"Comics are an international language, they can cross boundaries and generations. Comics are a bridge between all cultures."
— Tezuka Osamu (1928-89)
A comics publisher has quietly surpassed both Marvel & D.C. including major European and Japanese manga publishers.
It's the biggest storytelling platform on the planet, and it's not Disney or Netflix.
This is about Webtoon. A web comic platform from South Korea that has reinvented comics and the entire entertainment industry along with it.
To understand Webtoon's significance, I have to remind you a few things about the U.S. comics industry.
- From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, many American comic book retailers shut down and haven't recovered since the speculative bubble of the mid-90s.
- Since then, it's been difficult for independent creators to make a living. Even for innovative work and pioneering artists. This seriously reduced the talent pool of potential artists and readers.
- Although Marvel unlocked more value out of their IP through their deals with Disney, the comics industry was not innovating, especially regarding creators' rights, contracts, compensation, gender balance, minority representation, and genre diversity (beyond superheroes in tights that were created in the 1930s).
A NEW FORM OF STORYTELLING
Webtoons are a type of digital comic from South Korea. They're also known as manhwa. Each major east asian country delineates their own form of comics based on cultural norms: style, taste, and pride.
For instance, Japanese comics are known as manga, while China's are called manhua. Each of which have their own industry dynamics: players, distribution, and economics.
Webtoons, began as daily chronicles, created by people out of work because of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. For a brief history of webtoons in the form of an actual webtoon, read this.
After witnessing the crash of the comics industry, Junkoo Kim launched Webtoon in 2004 because he was looking for a way to get comics created since so few were coming out. He theorized that tall, scrollable comics could work well since users were already used to scrolling through web pages.
At first, finding artists to create webtoons on his service was difficult, but the Korean manhwa industry was desperate. They learned to lean into the internet as a medium in order to compete with Japan's formidable manga industry. Kang Full, the original webtoon artist spearheaded this medium and proved out this new medium beforehand.
MANWA: KOREAN COMICS
It was an unusual layout. Typically comic books require the reader to read from left to right or right to left. Many were skeptical because of the potential problems that an infinite canvas poses. For instance, some thought web comics may drag on due to a lack of rhythm or punctuated story beats. Webtoons, however, are more intuitive since users can touch scroll on their mobile devices from top to bottom like a news feed.
This keeps readers in the moment without page breaks, flips, or weird control mechanisms. But here's the real insight behind why this all works. Webtoons aren't just digital comics. It's a vertically integrated storyboarding platform.
THE INVISIBLE ART
Storyboards were long regarded in the film and animation industry as invisible art because most of the artwork generated by storyboard artists never saw the light of day, no matter how beautiful it was. But these images have tremendous power, and storyboard artists are mission-critical to the storytelling process. They're constantly working to make the cut from one scene to the next more interesting. They have to visualize the unscripted inner feelings of a character.
As Miyazaki once said "You don't depict fate; you depict will."
Storyboard artists are masters of plot structure, cinematography, tension, and continuity. They're not just the director. They’re the DP, editor, actor, colorist, key artist, light technician, and set designer. All of it.
An animator’s work primarily consists of drawing storyboards and creating a detailed plan for the overall film. All the available ideas are sifted through to create a story, which in turn is concentrated into storyboards and given shape. Then the work is divided into a series of tasks, and therein really begins the huge effort that eventually results in a finished film.
— Miyazaki, Hayao. Starting Point: 1979-1996
Alfred Hitchcock, Orsen Welles, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Disney all used storyboards to pre-visualize a film. It allows each production team member to understand the project's scope. It's a detailed map for production.
The comics’ potential—as a seller of newspapers, and as an art form—is great if cartoonists will challenge themselves to create extraordinary work and if the business will work to create a sustainable environment.
— Bill Watterson, Creator of Calvin and Hobbes
By using storyboards, you can not only plan out the shots but also calculate production costs. It smooths everything out and gives everyone a show bible everyone can refer to. This is how a complicated movie like the Matrix got greenlit. Even though it was technically Wachowski's second film. By storyboarding the entire movie, they could communicate complex ideas that were hard to grasp—to a wary studio in Warner Brothers.
Any creative will tell you how difficult it is to get any of their work bought or sold by "the industry." Moreover, even if someone does offer them a deal for their work, artists rarely get to retain creative control or participate in the upside of their own creation: licensing, publishing rights, and profits.
As a result, traditional publishers weren't serving creators, and creators weren't serving their readers. A principal-agent problem that was waiting to be exploited. Artists simply want to make enough money to create full-time without getting fleeced, and consumers want a diversity of stories beyond superheroes that wore capes. This is where Webtoon came in and disrupted the entire model. The value of Webtoons is that it unbundled the comics publishing model for anyone with a story.
