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[Digital Contents Korean Webtoons: Now a Global Medium

[Digital Contents] Korean Webtoons: Now a Global Medium

Seo Eun-young
Cartoon critic

The expression “K-webtoon” has grown ubiquitous both at home and abroad. The digital comics called webtoons are an integral part of the global boom in Korean culture, known as Hallyu, or the Korean wave. Still, the term “K-webtoon” is somewhat misleading as webtoon already refers to a medium born and distributed in Korea, which eventually emerged as a global leader. Even without the “K” prefix, webtoons have changed the trends and ecology of global comics, earning a reputation for creating new business models.


Just a few years ago, webtoon pundits often complained that the term “webtoon” hampered comics exports. It was difficult for them to explain the term to the world outside Korea, where people were more familiar with words like cartoon and comics. The then new format sounded rather unfamiliar, if not awkward. Now, there is almost no need anymore for an explanation, given the increasing presence of webtoons on the comics market. Webtoons are unlike other content in that they go beyond exports; they are now a global medium with their own standards and serve as a novel model on the digital comics market.


The rise of webtoons as major global content was led by “novel comics,” a relatively new term for webtoons based on web novels. As webtoons made expansive inroads abroad through novel comics and the methods of their consumption and production developed in another direction, such comics developed into a new genre and enabled Naver and KakaoPage to lead the global market for this medium. The simultaneous growth of the markets for both web novels and webtoons helped novel comics create a new business model centered on intellectual property. The global spread of novel comics laid the foundation for exports of web novels, something that had previously been hindered by problems in translation.


Around 2016, the success of novel comics began to take shape. They Say I Was Born a King’s Daughter was the medium’s first big hit, accumulating 100 million views on the Chinese platform Tencent Animation and Comics and topping the list of paid webtoons. In January 2017, Daughter of the Emperor , also known as The Emperor’s Only Daughter , also hit 100 million views just a month after its release.


Yet, among the many successes in the genre, Solo Leveling, also known as Only I Level Up, has monumental significance. A web novel of the same title was serialized from July 2016, and a novel comic version followed in 2018, evoking an explosive response in Korea and culminating in the work’s spread abroad. Solo Leveling instantly topped the charts in Japan, the world’s largest comics market, generating astronomical profits. A combined 17 countries bought the rights to the work, including Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States, making the work a webtoon legend.


So what is the secret behind the overseas success of novel comics? Many cite the fancy pictures and solid plotlines as the main reasons. I have repeatedly dealt with these factors, but here I propose another reason. When people are mired in a capitalism-induced crisis, novel comics elicit sympathy with stories containing the desire per se of the principal agents of neoliberalism.


The key characters appearing as super-powered “Munchkins” are a metaphor for this. Regardless of background, Munchkins use their advantages over the course of a competition and prevail in the end. Having lived multiple lives by repeating the circle of returning, possession by spirits, and reincarnation, they can jump ahead of others in the future. Sometimes, they take full advantage by monopolizing gear or stealing a look at their opponents’ items. Munchkins have no possibility of collapse, and their success is guaranteed thanks to their special powers. This is extremely unfair and unreasonable, but webtoon readers are highly interested in and sympathize with them because they clearly manifest the readers’ own desires.


The main readers of webtoons are the young generation who wrestle with structural socioeconomic problems. They are highly fatigued as the agents of neoliberalism, struggling to survive and leading unstable lives due to lack of job security amid intense competition and worsening inequality and social polarization. Korea is by far not the only country with these problems. The messages of K-pop super group BTS resonate with youth worldwide, and the cultural code of disaster capitalism is on full display in the Oscar-winning film Parasite and hit Netflix series Squid Game. Webtoons appeal to the desires of readers and offer them a vicarious experience of pleasure. Critical discourse on this might exist but webtoons, through their storytelling methods, indicate society’s problems and resonate with readers beyond national borders. And this is another secret behind the global boom in webtoons.