Webtoon: Are Korean web comics going to be the next K-pop?

The industry's success is, in part, attributed to the government's drive for the culture industry since the 1990s. The webtoon artist Lee Ji-won is working on her debut webtoon at the webtoon co-working hub funded by the Seoul city government.

South Korea’s digital-friendly comics, namely ‘webtoon’, have inspired global hit series like All of Us Are Dead, Sweet Home and Hellbound but could they themselves be a cultural phenomenon following K-pop?

The following is my original draft for After Squid Game and Kpop, Korean webtoons get moment in the sun which is published on Al Jazeera.

The world’s third most earning app in 2021 is something you probably never heard of.

With TikTok and YouTube placed as the first and the second, the digital manga app Piccoma was rated as the third highest earner by a mobile app market intelligence company Sensor Tower.

What makes its success more extraordinary is that the app has been in service only in Japan. Yet it took less than six years for the app’s accumulated revenue to surpass a one-billion-dollar milestone.

One more interesting bit: the number one manga app of the country of manga isn’t from Japan. Its developer-operator Kakao Piccoma is, as you can guess from the name, a subsidiary of the South Korean tech juggernaut Kakao.

Korea invades Japan

Japan is the originator of the art form, not to mention its name manga, and its market size resembles what the US defense spending is to that of the rest of the world.

While the US and China have markets respectively worth $1.2 billion and $980 million, Japan alone boasts the market size of whopping $6.5 billion. Its market base is broad and stable with major publishers with more than 80 years of history in average. 

Yet its digital transformation has been spearheaded by Korean companies. Korea Creative Content Agency’s 2021 Comics Industry White Paper says the Korean tech companies including Kakao and Naver own more than 70% of Japanese digital manga market. 

Although the traditional paper manga has been relatively robust in the market, the digital took over the market dominance last year and its share, driven by increasing adoption of smart devices, is estimated to grow over 80% by 2025.

No better prospect could be given to the Korean companies.

Though recently given way to Kakao of the most earning manga app, another Korean tech giant Naver has been leading the Japanese digital manga market with the Line Manga app.

Having a sister service Line as the most popular mobile messenger in Japan gave Line Manga a head start, offering more than a hundred thousand Japanese manga titles right from its launch in 2013.

A latecomer in the market, Piccoma, launched in 2016, took a different strategy. Whereas it also partnered with some of the biggest publishers like Kodansha in offering the digital version of local comic books, it put more weight on introducing the Korean webtoons already proven successful in its mainland market.

The strategy seems to work well. The number of the Korean webtoons that are in service on Piccoma is just 1.2% of its entire catalogue but they account for more than 35% of the app’s revenue, the white paper says.

How could the Korean webtoon grip the audience of the world’s biggest market? The answer lies in how South Korean comic industry collapsed and then rebuilt itself from the ashes throughout the emergence of the mobile age.

‘Webtoon’ rose from the ashes

Lee Jae-sik might be the best person to tell us about the history of the industry. He started his career in the industry as a comic magazine editor in the late 1990s, when the industry reached its first apogee.

At that point of time, the industry boasted comic magazines for virtually all age segments—from children’s comic magazine to boy’s and girl’s and adult—just like the Japanese market which almost all Korean companies took after.

“And then it crumbled as the financial crisis came,” he recalls. The crisis of 1997-98 was harsh on South Korean economy and the comic industry wasn’t an exception.

“After we fell apart all at once, we were busy looking for an exit,” he says.

Many in the industry found one in the Korean dot-com boom which began in 1999. Some started offering digitalized comic books while Lee experimented in reviving the spirit of comic magazines—offering new, fresh comics rather than digitalizing the existing comic books.

His first experiment in 2000 fell flat in two years. Later he founded his own comic agency/production company in 2001 but too little was left in the industry after the collapse to get back on its feet, it seemed.

Then the portals came in.

The internet portals were among the few who survived the burst of the dot-com bubble. Daum, later merged with Kakao in 2014, and Naver soon began the fierce competition over Korea’s number one web portal as the new millennium dawns.

