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How Webtoon is dominating the world

For people who are used to reading manga for a long time, many of you may remember a time when there were no Webtoons or Manhwas or at least they weren’t that popular.

New manga chapters were usually released between Thursday and Friday. After that, we started another journey of waiting a whole week until we had a new chapter with nothing else to read.

10 years later, Webtoons are taking over the internet. You can’t go a day without having some great title being updated.

But where did all this start? How did a country like Korea that wasn’t known for producing manga manage to turn the tide in just a few years?

History of the Manhwas

Manhwa has a rich and diverse literary history. Both manhwa and manga are cognates of manhua, the Chinese term for comics. 

Manhwa arose from Japanese influences during the country’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The presence of comics and cartoons increased during the occupation. Social criticism found an outlet in political manhwa until government authorities began to censor and shut down media outlets expressing opposing views. Children’s cartoons rose from their smoldering ashes after Korea’s liberation in 1945.

Classical manhwa’s incorporated the aesthetics of its more popular manga counterpart to the point that it’s easily possible to pick up a copy of manhwa believing that it’s a manga. And like Japanese manga, Korean manhwa is often associated with a youthful audience. There are, to be sure, subgenres and classifications for children, preteen boys, girls, and young adults. Yet, like manga, manhwa also caters to adult audiences and has a significant adult readership.

Creation of WebToons

Originating in Korea, the word “Webtoon” is relatively new in the comics industry. It’s a combination of “worldwide web” and “cartoon.”

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).

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.

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.

In 2014 Naver launched a pretty ambitious plan to have those webtoons global by 2024 and make them part of mainstream popular culture. Chances are if you try to look for webtoons you’ll come across Naver’s Webtoons.

That’s not to say there are no other companies; you have Daum, though it’s entirely in Korean and the Japanese Comico. Still, as you might have guessed, it’s entirely in Japanese and the American/South-Korean Tapas.

The business model across those different websites does vary though generally relies on reader donations and sponsorships. Naver for example will pay a salary of up to 1000 USD a month to comic artists that reach a certain milestone of views and subscribers.

First Generation (90 – 2000)

The history of webtoons goes back to the late 1990s during the boom of launching personal webpages. Back then, several Korean cartoonists began to show their work on their web pages instead of debuting it through magazines. 

Called “essay-toons,” “sympathy toons,” or “Internet toons,” they escaped the pressure of having to fill up a page by uploading loosely configured drawings with ample margins that simply required scrolling. 

Independent manhwa also paid attention to the online channel to secure the niche that the mainstream manhwa could not satisfy. The expenses of production and marketing on the Web were not as high as they were with magazines, and independent manhwa creators could also create new works based on their own ideas.

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.

In fact, since the late 1990s and especially in the early 2000s, bestselling novels often originate in online serials, top writers can be discovered through personal blogs, and many of the latest hit manhwas make their starts as webtoons. In particular, when Kwang-Su Park started to publish his cartoon titled Kwang-Su Thinking on Chosun Ilbo on 3 April 1997, the series gained popularity on the Internet.

The early dominance in Korea of ​​the vertical layout in color is not a phenomenon that took place in other webcomics markets. In Japan, for instance, many webcomics still use a page-like format derived from print and are often in black and white. The situation is similar in the U.S., where either short comic strips or page format for longer comics are popularly used in webcomics.

Second Generation (2000 – 2010)

The second webtoon generation began to develop more commercially. Many webtoonists started to focus their works on big Web portals such as Naver and Daum and receive a writer’s fee.

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

The second generation, which was the beginning of the boom of webtoons, came to Korea in the early twenty-first century right after the dot.com bubble. Daum, which is the second-largest Internet portal, created a webtoon portal in 2003, followed by Naver in June 2004. 

Kang Full’s Love Story, which gained immense popularity when it was published on Daum in 2003, reached a milestone when it attracted two million viewers in a single day.

“Many younger artists have been seized upon relatively cheap and accessible network technologies. Networks constitute a specific domain offering opportunities for diverse practices: communication and network arts” (Couchot, 2002, p. 23).

These portal services originally started to publish webtoons to attract people to their portals; however, they found an impressive growth engine for the Korean manhwa industry.

This is perhaps the part wherein this post we are going to start differentiating from what other media calls third or fourth generation.

During the period of the second generation, a “between” generation begins to emerge from mid-2010 to 2013. At this time, Korea not only obtained an internet with absurd high speed but also the massification of smartphones.

At this moment, the artists begin to understand how to better use what they call “Infinite Canvas”, which are arts that use the background of the panel to serve as a transition. Which starts to further distance the differences between a printed and digital Manhwa, making it almost impossible to be replicated on paper.

At this moment, some Webtoons began to emerge that started the globalization of manhwa, such as Noblesse, Tower of God, The God of Highschool, Girls of The Wilds…

Most Popular Manhwa at the end of 2017

Third Generation (2017 – 2020)

It is then that we enter the third generation, being pulled by advances in both the type of plot and the level of quality.

At this moment many of the authors are adopting what is called LitRPG which are visual mechanics of an RPG into a WebToon. This mechanic helps to better represent a character’s evolution and strength level advancement.

What was formerly represented in Ki (or power level) in DBZ, now becomes a constant representation in the plot. In addition to the massification of Isekais that gain strength in 2016.

But in addition, there is a leap in visual quality, at the moment we have at 2018 the start of Solo Leveling that brings some of the most beautiful panels of the Webtoons launched at the same time.

Solo Leveling started a revolution on 2018

This all, of course, came with a huge investment. Since it is around this time that webtoon teams start to grow and take the current standard of 6 people working on a manhwa.

All of this accelerated the popularization of webtoons in the West at an unprecedented rate, reaching its peak even on Google Trends.

Peak of Popularity of Webtoon

Fourth generation

The fourth generation is the one we are in at the moment. For some, it can be considered a continuation of the third generation, but the difference we had when going through the pandemic is very clear.

Manhwas and Webtoons were focused on being snackable and not on having a huge amount of content and with excess time at home consumption increased significantly.

On the other hand, the speed of new works being released and translated has reached a new level. Even influencing many western content creators to start producing webtoons in the Korean model.

But now it’s your turn to give your opinion. What do you believe is the future for Webtoons? Leave it in the comments below!