What are webtoons?
South Korea is widely known as being the most wired nation in the world. The majority of Koreans have near-constant access to high-speed Internet. Consequently, the Internet has become a vehicle for new artists to make themselves known to a wide audience. Bestselling novels often originate in online serials, top actors can be discovered through personal blogs—and many of the latest hit manhwa make their start as webcomics.
In Korean, webcomics are called “webtoons” (a portmanteau of “web” and “cartoons”) and are available for free viewing on major portal sites, who pay the manhwa-ga to update once or twice a week until the storyline reaches completion. Some are professional manhwa-ga who have already made their name in the industry, such as Huh Young-man, who published his latest series, Kkol, online.*
Others are unknowns with separate day jobs who create manhwa in their spare time. For example, Shin Eui-cheol’s popular webcomic, Schoolholic was based on his daily experiences as a teacher.
Korean webcomics have grown immensely popular in recent years. Several series have garnered sequels or spin-off series due to their success with online audiences; others have subsequently been published in print or adapted for the screen as Korean dramas or movies.
New form creates new function
Korean webcomics cover a diversity of genres—anywhere from science fiction to horror to humor—and push the boundaries of the medium in many ways. Typically, each chapter is published as one long continuous vertical strip, extending beyond the dimensions of a print page. Some series use traditional panelling but others have taken advantage of the scrolling navigation to experiment with different layouts.
For example, as the viewer moves down the page, the blue background in the prologue to Mt. Hyeon Arari begins as an underwater scene with fish and becomes a cloudless sky with birds.** The scrolling allows the manhwa-ga to imitate a camera panning effect as the viewer’s eye descends through the sky to end with a view of a mountainous island, toward which a boat is sailing.
Moreover, since webcomics are usually drawn by tablet and colored with computer graphics software, the range of artistic styles can range from black-and-white line art to photorealistic paintings. Most series are available in full color for every chapter. The online format also permits manhwa-ga to insert multimedia features to accompany their art, such as the background music in the prologue to Monsoon.***
Popular series gain large fan followings, and the online format allows manhwa-ga to read their viewer’s reactions and even interact with their fans through the forums. Series that are ongoing at the same time will occasionally hold mock competitions for viewer ratings or showcase cameos from characters in other series.
Where to find webcomics
Webcomics can be viewed for free on almost all the major Korean portal sites. The two largest portals boast the widest collection:
Webcomics are also available at these portals:
|However, not many webcomics have been translated into English yet. Among the English-language manhwa publishers, only NETCOMICS has published webcomics:
The start-up company iSeeToon plans on releasing Korean webcomics in English as iPhone/iPod apps. (They are also on Twitter at @iSeeToon.) The first series they’ve licensed will be made available in late August.
The release of this series in late 2003 made it one of the first Korean webcomics. Its popularity is largely responsible for setting off the webcomic boom on the Korean Internet. As one can guess from the title, the series focuses on the love story of two couples, featuring slice-of-life moments from their romance. The protagonists are a second-year high school girl and an older salaryman who lives in the same apartment building, as well as another high school student who is similarly in love with a much older woman.
Although I originally felt dubious about the large age gap in both couples, the manhwa soon won me over. The age difference is not brushed aside but features as one of the main sources of conflict in the series. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Suk calls out Ha-yeong to go walk in the first snow. Ha-yeong wants to discourage Suk’s determined attempts to woo her since he is much younger than her in age. She tries to squelch the romantic mood by saying that she doesn’t like it because the snow is too thin. She tells Suk that she prefers snow that piles up and crunches under her feet.
Undaunted, Suk reaches down and starts making small mounds of snow with his bare hands. He tells her to walk on the mounds so that it will feel as if the snow has piled up thickly beneath her feet. Ha-yeong reluctantly walks forward and hears the snow crunching at her footsteps. The perspective switches to Suk, who watches Ha-yeong walking towards him and feels incredibly happy.
This horror webcomic finished last summer and developed such a large fanbase that the award-winning director, Kang Woo-suk, acquired the rights to produce a live-action movie adaptation. The movie will be released later this summer, and the trailer can be viewed at the official website.
The story starts with the death of Ryu Mok-hyeong, who left his family in Seoul to live in the country. Upon his death, his long-estranged son, Hae-guk, who has recently divorced from his wife and lost his job, decides to make a new start by moving to the village where his father spent the last years of his life. This news is not welcome to the village’s inhabitants, who try to convince him to return.
Moreover, there seems to be some mystery about his father’s death, as Ryu Mok-hyeong was only 67 and did not appear to die from any illness. The villagers, and in particular, the sinister-looking village foreman, seem bent on discouraging Hae-guk from finding out anything about his father’s life in the village or the circumstances surrounding his death.
The art is highly stylized and detailed, featuring strong lines on top of a dark and desaturated color scheme. The overall effect is gorgeous and well-suited to the horror genre. In the panel to the left, Hae-guk wakes up to find one of the villagers snooping outside his window, after he had mentioned that he had found a pile of documents belonging to his late father.
* 꼴 or kkol is a word that literally means one’s “look” or “state”. It’s often used in a negative context, e.g. “What a [pitiful] state you’re in!” or “Get out of my sight!” It’s also a pun for “goal”. (↑)
** 아라리 or arari is a Buddhist term coming from the Sanskrit alali. It’s used to mean a wide natural landscape where there is no sign of people. (↑)
*** 장마 or jangma literally translates to “long rain” and refers to the summer monsoon season in Korea. (↑)