South Korea is widely known as being the most wired nation in the world. The majority of Koreans have near-constant access to high-speed Internet. Consequently, the Internet has become a vehicle for new artists to make themselves known to a wide audience. Bestselling novels often originate in online serials, top actors can be discovered through personal blogs—and many of the latest hit manhwa make their start as webcomics.
In South Korea, webcomic is not a common term. Instead, Koreans use term 'webtoon' (a portmanteau of “web” and “cartoons”) for webcomics. Webtoons are highly popular in Korea, for several reasons.
Traditionally, comics artists create their artwork first for the print version. That has been the way comic book artists producing their works. Or at least, they may draw their comics with the help of monitor and tablets, but they do not publish it online before they hand it over to the publishers.
The system has been quite different, though, in Korea. Korea has had high-speed internet since early nineties, as the government set up the infrastructure for the broadband in those days. Thanks to that, South Koreans became used to enjoying online content with quickly and in large volumes.
Of course, there has been already a huge comic book industry behind. This manga market had a lot of consumers, who eventually came to settle down on the internet and started enjoying webtoons as well.
There are many online comics in many countries: including the US, France, Korea, and Japan, since the internet has become the most prevalent tool for modern day society. However, where the webcomic is popular the most is South Korea. In Japan, the idea of webcomic is online version of published manga or a four panel comic strip. In France, the genre of the webcomic is confined to a kind of illustrated personal diary. The US web comics are mostly three or four-panel structure like newspaper comics or a comic page.
Korean webtoons have very different features from webcomics from other countries.
- Webtoons are published as a long vertical strip. Taking advantage of the concept Scott McCloud calls the 'unlimited canvas'. This is quite ideal for scrolling with a scroll wheel on a mouse or viewing a comic on a tablet computer or smartphone.
- Are very often in color. Print manhwa are almost in printed in black ink due to the cost and time of coloring the manhwa and the four color printing. Since Webtoons are posted online, there's no added cost to coloring and opens up possibilities of color design.
- Some of them have background music.
- Some use flash animations.
Webtoon artists are hired by the major websites, serializing their comics once or twice a week.
The Webtoon is a great to make a living for many Korean manga artists, as there are already too many manga (manhwa, in Korean term) published out there, and illegal scanned copies of them exist online.
In the big portals' point of view, webtoons are a perfect way to lure people to regularly visit their websites.
Besides, Google isn't the most used search engine in South Korea, and a lot of Koreans like to read mangas from the bottom of their hearts. People visit major portals like Naver and Daum on a daily basis, and they can get to see their favorite webtoons updated everyday. Korea could be the only country which has a number of dramas, musicals, movies, animations, books based on 'webtoons'. For example, there is a popular webtoon called The Great Catsby serialized through 2005-2010. This was made into a musical in Oct 2010. Moss and Sunjeong Manhwa have movies based on these webtoons.
In the 1990's, during the boom of launching personal webpages, many Korean cartoonists started to show their work on their webpages instead of debuting it through magazines. And instead of sticking to the dramatic genre that serial magazines preferred, many of them displayed their individual tastes, stories, and ideas and were well-received.
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. Pape Popo Memories by Shim Seung-hyun, Snow Cat by Kwon Yoon-ju, and Marine Blues by Jeong Chul-yeon were some that became hits. Independent manhwa also paid attention to the online channel to secure the niche which the mainstream manhwa could not satisfy. The expense of production and marketing on the web didn’t cost as much as it did with magazines, and independent manhwa creators could also create new works based on their own ideas. The first Korean indie manhwa magazine and self-described ‘low budget independent manhwa magazine,” Flush, struggled to publish magazines, then moved to cyberspace in 1998. Other indie magazines like Akjin and Comix soon followed.
Pros & Cons of the Webtoon
- 1 Webtoons are free of charge. (There are, however, few exceptions. Really popular creators become professionals and their popular webtoons tend to become paid-only as a result.) However, this acts as a double-edge sword. See Cons # 2.
- 2 Greater variety in plots; because webtoons authors are not bound by contacts, they are free to express themselves. Even adult materials are acceptable. Contrast that to Japanese manga where the manga creators are very much subject to editorial mandates. However, some portal sites are subject to Korea regulations dealing with potentially harmful content, i.e. sex, nudity, and gore.
- 3 Full color. Print manhwa are usually printed in black ink. This is not an artistic choice but rather doing this saves time and money printing. This is important for a weekly manhwa title. It's also the main reason why manga are almost in black and white. Most western comics like American or French language comics are printed in color via four color printing. It's just adding color to a page by printing that page four times (Yellow, Magenta, Cyan, and Black). Since webtoons are digital, there's no need to do four color printing since webtoons are online.
- 4 Optimized for mobile devices. Traditional comic book style pages are in generally poorly suited for mobile devices. A way to get around this is to make the page(s) vertical and have each panel in it's own area. Put in another way, a panel or a few panels can be it's own "page"
- 5 Webtoons can use flash, gif animations, or background music to achieve effects. Some background music can be scripted to play when the readers reach a certain parts of the webtoon.
- 1 Webtoons do not exist in physical form and can only be read online.
- 2 Authors are not bound by contracts, meaning, that they are free to quit their works at will. About half of webtoons do not reach proper endings. A popular way to "formally" quit working on a comic is stating that it is an "end of a season". The next season generally doesn't come.
- 3 While some select webtoons have great quality, the overall quality is sometimes questionable. A majority of webtoons are done amateurs.
- 4 Majority of webtoons are very short in plot length. Not many will have enough chapters to make a print edition.
- 5 Many manhwaga often work alone, doing plotting, drawing, and coloring. Doing all that work for a weekly webtoon often leads to exhaustion and health problems. Even with some assistants, it's still a huge workload. It's a major reason some manhwaga don't finish their webtoons.