphones set off webtoon boom

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Smartphones set off webtoon boom


On a bustling subway ride to work, it’s not hard to find people staring into their smartphones or PC tablets, scrolling quickly down the screen to see what comes next. On sidewalks or in coffee shops, the situation is the same.

If a smile can be spotted on the user’s face, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say they could be reading one of their favorite webtoons, a term coined in the early 2000s combining “web” and “cartoon,” which describes comic strips distributed online.

“When I have idle time on my hands, I read webtoons through my smartphone, because it’s just easy,” said Jeon Su-jin, 25, a university student. “With the smallest effort, I can flexibly spice up my spare time. When I have only 10 to 20 minutes of free time, like when I am waiting for the bus or something, there’s nothing better than to read webtoons.”

The competitiveness of webtoons, compared with other entertainment content, has increased greatly with the rise of smartphones. And with the number of people using smartphones proliferating exponentially, webtoons’ future seems more promising still.

Webtoons’ evolution

According to the international research institute Strategic Analytics, the penetration rate of smartphones in Korea surpassed 67.6 percent in 2012 and is expected to reach 79.5 percent in 2013. This means that eight out of 10 people have free access to the Internet - anytime, anywhere.

Other major markets in the world also easily reach more than 50 percent in terms of smartphone possession, which means there is much more of a possibility for online cartoons to surge on a global stage.

In order to cater to the recent webtoon boom, the National Library of Korea has opened a three-month exhibition that exclusively treats issues related to online cartoons. “All Webtoon” displays the history of Internet comics and memorable works, details the process of creating a webtoon and also gives opportunities to meet celebrity webtoon artists. The show runs through Aug. 24.

“It was hard to imagine the globalization of the webtoon before smartphones came on the scene,” said Park In-ha, a professor of comic creations at Chungkang College of Cultural Industries during the “All Webtoon” press tour on May 26.

“The supply of smartphones acted as a vital role in expanding the webtoon industry with it enabling daily access to the Internet. Traffic from smartphone users is three times more than that of PCs,” the professor said.

In response to the increased number of smartphone users, Naver launched a new webtoon service called “Smart Toon,” optimized to show a single panel of the comic instead of the whole strip, which adjusts to fit the smartphone screen fully. Rather than scrolling down the screen, a slight swipe shifts the comic to the next panel. When “Smart Toon” was first introduced two years ago, people compared it with TV’s evolution from analog to digital.

Moreover, with the development of technology, Naver lets artists experiment with new special effects, mainly in its omnibus horror or sci-fi series every summer. Using effects such as moving images and the sudden appearance of ghostly characters onscreen, these horror webtoons become all the more dramatic when read on smartphones.

As smartphones increase, webtoons diversify

The history of webtoons goes back 10 years to when cartoonist Kang Full, one of the early artists of webtoons, started to upload his work on a personal homepage in 2002. When Korea’s major portal sites like Daum and Naver launched webtoon services in 2003 and 2005, respectively, artists were given more platforms to introduce their drawings. For example, Kang’s “Love Story,” which gained popularity when it was published on Daum in 2003, reached a milestone when it attracted two million viewers in a single day.

Soon after, webtoon moguls like Kang, Cho Suk, Ha Il-kwon and Yoon Tae-ho, who are so-called celebrity webtoon artists, were introduced to the business.

“The content for webtoons gradually built up over the years, between 2008 and 2009. And everything came together and started to explosively gain popularity after 2010 when smartphones came in handy,” said Professor Park.

As the industry flourished, the webtoon content landscape began to change, too. Early artists like Kang Full and Yoon Tae-ho kept the traditional cartoon’s narrative format, where each episode is chronologically and emotionally connected until it ends.


But with the number of content makers proliferating, more genres were created to better suit readers’ tastes. And for that matter, focusing on a point of climax or having a concrete conclusion didn’t seem to matter that much.

For example, Cho Suk’s popular webtoon “Voice Within,” launched in 2006, generally deals with incidents from our daily lives, but each episode is completely separate from one another. This has become one of the strong points of Cho’s webtoon because newcomers can jump in anywhere and begin reading the series.

“I like episodic or omnibus-style webtoons because I don’t read webtoons expecting some great storyline or deep message. It sometimes feels like work for me, thinking that I have to go back some hundreds of episode to keep up with the recent one,” said Kim Bum-joo, 27, an enthusiastic webtoon reader.

Likewise, with versatile genres from romance to sci-fi undertaking different themes like cooking, marriage and sports, readers are provided with tailored webtoons.

As a result of continuous content development, Naver, which started as a one-person service in 2005 with three series, now attracts an average of 17 million visitors per month with 200 webtoon artists producing more than 156 cartoons every week.

Multiple media adaptations

Recognition of webtoons as mainstream content owes a lot to their adaptation into various types of media. From animation and games to movies and musicals, webtoons’ storylines have become stepping-stones to provide characters, concepts and scripts for numerous forms of entertainment culture, luring diverse fans.

The adaptation of webtoons into movies started with Kang Full’s “Apartment” in 2006. But its potential as a full-fledged synopsis was taken into notice with Yoon Tae-ho’s “Moss,” when it was made into a feature-length film in 2010 and attracted nearly 3.5 million moviegoers. Later, Hun’s “Secretly, Greatly,” starring heartthrob Kim Soo-hyun, also achieved huge box-office success, pulling in seven million viewers.

Dramas and even comedy shows have also dived into webtoons in search of inspiration.

Recently, actors reproduced scenes from Naver’s “Lee Mal-nyun Series” live on popular comedy show “Saturday Night Live Korea.”

The “Lee Mal-nyun Series” is a representative webtoon work that boasts absurdness as its strongest feature. It mostly became acknowledged after the advent of smartphones. Its rough sketches, crude conversations and ridiculous storylines are just about enough to catch readers’ attention while they look for something to keep them amused on public transport.

“Its unique and absurd concept went well with the ambience of the program, which enabled a more distinguishable combination,” said Kim Jun-koo, head of Naver’s webtoon service, about the series. “The collaboration acted as a chance for the webtoon to be recognized of its indefinite potential and big market value.”

Webtoons going global

At the London Book Fair in April, Naver exhibited webtoons translated in English, for the first time in 43 years of the international fair’s history.

One of Naver’s longest series, “Noblesse” by Son Je-ho, is ranked No. 1 on global “scanlations” - or scanning, translation and editing - on the website among hundreds of Japanese manga that have long been popular in the Western cartoon industry.

Another Naver webtoon “What Do the Teenager Boys Do,” drawn by Cutbu, which is popular for its use of toilet humor, is translated by individual interpreters and shared by international fans. Some fans even upload short videos of each episode dubbed in English or Spanish on YouTube.

To take advantage of global interest, Naver aims to launch Line Webtoon using its mobile messenger Line, to provide about 40 webtoons translated into English and Chinese.

“Although it will take considerable time for webtoons to settle as one of the major genres of cultural content, we are going to approach the public step by step” said Naver’s Kim.

Daum, another prominent webtoon platform, partnered with Tapastic Media, owner of North America’s first online portal for web comics, to export Korea’s webtoons abroad. They are planning to cooperate to make original webtoons, in addition to translating Daum’s content.

“One of the key points to webtoon’s success in Korea was its convenience. The fact that people can easily access it despite their whereabouts [was really important],” said Professor Park.

“I expect it will be the same for the global market. With the utilization of smartphones in Korea and overseas, webtoons will be consumed in totally different ways than before which implies that it has more potential. We will have to take a closer look at it in the future.”

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