S Korea ‘webtoon’ craze mak­ing global waves

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Seoul of­fice worker Park Sun-Min con­stantly checks his smart­phone-trawl­ing for up­dates on an in­sect apoca­lypse, ghost sol­diers haunt­ing the in­ter-Korean bor­der, and a su­per­mar­ket worker’s strug­gle to form a trade union. Along with mil­lions of other South Kore­ans, Park is, by his own ad­mis­sion, ir­re­vo­ca­bly hooked on the vast net­work of var­ied In­ter­net-based comic strips-or “webtoons”-avail­able through his mo­bile. “I read four to five a day and more than 30 a week ... I some­times see them at work and keep read­ing them on hol­i­day-even over­seas,” the 30-year-old said. The genre is a grow­ing cul­tural force in South Korea, sup­ported by an ul­tra-fast In­ter­net and smart­phone-crazy pop­u­lace, and fu­elled by a small army of young, cre­ative, tech-savvy graphic artists.

Most webtoon se­ri­als are pub­lished on ma­jor In­ter­net por­tals free of charge and once or twice a week. They cover pretty much ev­ery genre, from ro­man­tic come­dies to hor­ror, via his­tor­i­cal epics and crime.

Their pop­u­lar­ity has drawn the at­ten­tion of the wider en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, and top rated webtoons have been suc­cess­fully adapted into TV dra­mas, films, on­line games-even mu­si­cals. Ac­cord­ing to Digieco, a Seoul-based tech­nol­ogy think tank, the mar­ket for webtoons, and their “de­riv­a­tives,” is cur­rently val­ued at around 420 bil­lion won ($368 mil­lion) and is ex­pected to more than dou­ble to 880 bil­lion won by 2018.

Steep earn­ing curve

A re­cent ex­am­ple of the sort of stel­lar tra­jec­tory a webtoon can take was pro­vided by “Misaeng” (or “In­com­plete Life”) - a highly-ac­claimed se­ries about a young part-time worker try­ing to sur­vive South Korea’s cut­throat cor­po­rate cul­ture. The twice­weekly comic built up an In­ter­net read­er­ship of one mil­lion, and the se­ries was col­lated in a book ver­sion that sold two mil­lion copies. A TV drama spin-off was a ma­jor hit last year, and the fi­nal ac­co­lade came when the govern­ment named a new piece of leg­is­la­tion to help part-time work­ers af­ter the webtoon’s main char­ac­ter.

“I think this is a dis­tinc­tive genre ...and the mar­ket is ex­plod­ing at a mind-blow­ing pace,” said Cha Jung-Yoon, a spokesman for Naver-Seoul’s top In­ter­net por­tal. South Korea had a tra­di­tional comics in­dus­try which all but col­lapsed dur­ing the 1997-98 Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis that drove many pub­lish­ers into bank­ruptcy. But the In­ter­net opened a new door. Naver launched a ded­i­cated webtoon sec­tion in 2005, com­mis­sion­ing three artists whose work at­tracted 10,000 views a day. The sec­tion now boasts more than 220 com­mis­sioned artists and 7.5 mil­lion daily views, Cha said, adding that 75 per­cent of read­ers are aged 20 or older.

‘A whole new genre’

Most webtoons are cre­ated dig­i­tally, of­ten in long-strip for­mat for scroll-down view­ing on com­put­ers or smart­phones. Many con­tain mov­ing, flash­ing or 3D im­ages as well as sound ef­fects and back­ground mu­sic. Some even make the smart­phone vi­brate when read­ers scroll to a cer­tain scene. “Webtoons are not sim­ply scanned ver­sions of print comics. It’s a whole new, dif­fer­ent genre tai­lored for the In­ter­net age,” said Kim Suk, se­nior re­searcher at state-run Korea Cre­ative Con­tent Agency. “The in­tro­duc­tion of smart­phones in 2009 was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for webtoons ... it re­ally fu­elled their growth,” Kim said. More than 80 per­cent of the South’s 51 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion own smart­phones, al­low­ing fans to read webtoons any­where, and they have be­come par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with com­muters.

Seok-Woo be­came a full time webtoon artist af­ter a se­ries he de­vised-a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller about school bul­ly­ing-won a 2007 com­pe­ti­tion to pub­lish a reg­u­lar se­ries on Naver. The 32-year-old, who writes un­der his given name, grew up in a fam­ily that moved a lot when he was a teenager, leav­ing him feel­ing friend­less and iso­lated. “Many artists blend their own life ex­pe­ri­ences into the story and that of­ten res­onates well with read­ers,” he said. Ac­tion he­roes are rel­a­tively rare-of­ten the most pop­u­lar webtoons are those deal­ing with is­sues like poverty, cy­ber bul­ly­ing, sui­cide, youth un­em­ploy­ment, and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.


A South Korean webtoon artist Seok-Woo poses for a photo at his of­fice in Bucheon, west of Seoul.

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