Your Next Obsession: Step into the World of Korean Webtoons
Your Guide to the Best of Korean Digital Comics
These days, it’s easier than ever to access all kinds of media with the help of modern technology; by opening a search engine or a mobile app, we have the power to access a seemingly endless amount of content that we wouldn’t be aware of otherwise. The accessibility of the internet has led to a cultural boom in the West, where more and more people are engaging with content that originates from all the way across the world.
While anime and manga have made their mark on the West for some time now, the popularity of Korean webtoons has only increased in recent years. What exactly are webtoons, and just how much impact have they made on the internet? Here, we’ll examine the origins of this international phenomenon and how it has changed the way we view content online.
The History – Where Did Webtoons and Manhwa Come From?
The phrase “Webtoon” was first coined by Junkoo Kim in 2004 after he witnessed the decline of the Korean comic and cartoon (or “manhwa”) industry in the 1990s. Seeing as the internet was relatively new, Kim predicted that readers would want to engage with content that could be easily scrolled through in lieu of turning pages. The Webtoon addition to the Korean search engine Naver was created, allowing readers to engage with comics in a brand-new format.
At first, the Webtoon platform came with its fair share of challenges; very few artists and writers in the early 2000s were eager to adopt the new format, resulting in a shortage of content. However, local manhwa artists who were struggling due to the decline of print manhwa soon adopted the new format, finding success as the internet became increasingly accessible.
Image source: Naver Webtoon
The Webtoon platform didn’t go international until 2014, allowing authors from all around the world to create and self-publish their works to large audiences. From there, it was easy for the platform to take off; the easy-to-read format paired with interactive multimedia elements made the Webtoon app skyrocket in popularity among international fans. “Webtoon” became a general term that described the genre in its entirety rather than the Webtoon app alone, with numerous other webtoon-reading apps gaining traction.
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Webtoons and the Korean Wave
The “Korean Wave” – or integration of Korean cultural phenomena into Western spaces – has existed since the late 20th century but has only increased exponentially with the rise of K-pop and internet fandom culture. Webtoons have rivaled Japanese manga in terms of popularity among Western fans, with the former having a slight advantage due to its internet accessibility.
Image source: Korea.net
Webtoons also integrate audio and visual elements, allowing for an immersive reading experience. These innovations were attractive not only to prospective readers but also to writers and artists who wished to tell stories in a fresh, unique way. Upon realizing the untapped potential of the webtoon format, Western authors began creating their own webtoons and publishing them online – creating a new subgenre of webtoons that took influence from both Korean manhwa and Western cartoons. The ease of self-publishing has made the webtoon space highly accessible to people of varying backgrounds, resulting in content that showcases diverse perspectives and gives a voice to groups that are often under-represented in mainstream media.
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From Action to Romance: The Best Webtoons of 2023
As of 2023, the current market for international webtoons is valued at approximately $368 million, with over 6.2 million users visiting the Naver Webtoon app every day. Needless to say, there are plenty of webtoons for fans to choose from!
Some of the most popular running webtoons fall into the categories of drama or romance, with love triangles and forbidden flings being common tropes in the webtoon space. These webtoons have garnered international attention for their over-the-top drama and mature themes, making them the perfect indulgence for those looking for something entertaining to read.
Image source: Rags to Gold
However, several action and adventure webtoons have also gained international notoriety. The Korean webtoon and manhwa Tower of God, for example, was so popular that it was adapted into a successful anime series. The God of High School, a manhwa that has been serialized on Naver’s Webtoon app since 2011, has gone on to receive both an anime series and a mobile game. Other webtoons have received print adaptations, entering the traditional print media market. The development of webtoons into larger franchises showcases just how successful the webtoon format has become!
Image source: Wallpapercave
Cultural Intersections and Fandom Interactions
Although webtoons have their roots in Korean manhwa, the introduction of the webtoon format to a wider international audience has further broadened the genre, creating a subsection of online content that is wonderfully diverse in its cultural references. The webtoon Lore Olympus, for example, takes on characters and stories from Greek mythology in a modern setting. Created by New Zealand author Rachel Smythe, Lore Olympus has been translated into six different languages and adopts an art style that takes influence from both Western and East Asian media.
Image source: Wikia
How to Translate Korean Webtoons
While translations are now available directly from webtoon publication sites, fan translations were prevalent in the early days of international webtoons. Fans alone were responsible for translating works, even creating their own mobile apps to read webtoons in different languages. The international fans’ dedication and love for webtoons were enough to prompt publishers to translate works upon their serialization, making it far easier for fans to engage with the content they love.
Webtoons have become a great way for aspiring authors and illustrators to self-publish their works and create a fanbase. The international appeal of webtoons – and their foundation in Korean manhwa – make them a fun and engaging way to get acquainted with a wide array of cultures and perspectives at the touch of a button.
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