As my friend and wrtier Deb Aoki says, "Most comic book artists in the United States have to embody pre-existing superheroes and IP like batman or superman. It's like forcing musicians to only play Beatles covers instead of creating their own music."
AN ECOSYSTEM FOR CREATORS
Webtoon’s business model is built and predicated on supporting creators. They look at growth in two ways.
1. The number of creators on the platform
2. The number of readers.
DIGITAL PRODUCTION: ZERO START-UP COST
Creators can self-publish on Webtoon and retain all of their intellectual property with little to no start-up cost since all you need is a story and a tablet.
DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION: SCALE
Unlike comic books or graphic novels from publishers, Webtoon is a free platform with new content released daily. This aggregates the demand for the content and allows artists to connect directly with their fans without traditional middlemen (editors, truck drivers, couriers, separators, agents, and accountants). One episode can receive upwards of 700k+ comments. A series can reach over a billion reads. Fans can also read the content in multiple languages. The flywheel supports creating and distributing original content, connecting creators and users.
DIGITALLY NATIVE COMICS: A NEW MEDIUM
Since the comics are digitally native, creators can deliver memorable experiences uniquely enabled by the mobile device. For example, you have a horror Webtoon that animates, vibrates, and calls you on an unknown number.
"No longer confined and defined by the uniform pages in a publication, the potential for innovative forms is being unlocked. These may incorporate animation, such as short cycling gifs, or audio, as ambient soundtracks, spoken speech balloons, or sound effects with vibrations-for gunshots, explosions or other shocks-all activated by readers' clicks, scrolling or other gestures. As long as the readers retain control of their experience and its duration, the medium remains comics."
— Paul Gravett
NEW VIRTUAL ECONOMIES
65% of the creators on WEBTOON are women, and depending on Webtoon, you have creators making $225,000 to $250,000 per year. Compare that to South Korea’s median salary of 3,960,000 KRW/month (USD 3301.19). Some creators make more than 10 million dollars a year.
Webtoon creators have a variety of business models to choose from:
Webtoon has paid English-language creators over $27,000,000 since 2000.
Webtoon helps creators turn their characters into licensed products and merch.
Brand & Advertising Deals
Creators can earn 40% from ads displayed on their series and integrate brands into their stories.
Since Webtoons are storyboards with built-in demand, they are fast-tracked into production for tv-shows, games, movies, and books. Netflix has already bought and produced a significant amount of Webtoons.
NAVER’s Webtoon is the most profitable webtoon application in 99 countries.
- It has over 180 million global (MAUs) monthly active users (as of 2023).
- Gen Z and younger Millennials make up 75% of Webtoon users worldwide, and 70% of the users in the U.S. are under age 24. In addition, 58% of Webtoon users are female. However, those demographics differ significantly from the audience for printed periodical comics in the U.S.
- In January 2021, NAVER signed a contract to acquire the web novel platform Wattpad, thus becoming the operator of the world’s No.1 webtoon and web novel platforms.
- $100 million monthly revenue. Most revenue transactions come from Korea and Japan, with the U.S. third. The company sees the American market overtaking Asia in 3-5 years at current growth rates.
Since Webtoons are subject to power laws, only a small percentage of creators are rewarded for their efforts. However, Webtoons are a representation of a longer tail of creative opportunities that provide a new distribution model for a broader set of storytellers. Their main weakness is that a proper formulation of creator compensation is still an on going issue in the platform era. Even for both Webtoon and Netflix.
While Naver's Webtoon is a leading platform for web comics, they do compete for mind and eye share. The major forces behind the scene are Naver and Kakao, the Google and Tencent of South Korea. Both are fiercely competing to secure the best catalog for their respective ecosystems.
Webtoons, regardless of whatever platform they're on are already a major source of IP for global storytelling industries. The list below is just a small sample of South Korean webtoons that have been successfully adapted into movies and TV shows:
- True Beauty (webtoon on Naver, drama on tvN)
- Itaewon Class (webtoon on Daum, drama on jTBC)
- Love Alarm (webtoon on KakaoPage, Netflix original series)
- Cheese in the Trap (webtoon on Naver, drama on tvN)
- Noblesse (webtoon on Naver, anime on Crunchyroll)
- Lookism (webtoon on Naver, upcoming drama)
- Yumi's Cells (webtoon on Naver, drama on tvN)
- Sweet Home (webtoon on Naver, Netflix original series)
- The Sound of Your Heart (webtoon on Naver, drama on KBS2)
- Save Me (webtoon on Naver, drama on OCN)
- My ID is Gangnam Beauty (webtoon on KakaoPage, drama on jTBC)
- Mystic Pop-up Bar (webtoon on Daum, drama on jTBC)
- A Day Before Us (webtoon on Naver, movie)
- Along With the Gods (webtoon on Naver, movie series)
- Dating Class (webtoon on Naver, movie)
- Mask Girl (webtoon on Naver, Netflix original series)
They've also become the foundation for the latest K-dramas, film, musicals, and video games.
