Welcome to our Intro to Webtoons article series, where we’ll cover everything you need to know about the increasingly-popular medium known as webtoons. In our first article, we’ve asked an expert all about the history of the industry and its future from here on out.
Interview by Ichibo Harada
One after another, popular works that got their start on WEBTOON, like Itaewon Class, Sweet Home, and All of Us Are Dead (originally known as Now at Our School...), have been adapted into live-action dramas, leading them to become worldwide hits. If you're unfamiliar, a webtoon is a type of digital comic that started in South Korea and is characterized by its vertical format and full-color images that make them suitable for reading on a smartphone. The webtoon market is expected to reach an estimated 26.2 billion USD (approx. 3.3 trillion JPY) by 2028 according to an investigation by Global Information, Inc. In recent years, there has been an active movement to create Japanese-made webtoons, including the establishment of Japan-based production studios. We spoke with Yoshiyuki Fukui, editor-in-chief of the Japanese edition of WEBTOON INSIGHT, a webtoon news website, about the latest trends.
Wait, the vertical webtoon format wasn’t originally designed for smartphones?!
── First off, can you tell us a little bit about your career?
── How did webtoons come about?
Fukui: To answer your question, I first need to explain the history of the Internet and comics in South Korea. The country experienced a currency crisis in 1997, received a loan from the IMF, and used the money to promote broadband internet. As a result, internet usage spread quicker than in Japan, which meant the foundations for digital comics were established, but this also brought about the illegal downloading of manga. With manga being distributed without permission, the artists and publishers lost revenue. Sites like Daum (now Kakao) and NAVER were what saved online comics. These legitimate sites allowed comics to be read for free, so there was no need for pirating.
── So it was the spread of the internet that created webtoons?
── I see. It is interesting to think that if smartphones had horizontal screens, webtoons wouldn’t have taken off the way they have. Since things have moved away from print publishing and sales, does that mean that the main revenue comes from advertisements instead?
It’s not just about vertical formatting! Webtoons and paper comics are completely different
── I've heard that another characteristic of webtoons is that, in many cases, the labor for one comic is divided and done by separate people?
Fukui: In Korea, there are specialized creators for each process, such as scriptwriting, character design, naming, and coloring. Drawing is also subdivided into characters and backgrounds. The process is much more similar to anime than manga. In fact, most webtoons are produced with a studio-style workflow, just like animation.
The planning process is also completely different from the world of Japanese manga, and a digital marketing perspective is emphasized. Hit works are analyzed from every possible angle. The chosen title and the thumbnail layout are no-brainers, but everything is considered; from the number of frames per episode to the number of episodes in total, all the way down to which frame in the first episode was the main character reincarnated. Then works are created from the formula derived from that analysis.
── It really isn’t just the vertical formatting. Webtoons are completely different from paper comics.
── What kind of people are drawn to webtoons?
What sensibilities do Japanese people need to compete in the global market?
── What genres are popular among webtoons?
── If you look at popular works on WEBTOON, you'll find many stories where characters are suddenly endowed with magnificent powers. When you think about it, it seems like there is room for Japanese manga and light novel editors to play an active role...
── So you need to cater to the audience to be successful in webtoons. Conversely, do you think there's a certain type of creator particularly suited for webtoons?
── Right now, what kind of creators are prevalent in the webtoons industry?
Concerns over overly intense PV supremacy
── What are the latest trends in Korea, the home of webtoons?
Fukui: There are five different categories.
First is adaptations. There are many movies and dramas being made from webtoons. This includes works on Netflix. And as the quality of webtoons increases and the production cost of a single work becomes higher and higher, I think we will see more large-scale works that will secure production costs by first offering adaptation rights.
Second is the battle for novel source material. NAVER and Kakao are in the lead for acquisitions of more and more web novel-related companies to secure source material.
The third is open recruitment. As a result of the division of labor, instead of searching for completed comics of interest, open recruitment is now limited to storyboards and original works.
The fourth is technological innovation. In order to improve the quality of the work and reduce the workload of artists, all areas of technology are now being used in webtoons, including automatic background generation, automatic coloring, and story premise generators.
And fifth is the business model. The current webtoon industry often uses a freemium model that only charges for the latest episodes. However, it's expected that subscriptions like those at Netflix and Spotify will become more common. If this happens, there will probably be an increase in short stories and works with strong storylines. In addition to that, the diversity of works will also probably expand. I have a feeling it's going to get rough for the current page view-driven system.
── It's going to get rough?
── At pixiv, we're trying to make an improved platform where webtoon beginners and individual creators can easily submit content, and hopefully increase the amount of content on pixiv in the future. If there are more places for individuals to submit webtoons, then there is the chance for greater diversification between big budget works produced by a team and works that are more individual creator-centric.
── By the way, what do you think of the "localization" of webtoons? When a Korean work is distributed in Japan, the nouns are often replaced with ones that Japanese people are familiar with. Of course, this makes it easier for Japanese readers to immerse themselves in the work, but it can often have the opposite effect, for example, the dialogue says 'mackerel stewed in miso' but the picture clearly isn’t Japanese food.
I want to be able to say, “Aren’t Japanese webtoons great?”
── Honestly speaking, do you think there’s a chance that Japanese-made webtoons will take off in the future?
── There are some aspects of webtoons that still aren’t very well known in Japan.
── Perhaps Japan didn’t feel the need to be active in webtoons because of its own thriving manga culture.
── What are your goals in the webtoons industry?
── Thank you so much for today!
── This has been “Intro to Webtoons,” the premier source for everything you need to know about webtoons. We’ll be posting more updates soon, so please keep an eye out for part two of our series!
You can read webtoons on pixiv comics as well!
pixiv Comic collectively refers to all vertical, full-color works, including webtoons, as Tateyomi, and began serializing them in March 2022.
Whether you were already a fan of Tateyomi works or if this article has piqued your interest, please feel free to take a look!