It has been on my mind for a while now, that not many people actually know what a webtoon is, despite reading them or being of fan of them themselves.
The word “webtoon” was invented in Korea. It came from the compounding of two words: “web” and “cartoon”. It’s literal definition, according the English Oxford Dictionary, is “an animated cartoon or a series of comic strips published on the web”. Webcomic, which is about the English equivalent, and webtoon means almost exactly the same thing and I use them interchangeably. However, webtoon has come to a gain a broader, yet narrower, meaning in the last few years.
To start, webtoon may be referred to as manhwa. Manhwa is a Korean term, used to characterize Korean comics, print cartoons, and sometimes animated cartoons. This term became popular in its home country during the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1945 when the Japanese occupied Korea, elements of Japanese language and culture became incorporated with Korean language and culture. Manhwa is derivative of the Japanese word for comics, manga. In the U.S., manhwa specifically refers to comics and graphic novels originally published in South Korea.
I often come across people mistakenly calling manhwa manga and the reason is because of the huge influence Japanese culture and manga has on the U.S. comic industry. But in the last few years, the U.S. comic industry has changed to include a new competitor. No, it’s not manhwa, not exactly. It’s webtoons.
Since early 2000, a lot of Korean printed comic magazines and books began shutting down. With the advancement of technology and the web however, a shift to move onto the internet was made, leading to the creation of online comics called webtoons. Webtoons are different from manga and traditional American comics such as DC or Marvel comics. For those unfamiliar with webtoons, they are usually fully colored and in a vertical scrolling format, creating a pleasant and easy way of viewing comics on mobile phones, hence one of the reasons for their extreme popularity.
In 2012, Daum, a Korean web portal, partnered with Tapas (formerly known as Tapastic) a North American online platform for comics. But it wasn’t until, Naver, a Korean web portal, launched LINE Webtoon (site and mobile app) in the U.S. that webtoons quickly become popular. The word “webtoon” has gone through some changes since its coinage. LINE Webtoon’s site is established with the domain name “webtoons”. Its massive community refers to the site and the comics it publishes as “webtoons”. Webtoon has come to include the meanings “comics from Webtoon” and “Webtoon,” Naver’s site itself. But hold on because that’s not all. There are more meanings to add to the word.
With the rise of webtoons in the comic industry on a global level, webtoon has come to encompass all webcomics that follow the usual Korean webcomic features of colored art, vertical layout, and most of the time, a similar art style. That is why, as other platforms such as CIAYO Comics and WebComics are launched, their published webcomics are considered webtoons as well even though they are not Korean comics.
In an article called The Webtoon: A New Form for Graphic Narrative written by Heekyoung Cho, published in the The Comics Journal, Cho describes webtoon in a way that cannot be better said:
The term “webtoon,” for the moment, can therefore be used to refer to the artistic medium that is the combination of this specific style and system, which is to date unique to Korean comics culture but is already expanding to other cultures.
If you weren’t familiar with or have never heard of the word “webtoon” before now, get yourself ready. It’s riding on the waves of pop culture and coming in like a hurricane.
Feature image © Lezhin & Tappytoon
“web, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018, oed.com/view/Entry/226695. Accessed 2 March 2019
Beaty, Bart, and Stephen Weiner. “Critical Survey of Graphic Novels : History, Theme, and Technique.” Salem Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e900xww&AN=501782&site=ehost-live.
Cho, Heekyoung. “The Webtoon: A New Form for Graphic Narrative.” The Comic Journal, 18 July 2016, tcj.com/the-webtoon-a-new-form-for-graphic-narrative. Accessed 1 May 2019.