- Tower of God (webtoon on Naver, mobile game)
- The God of Highschool (webtoon on Naver, mobile fighting game)
- Noblesse (webtoon on Naver, mobile RPG)
- My ID is Gangnam Beauty (webtoon on KakaoPage, stage musical)
- True Beauty (webtoon on Naver, stage musical)
- Lookism (webtoon on Naver, stage musical)
- Solo Leveling (webtoon on KakaoPage, novel series)
- The Sound of Your Heart (webtoon on Naver, picture book series)
- The Remarried Empress (webtoon on Naver, novelization)
Domestic studios in South Korea and investors from abroad are now focusing their efforts on webtoons and owning the rights to popular IP that have survived the gauntlet of these digital web comic platforms.
CJ ENM, which owns Studio Dragon, and JTBC which owns SLL have been integrating their production pipelines to mine IP from webtoons. Providing infrastructure for production, distribution and talent management. These digital originals are fed to national broadcasters and OTT platforms like Netflix and Disney+ for distribution.
It is important to note that South Korea has a very mature entertainment industry.
"It is #1 exporter of culture in all of Asia. The largest producer of popular TV outside of the U.S. More than 60% of all Netflix subscribers watched a Korean show last year, and when Netflix was first expanding into Asia, they quickly realized that it was Korea, not necessarily Japan, that would be key to attracting new subscribers throughout Asia. Planning to spend another $2.5 billion on Korean content over the next four years—it's a core component to Netflix's global aggregation strategy as South Korea holds the title for producing three of most watched shows in Netflix history. The gravity of which can also be felt on YouTube, and across all media formats."
— The Media Mix, the Franchising Strategy Behind Asia's Beloved Brands, Good Monsters Inc.
Moving (무빙), a South Korean drama that was originally a webtoon on Tapas, about superpowers teens and superpowers parents made headlines when it became Disney+ and Hulu's most watched K-drama of all time. It beat out Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Not just on most-watched, but also on ROI (return on investment).
The series is both produced and distributed by Disney is reportedly the most expensive K-drama of all time, with a total budget of over 60 billion won, roughly $45 million. This works out to $2.25 million per episode.
While $45 million sounds like a lot, compared to Disney's MCU dramas that reportedly cost up to $25 million per episode (The Mandalorian is about $15 million per episode), Moving's budget is comparable to the budget of a mid-range broadcast super hero drama, (which cost about $6.3 million for CW make).
In an interview with the co-director of Moving, Park Youn-seo, he said, “I think having the limited or lower budget compared to those American superhero genres actually worked in our favor,” says Park. “Because, if we wanted to emulate that quality that we see in things like Marvel, it meant that we needed to be creative.”
The value of a good webtoon lies not only in its globally scalable content but also in its adaptability into various mediums. With webtoons, there's an inherent advantage: the story, art, and character development are already finely detailed and laid out. This offers a rich template for producers and directors, reducing the uncertainties of conceptualization and amplifying the potential for high returns due to the production efficiencies of good webtoons.
As seen with the success of 'Moving' and other adaptations, when a webtoon's narrative is strong and relatable, it can resonate deeply with audiences across the world. This demonstrates that the medium of webtoons, with its unique blend of storytelling and art, has set new benchmarks in global entertainment, and will continue to be an important form of storytelling.
The best part? Many individual creators have already bypassed the traditional gatekeepers of Hollywood to create IP that have a wider global impact than large studios. No longer bound by the constraints of mainstream media and big production houses, these creators can bring their authentic and diverse voices to the fore, paving the way for stories that might not have been told otherwise. Digital platforms and the rise of webtoons provide a more open space where talent, rather than just connections, can determine success.
Webtoons are not just a trend, but a testament to the evolving nature of storytelling in the digital age, and the democratization of media. They encapsulate the spirit of innovation and accessibility, proving that in today's world, a compelling narrative combined with unpolished, mediocre drawing skills can still captivate audiences worldwide, regardless of their cultural or geographical backgrounds. And as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the influence and reach of webtoons will not only grow, but will become a key asset in the highly competitive market of global entertainment and contents production.