Live-action TV and movies have long been the go-to cross-media adaptations of webtoons. But animation is on the rise and better suited to convey their spirit and content.
Posters of animations based on webtoons that were popular with readers. From top: Lookism (2022), Beauty Water (2020), Goblin Hill (2021-2022), My Daughter is a Zombie (2022).
© SS Animent Inc., Studio Animal, SBA
© Kim Yong-hoe, Soul Creative, CJ ENM, KTH, SBA
© EBS, Durufix
In recent years, animation producers have finally come off the sidelines and joined their TV and movie peers in adopting commercially successful webtoons. SIU’s Tower of God and Park Yongje’s The God of High School became animated TV shows that hit small screens across the globe in 2020. Around the same time, Oh Sungdae’s Tales of the Unusual, a satire on Korean society’s fixation on good looks, was turned into Beauty Water, an animated feature that was invited to domestic and international film festivals. And last year, Pak Taejun’s most popular webtoon, Lookism, was adapted into an animated series and streamed on Netflix.
Aside from these notable examples, numerous other webtoon titles are being considered for animated adaptations; in the case of “Solo Leveling,” a webtoon based on a web novel by writer Chugong, the ardent requests of global fans motivated the decision to adapt it into an animation.
The first animated production of a print comic appeared in 1911, when American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay transformed his comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” into a short film. He made 4,000 drawings to create the movement of his characters. Ever since his pioneering work, animating comics has been regarded as a natural step.
In 1990s Japan, a unique transmedia system governed by production committees fueled an anime boom. Under this system, serialized comics in magazines were published as print comic books and then adapted into anime, while related merchandise accompanied the process. This strategy served to further strengthen the fandom as fans of the comic would naturally watch the anime adaptation, and conversely, people who first saw the anime on TV would afterwards read the original comic. Such consumers are naturally more receptive to the animation of webtoons.
Despite the limitations of the two-dimensional images and dialogues of webtoons, movement can be effectively reflected. The drawing technique and the use of cartoonish expressions, such as onomatopoeic and mimetic words and effect lines, help bring scenes to life. There is no fictional world that cannot be created in a webtoon.
There are largely two ways the fictional world of webtoons can be recreated on media screens. One is live-action film and the other animation. To render the science fiction and fantasy elements of a webtoon’s plot into a live-action film or TV series, a huge film set and elaborate special effects are required. This entails a complex production process and exorbitant costs.
On the other hand, animating a webtoon is simpler and more efficient. It also has the added benefit of better capturing and conveying the charm of the original work, in which case 2D rather than 3D animation is better. What’s more, webtoon readers are generally curious about animated versions of their favorite works.
Scene from episode six of Park Yongje’s The God of High School, a webtoon series on the platform NAVER WEBTOON that was serialized from April 2011 to October 2022. The storyline is about martial artists who compete for a wish to be granted. The webtoon was adapted into an animated TV series that was broadcast in Korea and Japan in 2020.
© NAVER WEBTOON, Park Yongje
Two recent trends in webtoons are romance and competition fantasies. In the latter, suspense is delivered to readers through the narrative of the protagonist who must ward off opponents to reach the top. The characters enter a virtual fantasy world, where they carry out different missions while fending off enemies. Animation, rather than live-action, is better suited to portraying this world of fantasy.
Tower of God, which began serialization on NAVER WEBTOON in 2010 and is still being updated weekly, follows a boy’s experiences in a fantasy world. It depicts his ascension in a tower, seeking a close childhood friend who entered the tower alone.
Depicting a webtoon’s plot and characters through live-action film is not impossible but difficult to do convincingly. All attempts to turn webtoons into live-action movies or TV series naturally encounter many production challenges. The first obstacle would be the faithful depiction of the webtoon’s fantasy world. With continuing advancements in digital technology, sophisticated special effects have been incorporated in many movies, but they come at a steep price and their production takes time.
A better alternative would be animation. It also requires substantial cost and time, but it would be much more conducive to achieving a faithful representation of the fantasy world depicted in webtoons. Hand-drawn images allow readers room to immerse themselves in stories through exaggeration and omission. That is difficult to achieve with live-action performances by actors. Inevitably, it would be a huge letdown if the scenes did not match the image readers had imagined.
ATTRACTING POTENTIAL READERS
A cross-media storytelling system is gradually taking root in the webtoon industry, whereby a webtoon spawns a screen adaptation and leads to marketing-related merchandise. To secure an early dominance of the global content market through the diversification of webtoons’ intellectual property (IP), companies must devise strategies to attract new audiences while retaining their existing fan base.
Considering the long-running serialized nature of webtoons and their extensive storylines, a multi-episode animated TV series would be better suited for successful screen adaptations that satisfy webtoon readers. This is also an excellent strategy for expanding the webtoon fan base since children are the main audience of TV animation channels. For those who are unaccustomed to scrolling vertically through webtoons on their phones, watching the animation could pique their curiosity about the original webtoon. Animated adaptations of webtoons can also appeal to fans of print comics who enjoy watching animated productions of comics.
It is difficult to be certain what type of media adaptation of a particular webtoon IP is likely to become a commercial success. However, considering the ever-diversifying tastes of audiences and which medium is better suited to faithfully reproduce the original work, animation may be the answer.
Kim Yong-hoe’s Goblin Hill is a serialized fantasy webtoon that began in August 2013 and continues to this day. It involves the adventurous search for parents who have suddenly disappeared. The series, produced by Kakao Webtoon, was made into a TV show by Soul Creative and CJ ENM. It was broadcast from July 2021 to February 2022 on Tooniverse, a cartoon and anime channel.
© Kim Yong-hoe, Soul Creative, CJ ENM, KTH, SBA
Cats are Masters of the World by webtoon artist HON was serialized on Kakao Page in March 2020. It depicts the daily lives of a cat and animal friends who dream of conquering the world. The release of an animated TV series is slated for the first half of 2024.
© Cats are Masters of The World Animation Partners
Lee Yun-chang’s My Daughter is a Zombie, serialized on NAVER WEBTOON from 2018 to 2020, follows a father’s struggles to protect his daughter who has turned into a zombie. The grave storyline infused with comic elements resonated deeply with readers. It was adapted into an animated TV series co-produced by EBS and Durufix in 2022.
© EBS, Durufix
Hong Nan-ji Professor, School of Manhwa Contents, Chungkang College of Cultural Industries