College romances, historical battles at sea, students with superpowers, vampires, secret agents, the lives of convenience store workers: People enjoy all these and more. From the sweet to the satirical, the mundane to the fantastical, one in three Koreans reads webtoons, whether at home or during commutes and coffee breaks.
Visually and thematically rich comic strips wholly created for and adapted to the Internet, webtoons are the latest generation of a beloved art form, and one whose innovations all come straight from Korea.
The comic strip began in 19th-century Europe, found its form in early 20th century U.S., and realized new storytelling possibilities in mid- to late 20th century Japan. Now, Korean artists and writers have pioneered a thoroughly 21st-century form that embraces the potential of digital art and information technology to take the comic strip, both the creation process and the reading experience, to a whole new level.
Webtoons, the most popular of which have gone on to become major television dramas, stage productions and motion pictures, have proven themselves in Korea not just by winning large readerships, but by making the leap into more established art forms. Now they face their next challenge: Can they succeed in the global market?
Most countries have produced writers and artists who create comics for the Internet, as well as readers who enjoy them, but in Korea webtoons are a national cultural and economic phenomenon. One reason is a well-developed IT industry that has given rise to a variety of platforms that facilitate the creation, consumption and distribution of digital content. Other countries’ Web-based comics, which don’t benefit from a comparable infrastructure, haven’t received the same amount of domestic attention that, in Korea, has made webtoons into multiple media–spanning cultural properties, and thus potential objects of international interest as well.
Hong Si-wan, Seoul