Western readers who grew up with comic books will surely remember the DC and Marvel superheroes that they grew up with, which have subsequently been turned into movies for all ages to enjoy. But with the decline of print and the rise of online, it’s natural for this medium, too, to turn to the web. This hasn’t been more relevant than South Korea’s webtoon market, which has steadily grown since the 2008 financial crisis reaching billions of Won in value to date. Initially called manhwa, which is a Korean term for comics and print cartoons, the webtoon evolved as an outgrowth of manhwa to gain popularity across Asia and increasingly, the Western world.
Let’s Travel Back In Time
Those who live or have visited South Korea will be familiar with Daum and Naver as some of the most popular web portals in the country. So what do they have to do with webtoons? Quite a lot, actually. For starters, in 2003, Daum created Daum Webtoon to cater to the wide fan base – after all, around one-quarter of all book sales in South Korea were dedicated to comics at one point in time with over three million Koreans paying to access online manhwa and 10 million users reading free webtoons. Naver quickly followed in Daum’s footsteps by launching Naver Webtoon in 2004.
Fast-forward 10 years later to July 2014 and we get a whopping 520 webtoons published by Naver while Daum followed closely behind with 434. There’s also been a gradual easing into translating these webtoons into English to reach a Western audience as part of what is known as the Korean Wave.
Apart from this, the evolution of webtoons can be divided into four “generations”. Generation Zero was when the webtoon was initially created by having original print comics scanned and uploaded to the internet, typically formatted on one page. Then came the first generation of webtoons, with the implementation of flash animation effects. To cater to the growing use of smartphones and tablets, generation two allowed for enhanced “preloading” which “enabled later authors to adopt a vertical layout with scrolling”. The ability to scroll enables readers to view new panels, making such webtoons “suitable for gradual and continuous representation, allowing webtoon reading to become more fluid.” Finally, with the third generation and very much still in line with the vast proliferation of smartphones and tablet usage, sound effects have been added to emphasize tones and expressions, in addition to interactive motions that enhance the viewer’s experience. In addition to this, webtoons have also ended up migrating to new platforms which include being made available through different apps.
The Revenue Model
As mentioned above, the decline in print has been slowly (or rapidly, depending on the perspective and location) been replaced by online versions of print materials. The same is true for webtoons. The revenue models employed by different webtoon providers differ, but they also share many similarities with other online media. These include offering a limited set of chapters for free while the rest are paid for. Meanwhile, other providers offer a limited number of chapters to be read per day. There is also the ability to earn revenue from ads displayed on their websites as well as through in-app ad revenue.
The Korean Market
The Korean webtoon market, including its derivatives, is valued at around US$368 million, attesting to the rising popularity of this medium of comics. It is worth noting that even though these digital comics are gaining popularity, print still remains the primary medium and source of revenue for comic retail. This is possibly why some publishers have opted to offer online and print content simultaneously.
The Asian Market
As part of the Korean Wave, which has taken the world by storm, the popularity of webtoons has also spread throughout Asia. Mainland China and Taiwan are seeing rapid consumption of webtoons and a resurgence in interest in the manhwa industry with increases in digital consumption of content. Meanwhile, webtoons have not been adopted in Japan, possibly owing to the continued popularity of manga there. Other parts of Asia where the webtoon industry is growing and thriving include India, Indonesia, and Thailand.
The Western Market
Korean webtoons have certainly reached their Western counterparts as well with many content providers opting for in-house translations to cater to an English audience. One simple example of this is Korea’s TopToon’s TopToonPlus service which was launched in July 2021. It certainly reached its English-speaking global fanbase quite quickly as it gained over 200,000 subscribers In its first month of service only.
Korean Webtoons Are Here To Stay
Webtoons are a wonderful way for people of all ages to immerse themselves in a fantasy world. They can range from webtoons targeted at children to those aimed at adults. There are many categories to choose from ranging from romance and comedy to drama, thrillers and fantasy. They make for an enjoyable escape experience to help their readers. The addition of sound and visual effects after the third generation of webtoon development is another way of creating an immersive experience that’s driven by quality. And the best part is that with in-house translations, webtoons can reach a wider part of the world as is already being shown with their proliferation in mainland China and Taiwan, Indonesia, India, and Thailand. The Western world is not far behind with one publisher catering not only to English speakers but to French speakers, too. The rising popularity of webtoons should be followed with interest as this is a huge market segment that provides quality entertainment and value to audiences.