Inside a subway in Seoul, during busy commute hours at night, almost everyone’s looking down on their phones. There are teens checking their social media feeds and office workers catching up on TV shows. Then there are those looking down at colored drawings on their screens, thumbs scrolling down scene after scene, as they read snappy dialogue. People, both young and old, immersed in the fictional world of webtoons.
They tell stories of romantic fantasies and action-filled dramas, with episodes published in one vertical strip, like an infinite canvas, rather than pages. The modern-day comic book, made especially for computers and smartphones, first became popular in South Korea in the early 2000s, around the same time the country’s comic book industry started to decline. Webtoons thrived as South Korea raced to digitize all forms of content, published on portals like Naver, Daum, and Yahoo! Korea.
The South Korean webtoon industry was worth approximately $577 million in 2019, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), and is projected to grow every year. Even in Japan, the land of manga and the largest digital comics market in the world, South Korean webtoons hold over a 70 percent market share, according to mobile data provider App Annie.
In Seoul, webtoons are everywhere; posters are in subway stations, retail stores, and rooms of the most avid fans. They're also all over TV and movies. The international Netflix hit Sweet Home, an apocalyptic horror series about a group of monster-fighting apartment residents, is based on a webtoon. Meanwhile, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, adapted from the webtoon series of the same name, is the third-most watched movie of all-time in South Korea. According to a recent report by South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, there are currently over 70 webtoon series and movie adaptations in the works.
A wine glass falls on the floor and breaks. The maid who dropped the glass hastily cleans up the mess upon seeing blood from Aria’s leg. Aria is the daughter of a count, a young woman in a 19th century dress, with long blonde hair and dazzlingly light green eyes. She calmly asks the maid to tend to her wound, turns to her handsomely dressed family sitting at the same dining table, and asks to be excused. Everyone noticed that she seemed out of character. “Aria has manners?” they thought. “She seems like a completely different person.” “That’s because I’m not the Aria you know,” Aria said to herself as she walked away.
The scene is from the first episode of The Villainess Turns the Hourglass, a popular time-traveling revenge drama; about 70 percent of the most popular webtoons are romantic fantasies, like this.
“One thing that all these popular webtoons have in common is that they all have sensational storylines,” Lee Do-hyun, a 25-year-old board game developer told VICE while reading webtoons inside a busy cafe in the city of Paju. He waits for new episodes to drop at 11:30 p.m. every Friday.
“I usually like to end my days with webtoons,” he said. “They provide an escape for me that’s not demanding to my time or wallet.”
“I usually like to end my days with webtoons. … They provide an escape for me.”
Webtoons are either free or priced very low. According to a 2020 report from the KOCCA, more than half of respondents who pay for webtoons said they spend less than 5,000 South Korean won ($4.5) per month, a fraction of the average movie ticket ($11.50). According to Lee Hyun-chul, chief operating officer of Ant Studio, producing a webtoon episode only costs around 2 to 3 million South Korean won ($1,767 - $2,651).
“This relatively low cost of production allows us to be experimental in our work and gives our writers freedom to do what they want,” he told VICE. “If the domestic movie industry has been characterized by a focus on films that make the most money, we are attempting to stay away from this mindset.”
The Villainess Turns the Hourglass now has 57 episodes and has amassed over 900,000 views on the popular webtoon platform KakaoPage — and the series is not ending anytime soon.
Naver Webtoon, a subsidiary of the South Korean tech giant Naver, is one of the most popular webtoon platforms in the country; it had 65 percent of total webtoon viewing traffic in South Korea in 2019. Providing translated content in nine different languages to over 100 countries, Naver Webtoon, known as Line Webtoon internationally, said it has surpassed 72 million monthly active users in the global market.
“We see the vast pool of amateur writers as the biggest reason for South Korean webtoons’ positive reception abroad,” said Lee So-young, a PR representative at Naver Webtoon. “We have the luxury of picking quality writers and their content from a pool that features people from different parts of the world and different walks of life.”
Apart from the over 3,000 published webtoonists in South Korea recorded by the KOCCA, there are now more than 1.3 million amateur webtoonists on Naver Webtoon’s open platform CANVAS, where anyone can upload their work and be discovered. Webtoon-based hit shows The Sound of Your Heart, Tower of God, and True Beauty, were all by writers that debuted on CANVAS.
Ant Studio, which created the webtoon adaptation of The Villainess Turns the Hourglass, wants to be “the Pixar” of webtoons. Its studio in Seoul, one of the biggest in the industry, has walls lined with shelves filled with comic books and memorabilia. Captain America’s shield hangs on the wall. It feels more like a college library than an office, with the over 40 writers and illustrators mostly wearing hats and hoodies.
It’s a tight-knit team. Every day, just before the sun sets and fatigue hits, they stand up from their computer chairs for a 3-minute stretch session. A man with messy hair and a jean shirt with rolled-up sleeves leads the room to poses as a children's song plays. He’s Seok Ji-hwan, Ant Studio’s chief production director. He’s technically the boss, but comes off more like your friend's funny older brother. He’s 35 years old, the CEO and founder is 31, and everyone in the office is in their 20s and 30s.
“Most of our employees majored in some kind of graphic illustration in college, but there are those, like me, who merely liked cartoons as a kid,” Seok told VICE.
Before coming to Ant Studio, Seok worked as a product designer at an industrial design firm. He felt out of place and eventually decided to quit to follow his childhood dream.
“My father used to give me a lot of toys as gifts whenever he came back from overseas business trips,” he said. “Being introduced to robots like Transformers led to watching a lot of cartoons.”
Seok started drawing comics as a hobby, then in his late 20s, he started freelancing as a comic writer and illustrator. Ant Studio scouted him after seeing his work on webtoon sites.
“All you really need is a pen to become a webtoon writer or illustrator,” he said. “The entry level for this profession is lower than other professions in the content industry.”
“All you really need is a pen to become a webtoon writer or illustrator.”
But he said it’s now much harder to make it on your own, like he did, as the webtoon industry becomes increasingly complex and competitive.
Ant Studio has a “no overtime” policy meant to encourage employees to go home after eight hours on the job, yet writers and illustrators work nonstop. The studio is currently working on 30 different webtoon titles and 15 to 20 episodes are published weekly.
It's this fast cycle that sets webtoons apart from print comics, which are usually released monthly, and the reason it’s got people hooked, especially those who grew up with ever-changing social media content. It’s virtually impossible for TV and films to compete with the sheer volume of webtoons. In 2019, 2,767 new webtoon series came out, as opposed to shows and movies which were in the hundreds. The most popular webtoons get tens of thousands of views per episode.
Now, webtoons continue to experiment with different executions, incorporating soundtracks featuring K-pop stars, 3D animation, augmented reality technology, and reader interaction. Soon, we could see more webtoons, like 2017’s Encountered, that feature an avatar of the reader as the protagonist.
Apart from speed, quantity, and affordability, Seok said that “open accessibility” to anyone around the world is webtoons’ strongest feature.
“Everyone carries a phone these days, and this means that, realistically, anyone can view webtoons,” he said.
It only takes two to three minutes for fan Lee Do-hyun to finish one webtoon episode. Reading alone in the cafe in Paju, he scrolled from one panel to another with lightning speed. After finishing one series, he moved on to the next, drifting to a different world with each one.
Correction: This story originally said that producing a webtoon episode costs around 10 million South Korean won ($8,900). It actually costs around 2 to 3 million South Korean won ($1,767 - $2,651). We regret the error.