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How the webtoon world went mainstream

Jan 21, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

The popular OCN drama, The Uncanny Counter, is a webtoon adaptation. (Courtesy of OCN)
The popular OCN drama, The Uncanny Counter, is a webtoon adaptation. (Courtesy of OCN)

Imagine this. One moment you're serving noodles at a cozy, modest restaurant packed with students and families eager to taste the savory dish. A few seconds later, you're decked out in a red hoodie and sweatpants as you hunt for evil spirits that have crept into people's bodies to use them as hosts. 

You have supernatural powers. You can read people's memories upon touch, and even exert herculean strength when necessary. You are a counter, chosen by the Yung spirits, entities that reside in the place between the present and the afterlife, to summon evil spirits.

It's a brief summary of the popular OCN webtoon-based drama, The Uncanny Counter, the highest-rated program on the genre channel since its inception. The drama also became the most-viewed show on Netflix in South Korea.

The drama is based on the Amazing Rumor webtoon, which combines elements of superheroes and the afterlife. It's rare subject matter in Korea, but has achieved monumental success with over 70 million views.

Recently webtoons have taken over the content market with their unique offerings. Interestingly, drama adaptations of webtoons have swept the most-viewed list on Netflix.

Sweet Home, another webtoon-turned drama, was the third most-viewed show on Netflix in Korea. It was sensational because it portrayed people with strong, evil desires turning into monsters, compared to the clear distinction between humans and monsters seen in most narratives.

Teaser for Netflix Original drama series Sweet Home (Courtesy of Netflix)
Teaser for Netflix Original drama series Sweet Home (Courtesy of Netflix)

Until recently, comics were frowned upon in Korea. When I was young, I would sneak behind my parents' backs to read my favorite comics. When I was older, I'd get strange looks from people when I shared my fondness for comics.

But this all changed with the transformation of platforms and formats for comics.

Korea was the first country to digitalize paper comics and create new digital comic formats, widely known as webtoons. The country’s tendency to quickly embrace and adapt to new digital technology extended to even non-mainstream comics. Nowadays, people can read webtoons whenever and wherever on their smartphones.

This has ushered in the emergence of unique, original worldviews. In the era of paper comics, many aspiring comic artists were confined to an apprentice system where it was extremely hard for them to publish any works under their own name.

But the online scene was a completely different story. Everyone could participate equally, and draw freely. In Korea, there are around 9,000 webtoon artists that have created their own webtoon universe.

Even the subjects and genre have taken a leap, ranging from sci-fi, crime investigation, mysteries, history, politics, romance, comedy and much more, since there are no restrictions in the webtoon universe.

For example, Naver's webtoon Jeong-Nyeon became popular using Korea’s traditional female opera as its subject, while The Amazing Bang Ok-sook stirred up debate for its handling of real estate and housing prices. No one thought that comics would help them rediscover the fun in traditional performances or get them to reflect on real estate issues.

Naver webtoon Jeong-Nyeon is also set to be made into a drama series (Courtesy of Naver Webtoon)
Naver webtoon Jeong-Nyeon is also set to be made into a drama series (Courtesy of Naver Webtoon)

Originality alone may not be enough to make a story entirely convincing, but webtoons often offer a detailed and well-structured plot that captures the attention of many readers.

Han Min, a cultural psychologist and the author of Why did Superman Go to the US?, used ghost stories as an example to explain the uniqueness of Korean content. In Japanese stories, ghosts usually appear without any specific reason, whereas Korean ghosts bear a personal narrative.

Often, Korean ghosts will appear to the living harboring a sad, tragic narrative and ask for help to resolve their anguish so that they can move on to a better place. Villains and ghosts that appear in Korean webtoons almost always have a personal story to share.

This type of narrative is enhanced with dramatic and theatrical elements in webtoons. Generally, webtoons are read vertically with users scrolling down on their laptops or smartphones, meaning artists had to offer something catchy to hold on to the readers' attention.

Webtoon platform Kakao Page’s "wait or pay" business model had an influence on the artists' storytelling method. Readers could either choose to wait to see the next episode for free or pay to see it in advance, which prompted artists to create content that would be entertaining enough to lure readers to pay.

Last August, a Korean webtoon became popular on the US online petition site, as around 170,000 users signed to request that the webtoon Solo Leveling be animated. Other popular webtoons, including Tower of God and True Beauty, have pulled in 4.5 billion views and 4 billion views, respectively, gaining much popularity abroad.

While the webtoon may still be the little brother of mainstream K-pop, its popularity is nonetheless impressive. Comics, which I used to read secretly,  are now paving the way for a new Korean Wave, or hallyu, following in the footsteps of K-pop sensation BTS and Oscar-winning film Parasite.

Danbee Lee edited this article.

How the webtoon world went mainstream
By Hee-kyung Kim
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