Since the web search function alone couldn’t give enough engagement the portals were looking for, they began to scour for something that can hold the audience longer in their website. 

This is the beginning of the webtoon as generally understood. At first, the portals’ offering was mainly about the digital version of the same old comic books but soon the webtoons, original comics made for the web, gained the upper hand in popularity and quantity.

Though it wasn’t the first time in the industry to see the comics created to be consumed on the web, the portals embracing the new, evolving form of comic marked a breakthrough by broadening the audience base—most webtoons were offered free at the portals’ own expense—and sustaining the momentum.

New language, new successes

The decade of the portal patronage, intersected with the dawning of the mobile age as the smartphone becomes South Korean’s everyday device, helped the new comic form formulate its own language.

One of the first things you notice when reading the webtoon for the first time is its vertical scroll-to-read style in stark contrast to the horizontal, page-turning style of the traditional comics.

“I believe they couldn’t afford to develop a dedicated viewer in the beginning,” Lee says. “Putting panels vertically so people can simply scroll down to read them. Simple as that.”

As the audiences increasingly read the webtoon with the smartphone, the new style [KS1] was soon consummated in the single vertical panel and dramatic use of space between panels and dialog. 

Providing the best reading experience in mobile devices is one thing but this new style had one more accidental benefit that later proved lucrative.

“The very act of scrolling to read gives it a kind of feeling of movement, such as movement of gaze and flow of time,” Seo Bum-gang, animation movie director who now chairs the Korea Webtoon Industry Association, tells Al Jazeera. 

“For those who work in the film industry, it strikingly resembles storyboards used in their industry. When the audience read the webtoon, they can easily associate it with imagined motion picture.”

Since the late noughties, South Korean film and TV industry have been busy adapting webtoons. After the office drama series Misaeng, based on the homonymous webtoon, made a phenomenal success in 2014, no one doubted its commercial possibility.

No media services have been more enthusiastic in adapting webtoons than Netflix. Following its initial success of Kingdom, Netflix made global successes with Sweet Home and Hellbound and more than five series based on the webtoon are expected to be released this year.

Until the early teens, most webtoons were offered free via the web portals. The portals acknowledged its possibility, yet they were reluctant to build a paywall in the local market. 

The audience, after a decade of free webtoons, appeared hostile to the idea and they still considered their webtoon arms as freebies for visitors rather than the business of its own.

It was small players in the field who changed the rule of the game.

“I think the small and medium-sized businesses played a significant role in growing and sustaining the market,” Seo says. “They worked a lot to develop the pricing system that suits the webtoon.”

After the newcomer Lezhin Comics defied the industry insiders’ concern over paywall in 2013, the portals followed suit soon. Kakao’s ‘pay up or wait’ freemium system, adapted from mobile games, proved hugely lucrative.

Burdens on the artists

The rapid growth of the industry brought about the changes. Not all of them, however, were pleasant for the webtoon artists.

From her high school days, Lee Ji-won has never dreamed of anything else than becoming a webtoon artist. She went to a college to major in comic creation, which proliferated during the 90s in part due to the government’s drive to cultivate the culture industry.

Ji-won[KS2] , now 26, says she’s been lucky to having debuted her own webtoon on a major platform at such a young age. Her debut webtoon just launched one month ago after months of preparation but she’s already in talks with another platform for her next title.

When asked how she feels now, however, her answer was disappointingly dark.

“It’s really so hard,” Ji-won says. “I’m not sure this is a good idea to be candid, but I wouldn’t choose this job had I known it’s going to be this hard.”

She says she works 12 hours a day in average, seven days a week. Even though she personally hired two assistants to back her up.

Recent survey [KS3] commissioned by KOCCA found webtoon artists work 10.5 hours a day, 5.9 days a week in average.

Much of her burden come from the competitions, not just between the companies but among the artists and would-bes.

This is the country where successful webtoon artists enjoy a celebrity status and rub shoulders with other celebs like K-pop stars, not to mention a massive income. No surprises the competition is intense.

