Webtoons’ digital comics for smartphones inspire new Netflix hits

With 85 million users and 900,000 creators, the vertical cartoons are sweeping Gen Z and millennial users

'See You in My 19th Life,' the Webtoon that inspired a Netflix series.Webtoon/Netflix
Clara Rebollo

“Anyone can make a Webtoon,” said GlitchMP3, the Spanish illustrator who created Animalians and won an award in the 2021 Webtoon Challenge. Soon after, the Webtoon company spotted her talent and began supporting new episodes of her digital cartoon. Webtoons are vertical comic strips meant to be read on smartphones and tablets.

Naver, the South Korean tech giant, started Webtoon in 2004. It emerged amid challenges in the comics industry after the 1997 financial crisis in Southeast Asia. With the rise of the internet and high-speed connectivity, users could share comics online, providing cartoonists an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Webtoons (the term was coined in 2000), known for their vertical strip format, became easily accessible on new tech devices and illustrators could make their creations reach every corner of the world.

Webtoons have become a cornerstone of hallyu, the so-called Korean cultural wave spreading throughout the world. Naver, the company behind Webtoons, offers its service in 100 countries and 10 languages, a global reach made possible by the translations and contributions of 900,000 creators worldwide. “Traditionally we’ve seen a lot of Korean creators, but nowadays, we’ve got even more creators from all around the world,” said the platform’s vice president of content, David Lee. Webtoon expanded to the United States in 2014, ten years after its inception, and its headquarters are now in California, not Seoul. However, the majority of the comics that are adapted into TV series are still created by Korean artists.

Webtoon has an application specifically for Korea and another version that can be customized for different languages across the world. The same applies to their web platform. With a user base of 85.6 million, 75% of which are from Generation Z and millennials, Webtoon offers nearly 1.5 million titles for users to enjoy on their website and apps. Users browse over 10 billion pages monthly. Webtoon’s success is not unique — other digital comic platforms like Kakao Webtoon have also had international success by producing content in various languages.

Webtoon has two categories of digital comic production: Originals and Canvas. Originals, like GlitchMP3′s Animalia, are created under the company’s umbrella. Creators are paid a salary and have dedicated editors, assistants and marketing support. “They have more direct support and are monetized,” said David Lee.

David Lee, Webtoon's head of content , at the Collision 2022 technology event in Toronto, Canada.Piaras Ó Mídheach (Sportsfile via Getty Images)

According to Lee, some titles may have 10 or 15 people working on them, but in many cases, the artist collaborates with just one assistant. GlitchMP3 says artistic freedom is one of the main advantages of Webtoon. “The team can suggest something to you, but ultimately, you have the final say. On the Spanish platform, you call the shots and do whatever you want with your comic.”

Canvas offers even more artistic freedom — any creator can upload their work, and the content doesn’t have to be exclusive to Webtoon. For instance, Alice Oseman, the creator of Heartstopper, published the comic on two other platforms simultaneously. “This open platform works kind of like YouTube. Creators upload their content whenever they feel like it and can start and finish their story whenever they want,” said Lee. With Canvas, creators can earn income from advertising by achieving a certain level of subscribers and visits.

According to Lee, a cartoon transitioning from Canvas to an Original doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement — it’s more about different ways of relating to the company. Webtoon focuses on promoting Originals to reach wider audiences. Original creators have more revenue-sharing opportunities, while Canvas creators can only profit from advertising. In October 2022, the company temporarily suspended the Canvas creator rewards program, which was initially implemented to complement advertising revenue.

GlitchMP3 moved to Original status by winning an award. In other cases, the company reaches out to creators who catch its eye. Lee says there are no set criteria to turn a Canvas into an Original. “Our main goal is to deliver the most captivating stories to our audience. It really varies from case to case, like sometimes we get super excited about a project after only a few episodes.”

The decision to translate webtoons into other languages also varies. Animalians is only available in Spanish, but True Beauty and Lore Olympus can be read in 10 languages. “Our ecosystem and the way Webtoon is built is all about reaching a global audience. When we translate something, it’s usually because we want to bring the most interesting stories to everyone, so we actively look for content from different regions and make sure it will resonate across borders,” said Lee.

Maribel Molina Caballero translates webtoons from Korean to Spanish on various platforms. She says that this work has greatly expanded her Korean vocabulary and helped her learn more than in other types of translation work. “One great thing about translating digital comics compared to video games or movies is that we have all of the material. We get to see the images, not just the text. Translation errors often require fixing later when the context is lacking,” she said.

Molina highlights the significant improvement in translation quality and project outcomes when proofreaders, editors and layout specialists collaborate as a team. “A Korean artist may draw a cute little bear inside a Korean word. If you’re working in a team, the layout artist can ask you what word or letter it appears in so they can draw the little bear in Spanish too.” Fans also have the opportunity to do their own translations of their favorite webtoons, enabling other users to read both Original and Canvas cartoons in languages not yet offered by the company.

Certain Webtoon titles offer the first few chapters for free. However, once you’ve read them all, you’ll need to wait a day to read the next one for free. If you want to unlock more episodes immediately, you have the option to view ads or purchase tokens to use on the platform. There are also some webtoons that are completely free.

Webtoon is often hailed as the leading light of the genre, but it wasn’t the first platform of its kind. In 2003, Daum, now known as Kakao Webtoon, published Love Story by Kang Full. It was the first major digital comic success and exemplified contemporary manhwa (Korean comics). With about two million daily readers, it went on to inspire the 2008 film, Hello, Schoolgirl.

Webtoon film adaptations have become much more widespread in South Korean entertainment over the past two decades. One highly successful adaptation is True Beauty, a digital comic with over a billion views and seven million followers. The show became so popular that tvN produced a series based on it in 2020. On Rakuten’s Viki streaming platform, it’s the second highest-rated drama.

Scene from the Netflix series 'See You in My 19th Life.'

The Netflix series All of Us Are Dead, a zombie-themed show, topped the charts for 11 weeks and was the most-watched content in 94 countries in 2022. It was adapted from a webtoon that garnered nearly 19 million views and over 500,000 subscribers. Similarly, See You in My 19th Life, released in June, became the most viewed content on Netflix for four weeks, while Hellbound achieved the same success in 93 countries. Other platforms are jumping on the bandwagon, like Disney+ with Connect.

To produce the increasingly common film adaptations, Webtoon has two divisions: Studio N and Wattpad Webtoon Studios (Naver acquired Wattpad in 2021). These divisions enable Webtoon to produce entertainment content from cartoon stories and novels, such as the Spanish film Through My Window.

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