MANY STUDENTS dream of becoming “the boss” one day. A boss would have the authority to set the timetable, hire employees, decide the direction for big projects, and even bring his or her own creative visions to life. The webtoon industry is a marketplace full of self-employed “bosses,” whose comics have been gaining interestfrom other media industries, as well as readership in countries outside of Korea. The profession of a webtoon artist has attracted interest from university students, both in and outside of art majors, as a dream job that entails freedom of expression and artistic creativity. To provide a more in-depth perspective into the job of a webtoon artist, The Yonsei Annals interviewed Lee Jong-beom, creator of the popular webtoon series, Dr. Frost. Lee provided a candid account ofhis own experiences, as wellaspractical advice to those who have a story to tell but are uncertain of how, or where, to start.
A brief introduction to webtoons
Comics, a medium for telling stories through still images and text, has now been digitalized with the advent of technology into a new form known as webcomics. The term was coined in the 1980s, and its digital format allowed artists to showcase their works to a wider audience. Inspired by this medium, Korea developed its own type of webcomics, known as webtoons.
The term webtoon is a Konglish* term that is an amalgamation of the words world wide web and cartoon. This type of webcomic is unique in terms of style and format. Firstly, compared to American webcomics, which are mostly composed of various panels organized into a page, webtoons follow an "infinite canvas" style. The comic is made up of a single strip that readers can continuously scroll through, so it is easier to follow the storyline. Webtoons also differ from other well-known Asian comic formats. For example, mangas** are published as physical copies and are mostly black-and-white. Webtoons, on the other hand, take advantage of their digital format by being in color and containing animations and background music.
Webtoons have a short but notable history. Though they have only been around for 20 years, they have already accumulated mass popularity and evolved into a stable source of entertainment. Soon after the first webtoon was uploaded, various others followed suit and Korean search engines, such as Naver and Daum began to support these comics by creating specific tabs.
Webtoons have also gone global, allowing more websites to include webtoons on their pages. Several websites have branched out to offer translation services for a more global audience. For example, Naver has created a portal known as Line Webtoon, which not only contains translated works of popular Korean webtoons, but also allows international artists to upload their own comics.
Self-employed bosses of webtoons
Webtoon artists, who start their journey by simply uploading their piece to webtoon platforms, are mostly self-employed. “We’re now living in a time when self-employment and entrepreneurship are becoming more common,” Lee Jong-beom commented. “Webtoon artists are much like CEOs of their own company. They start off alone, doing all of the work themselves, but as time passes and their work becomes more acknowledged by the public, they can build their own niche by hiring assistants and staff members.”
However, the biggest benefit self-employed work brings to a person is the freedom to experiment constantly. This characteristic thus makes webtoons a great source material for movie and drama adaptations. Lee expressed, “nowadays, movies and dramas all follow the same story pattern because they have much more to lose. If, for example, the production cost is about ₩100 million, it could be detrimental to try something new. But what if there was no production cost? Then you wouldn’t have any regrets in at least trying. That is the beauty of webtoons. We, as artists, can explore new ideas endlessly, and as such, we end up creating content that media industries have never seen before.”
What it takes to become a webtoon artist
Contrary to popular belief, webtoon artists do not need to have exceptional drawing skills. Students who worry about their drawing abilities do not have to fear any longer: while talent still holds precedence, the quality of illustrations is not the selling point of webtoons.
Rather, the selling point is, and always will be, the story. Lee emphasized greatly, “There must be something you want to say. It is only then that you can write a story. Those who cannot draw well but have a talent for producing stories tend to have their worksserializedfaster.” Like an artist’s drawing tools, a creative and open mind are essential to webtoon artists, whose purpose is to compel the audience with captivating plotlines.
Actively seeking new ideas requires great levels of passion and effort, which can only be exerted by someone who genuinely cares about his or her creations. “Passion is the main quality one should have, so I do not believe having a ‘cool’ personality will fit this job description. Cool people tend to take casual approaches to their work or be indifferent to the pressure of the task. Passionate people are different. They have the ability to *geek out*—to be completely obsessed with something—and I think you need to have that quality to succeed as a webtoon artist.”
Moreover, webtoon artists must have thick skin and a positive attitude for the rocky road ahead of them. For one, artists are almost always exposed to harsh criticisms. The webtoon platform includes an anonymous comment section, making it easier for people to leave hateful remarks. Webtoon artists, who gain most of their feedback through these comments, must not let these criticisms dampen their confidence. Instead, they should utilize them to their advantage by analyzing their work from a new perspective and constantly strive to improve.
Perseverance is also a necessary trait people should have when considering this career. The amount of pressure that comes with the industry’s unpredictable nature can understandably lead many to give up. More often than not, webtoon artists will face a great amount of failure—even their most well-written stories may get scrappedif they fail to garner enough attention from the audience. For instance, in Naver Webtoon, starting artists post their work on the “challenge comics” board, or do jeon man hwa. Webtoon artists often call this the amateur’s board, since people who post on it seek to get recognized as serious webtoon artists. In order to officially become serialized, their comics must capture the interest of the employers at Naver. This process, however, is extremely competitive. There will rarely be times when Naver contacts an amateurartist. It is in these moments that artists should rely on optimistic thinking to push forward.