“Publishing one episode a week is too exhausting, but I know adjusting the publishing schedule isn’t an option,” she says. “Because there are tons of other people who can do this and too much money is flowing in as the industry gets bigger and bigger.”

“They just can’t give us a slack because then they will lose money.”

Industrialization as breakthrough

Traditionally, the making of comics depended heavily on individual artists. A single artist usually did the backbone of a work including narrative and illustration, sometimes with helps of assistants she personally hired.

As it did in Japan, famous for the cultural emphasis on artisanship, so did in Korea until the explosive growth of the teens.

It was evident that the individual artists alone can’t provide enough supply for surging demand, agencies began to establish their own studios, hiring playwrights and artists. 

The web fiction boom in the same period hit the gas pedal to the trend. To adapt fictions for webtoon at speed to satisfy the soaring demand required more systemized division of labor. The biggest players in the market Naver and Kakao are now investing a lot in acquiring webtoon studios and even establishing their own.

The industrialized studio system has one more perk than improving productivity for the companies: a clear-cut ownership of intellectual property, which is increasingly important as the derivative works of webtoons like films and TV series raking it in.

“Studios can avoid possible disputes later over intellectual property by hiring artists,” Kim Hyun-kook, industry veteran who manages the co-working space for webtoon artists funded by Seoul city government, tells Al Jazeera. 

“Also there are many artists who decided to join the studio, feeling burnout after making their own titles, in search of more stable life with less overtime while going on making comics.”

One artist who has been making webtoons for 8 years on her own under the moniker Kim Fanta tells Al Jazeera that she might join them some day. 

“I’ve felt that I need to adapt,” Kim says. “Working alone isn’t going to survive in the industry in these days.”

Some players like Chris Suh are taking more drastic approach to industrialization by embracing 3D computer graphics in webtoon production.

Suh, 55, says the new way of producing webtoon using 3D graphics could reduce the total work hour required to finish one season up to 50%. 

“If we say we’re going to produce just one episode of webtoon, the traditional way is much faster and cheaper,” Suh told Al Jazeera at Cubicon Studio he founded early last year.

“But if we’re going to produce more and more episodes, the cost continuously decreases (when using 3D graphics) since you can reproduce 3D models at a click.”

While it remains to be seen if his experiment can penetrate the audience, who are yet to be accustomed to 3D CGI generated webtoons, he is sure that the new way of production can unburden the artists and give them more artistic freedom.

How potential is the global market in fact?

The webtoon market in Korea kept growing more than 20% every year and last December’s research[KS4] found that the 2020 market size has grown over 64% than the previous year, surpassing one trillion won milestone ($840 million).

Just like any other fast-growing industry in Korea, the webtoon industry sought bigger opportunities from foreign markets.

The fervent rivalry between Naver and Kakao has been leading the overseas expansion as we’ve seen in the world’s biggest manga market Japan but it also goes on in other markets around the globe.

Lee says now about 65% of his company’s revenue come from overseas market. While the industry average is less than 30%, it has been constantly increasing and will continue to do so.

But there is a doubt over how big the webtoon market could grow. 

The global comic market of 2020 is estimated to be worth $11 billion, which is less than one fourth of film or music industry in the pre-pandemic era. The global video game industry is estimated to be more than ten times bigger at $149 billion.

Some industry insiders don’t agree.

“A common mistake is to consider the printed comics and the webtoon as the same,” Seo says. “It’s true that the webtoon is derived from the printed comics but what we’re seeing in the industry now show the webtoon industry has completely different characters and purposes from the printed comic industry.”

Its digital nature and the global successes of its derivative works, they believe, could defy the limitation of the manga industry, which remains a fringe culture in the larger part of the world excluding East Asian countries.

“I believe this is just the beginning of a very long, upward cycle,” Lee says. “In the old days, we were busy to try attract other countries’ attention but now they are looking for us.”

“In this market condition, the cycle won’t end anytime soon.”

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