EVEN IN busy subway stations, we often witness people with their eyes glued to their smartphone screens. Whether it be a tired salary man catching his breath after a long day or high school girls giggling together, many people seem to enjoy reading webcomics or “comics that are published on a website.” Koreans refer to these webcomics as “webtoons,” a combination of the two terms, web and cartoon. Reading webtoons has become cultural phenomenon in Korea and a popular way of relieving stress for many people.
The webtoon fever in Korea
The history of webtoons is rather short. In fact, it began during the turn of the 21C. In 2003, Daum was the first to launch an online portal site dedicated to webtoons, and Naver followed in suit a year later. According to a study conducted by Trend Monitor, 79.2% of the respondents replied that they have read webtoons and 83.2% claimed that the future prospects of webtoons seem to be bright. “I read webtoons almost every day. If I’m busy, I try to read it at least every two days. It is not just that they give entertainment to the readers but they also provide us with useful information. It seems that webtoons’ popularity will continue to increase in the future as well,” said Lee You-jin(UIC, Dept. of Political Science & Int. Relations). The demand for webtoons has been increasing nonstop since its inception.
Webtoon’s wide popularity can be clearly witnessed through its impact on other cultural industries. The TV series *Mi-saeng* that attracted many viewers, owing to its realistic reflection of office life in Korea, was based on a webtoon with the same title. Also, many films were adapted from webtoons drawn by Kang Full such as *I Love You*, *Ba-bo* and more. There are even stationary products and Kakao Talk emoticons designed with popular webtoon characters that are being sold as well.
Webtoon in the global market
What is so surprising about this is that before webtoons made their appearance, the demand for printed versions of comic strips had been plummeting. However, the emergence of webtoons was able to bring comics back into people’s lives. And this popularity of webtoons is spreading on a global scale. Webtoons are being translated in various languages and hence are being read by fans all over the world, including Japan, America, Germany and more. As a result, Naver has launched a global webtoon portal, “Line Webtoon,” which provides webtoons translated in English, Chinese and Thai. Not only can people read webtoons in their own language through Line Webtoon but people with diverse nationalities can also upload their own comics to become a webtoon cartoonist like those with Korean citizenships.
As the influence of webtoons is becoming even more widespread, people have started to claim that more governmental support needs to be made in order to nurture this culture. People who make this argument maintain that the payment for webtoon cartoonists should be increased in order to improve the webtoon market. Some even suggest that the government should create their own brand of webtoons that would promote the positive aspects of Korean culture to the rest of the world. The “webtoon culture” is no longer limited to Korea but is becoming a global experience. What is so special about webtoons that it attracts so many readers?
The secrets behind its popularity
Nowadays, there are various types of webtoons that attract the readers’ attention. In the past, the genres of comics were rather limited, but webtoons are able to suit the taste of various readers due to its diversity. Many new genres were introduced in the webtoon market, which allowed it to obtain a wide variety of readers regardless of their gender, age, interests and other differences.
For instance, the rapid spread of *Muk-bang* culture* in Korea has led to the creation of webtoons related to food. The realistic images that are presented in such webtoons whet people’s appetite and make the cooking tips easily comprehensible. Moreover, in summer, popular webtoon cartoonists create a new section where they take turns to draw horror cartoons in order to help people “drive out the heat through fear” as the old Korean sayings claim. Not only that, as people have become more interested in travelling, there are many webtoons that take the form of travel journals. Indeed, the topics that webtoons deal with are so diverse that it can satisfy all kinds of readers with different preferences.
Not only that, from housewives, students, comedians to CEOs of online shopping malls, webtoon cartoonists come from all kinds of backgrounds. Such diversity of webtoon cartoonists was one of the factors why it was able to grab so much attention. Unlike traditional forms of comics in which people simply read the cartoons presented by the cartoonists, webtoons allow the readers to actively participate in their creation.
First of all, anyone can try to become a webtoon cartoonist. Both Naver and Daum has “Best Challenge Cartoon” section or “Webtoon League” sections respectively in which anyone can upload the cartoons that they have drawn online. Among these cartoons, those that have gained high ratings from the viewers are scouted to become webtoon cartoonists. This participative process of selecting webtoon cartoonists not only benefits the public by providing them with equal opportunities to become a cartoonist but also gives them satisfaction. Readers can feel they are able to contribute in the process by writing comments and rating the comics.
Hence, webtoon facilitates communication among people, as they often write comments after reading the comics, and those that are selected as “best comments” gain large attention from others. Through these comments, people freely express their thoughts on the cartoons and communicate with one another. They can even communicate with the authors by either thanking the cartoonist for their work or giving ideas about ways to improve the cartoon. In this sense, webtoon bridges the bilateral communication between the author and the viewers. Thus, people no longer want to merely read comics as it is presented to them, but want to become active readers. This can be seen as a form of collective intelligence as the participation of the readers can lead to the creation of higher quality webtoons.
However, the fundamental reason why webtoons are loved by such a large number of people seems to be due to its easy accessibility. Most people who read webtoons on a daily basis claim that they do so while travelling. In effect, it can be witnessed often that many people taking public transportation keep themselves busy by reading webtoons. The widespread usage of smartphones has allowed individuals to access webtoons with ease. Such practicality has made it possible for people to enjoy themselves and make a better use of their time that would have been wasted if it had not been for webtoons.
Furthermore, webtoons are free. There are several websites that allows people to watch cartoons, but the fees that need to be paid often makes their consumers turn their back away from such websites. For people to develop the habit of reading webtoons, it needs to be convenient and free so that more people would be able to access it without much effort.
* * *
The webtoon fever is a result of several factors that counteract with one another. Other than the reasons mentioned above, the serialization of webtoons on a specific day of the week has made reading webtoons habitual; many of the readers actually have certain webtoons that they have chosen to read each day. It seems that the increasing demand for webtoons is not a temporary phenomenon but one that will remain in the foreseeable future. Therefore, more efforts need to be made to cultivate this new trend as a positive representation of the Korean culture.
**Muk-bang* culture: Newly coined Korean word meaning “Eating broadcast” in which people watch other people eating food through TV programs and SNS in order to feel satisfaction vicariously.