Lee Jong-beom advocated, “you need to keep finding reasons to stay. Your initial reason may be that you enjoy drawing, but that alone cannot overcome the various obstacles and failures you will face. So, you have to keep digging deeperuntil you realize the truth and finally understand the main reason you became a webtoon artist.” Though it may take years to find a concrete answer, it is certainly helpful to keep in mind when considering this career as a potential job option.
Creatingwebtoons is all about practice and routine. By continuously exercising theirdrawing and story-telling skills, people are able to gain moreexperience in identifying andimprovingon their weak points. “Practice is one of the main pillars of any career because the hours you put inhavedirect effect onthe improvement of your skills,” Lee explained. This practice requires artists to be disciplined and consistent in their work. It is up to the person to constantly exert his or her best effort to produce the best work.
The daily life of a webtoon artist
The routine to creating and uploading a webtoon is quite arduous. The first step is to draft an outline, which consists of a basic plot and script. The webtoon artist must then research and gather necessary materials to support this story. This process continues until the author is knowledgeable enough in thesubjectand can smoothly begin writing. An examplewould be learning the inner workings of a police investigation for writing a detective story.
When the artist is satisfied with the finalized outline, they create a con-ti, which is the “blueprint” of the comic strip. Possibly one of the most important stages of the process, the con-ti involves the artist’s creation of rough sketches of the characters and theirbackgrounds. The drawings are then cleaned up by coloring and adding depth to the designs. The submission is then sent to the editors at Naver, who revise and suggest any changes if necessary. The finalized version is uploaded on the scheduled time.
Webtoons are updated weekly, so the readersdo not have to wait long until the next issue. Such consistency, however, means that webtoon artists face a stricter deadline. “There’s a running joke in the webtoon industry: if a chapter’s quality is the webtoon artist’s pride, then the deadlines are the webtoon artist’s life.” It ultimately depends on the artists’ preference; if they put greater importanceon pride than life, they will most likely upload their piece at a later date because they believe that the quality will make up fortheir delayed update. However, most webtoon artists prefer to adhere to the deadlines due to the solid promise they made with their readers.
Due to the time constraint, having a life outside of work is practically impossible. Lee disclosed, “We barely have any time for ourselves. Even after uploading the comic, we have little time to rest before we repeat the process again.” If one wants to have more free time, hiring an assistant is recommended. However, investing in a staff can also be a financialburden, so the webtoon artist must decide which is more important—time or money.
How to start your career as a webtoon artist
The world of webtoon artists is always welcome to diversity and originality. As such, students coming from different academic disciplines can bring in their knowledge and contribute some of their most complex and realistic stories to the library of webtoons.
For example, Lee’s most popular series, Dr. Frost, is a psychology webtoon that explores certain aspects of human behavior by discussing and analyzing theories through plot and dialogue. Each story arc follows one common story pattern: the protagonist must solve the dilemma of the other characters. However, Lee’s knowledge as a psychology major was the main element that added a layer of complexity to an otherwise simple plotline. The information is not heavy or excessive, educating and entertaining the reader at the same time. Lee commented, “It’s nice to have your major support you because it makes the overall story more complete.”
However, it is important to note that the craft of story-telling is determined by how well artists can weave the technical knowledge into a plot. “Even if you added in all kinds of interesting information that you learned from your major, if the story isn’t compelling enough, no one will want to read these facts. Your major is merely a beneficial addition to your work.”
For those unsure of how to begin, Lee suggests reading as many webtoons as possible for inspiration. Webtoons come in different forms and sizes, so beginners should be able to gain a vague idea of what kind of work they want to produce.
Lee also strongly recommends students to keep drawing, no matter how bad their drawing may be. “Don’t be fixated on drawing well because that doesn’t produce a good webtoon. You will most likely end up feeling frustrated that you can’t draw perfectly, which, in turn, could lead you to quit. By drawing badly, you’ll be able to see what you need to improve on.”
There is no age limit to starting a career as a webtoon artist. If it feels too daunting to dive in head-first, writing webtoons as a hobby can be an alternative. The platforms for uploading webtoons are free for anyone to use at a given moment, so it is never too late to start.
Tips for aspiring webtoon artists
1. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can. Keep experimenting with different genres and styles until there is one story that truly resonates with you.
2. Keep drawing. Do not think about drawing well, but just about drawing—period. Discover your weak points by drawing badly because bad drawings can actually givebetter insight into what you need to improve on.
3. Gain as much experience as you can through repetition and routine. It is only through practice that you get to understand what you need to improve on.
4. Persevere, even when you encounter failure time and time again. Practicean optimistic outlook to your shortcomings and keep pushing forward.
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“Webtoon artists are considered incredible because the information team, the illustrations team, the contents team, and the editor are all one person.” With respect to this, webtoon artists should not be disregarded as lesser occupations due to their unpredictable nature. Through gaining insight into their work life and responsibilities, it is evident that webtoon artists constantly strive to produce the best possible masterpiece, much like any other profession. With no pressure to meet strictjob qualifications, no financial pressure, and endless freedom to experiment with whatever genre andstyle one may choose, there should be no regrets in at least trying a hand at webtoons. Become the CEO to your own company.
*Konglish: English loanwords that are appropriated in a Korean context and used in ways that may contain a different meaning than the actual term
**Manga: Japanese comics