A beginner’s brief guide to Japanese Manga and South Korean Webtoons
If you are a millennial, you have likely spent hours of your childhood reading comics alone or with friends. Also, there is a good chance that those comics were analogue, meaning you had a hard copy to carry everywhere; to school, to the playground, to your friend’s place. Today, Gen Z is not necessarily sharing this experience but has shifted to something different instead, more fitting to the present reality: comics in digital form. The most successful examples of the two kinds - analogue and digital - seem to be Japanese manga and South Korean webtoons, respectively. Even though European and North American comics have met great success among the audiences, manga and webtoons have each differentiated themselves from the rest and gained loyal fans worldwide. The frenzy is real and people can be invested! As a comic reader myself, I will briefly introduce the two art forms and make some recommendations for those of you interested in trying them out yourselves.
Manga are a major industry and an art form in their own right
Even though Japanese manga (Kanji: 漫画) have been around since the 12th century, they only developed into today’s form in the 20th century. Since then, they have emerged as a global sensation, with domestic and international sales exceeding ￥564.3 billion (~€4.6 billion) today. Manga stories are mostly printed in black and white, sometimes with a few panels or pages in color for emphasis on major plot parts. The art is very distinctive and doesn’t often vary in style; your typical character will probably have spiky hair, sharp facial features and huge expressive eyes to match. Colorful clothing and eye-catching accessories represent the personality and qualities of the characters, who usually communicate their emotions in amplified ways: when they are angry they are fuming and when they are happy they are glooming; when they are crying, rivers are streaming from their eyes and when surprised their eyes are magnified even more.
Manga are popular across age groups and geographies
The manga audience is not limited to teenagers or young adults. In fact, people of all ages and backgrounds read manga as the available genres range from science fiction and historical to horror and erotica. Besides, they are easily accessible in Japan and one can find them everywhere; in bookstores, flea markets, convenience stores, and manga cafés. Although the variety of manga available outside of Japan is significantly smaller, nevertheless, manga have reached such a level of popularity that major and lesser-known titles get continuously translated into various languages. However, if you are looking for a manga café to relax, it might be comparatively hard to find one outside of (South-)East Asian countries (at least in an authentic concept and style).
Manga have their own diverse subculture
Manga stories often span more than one single book or magazine. Therefore, they are seen by some as a collectable good, rather than as a form of entertainment. However, the manga culture is not restricted to the comics themselves, but artists and publishers monetize on successful stories by selling copyrights. Thus, merchandise, electronic games, and animated versions in films and series are all typical examples of the extended manga industry. Comic festivals also frequent in Japan, with every big city welcoming hundreds of thousands of fans to stroll along countless rows of tables filled with an astonishing amount of goods for sale. Cosplaying, i.e. dressing up as a manga character, is another common activity among fans. As such, it can of course be observed as part of the major comic festivals but also during independent events that fans organize to meet and celebrate their favorite manga.
Webtoons are an ideal content format for today’s smartphone age and part of the Korean Wave
Webtoons (Hangul: 웹툰) are binge-reading comics in digital form that originate from South Korea. The term webtoons is a combination of the words “web” and “cartoons” and this is exactly what they are: web-formatted cartoons to be read through vertical scrolling on the user’s phone, on specific webtoon platform phone applications. Today, webtoons are reaching millions of daily users and are considered to be part of the global Korean Wave (Hallyu), along with K-dramas and K-pop, in an effort of South Korea’s government to export popular culture. South Korea’s domestic webtoon market has been estimated to reach ₩1,000 billion (~ €763 million) by the end of 2020.
The webtoon platforms and payment models vary
Even though plenty of webtoon platforms have emerged in the last few years, the undoubtedly most well-known one is the one that carries the name itself: WEBTOON. WEBTOON is owned by Naver, the South Korean version of Google, and was launched worldwide in 2014. The platform offers at this moment more than 350 original titles in English, plus the numerous Canvas-titles uploaded by independent artists. Another platform offering webtoons in the English language is Tapas, also originating from South Korea. It is common for artists who are not under contract with any of the platforms to post their work in multiple as a way to increase outreach. So do not be surprised if you come across the same story twice while browsing different apps.
Depending on each platform’s structure and monetization strategy, different models exist for granting users access to webtoons. In some cases, full stories can be accessed freely without any restrictions. In other cases, platforms may offer access to a limited number of free episodes per day, charge for earlier access to episodes, or have all episodes but the first few ones locked to buy access to.
Webtoon platforms are a haven for artists
The rise of webtoons has offered a unique opportunity for creators. Now, they can post their work online for everyone to see without the need to be under contract with a publisher. Consequently, a special characteristic of webtoons is the multiple drawing styles that are featured, as every artist is free to use the platforms to present their work, without being limited by the art style. It is also not uncommon that stories published by freelancers are as highly rated or as often visited as some original series. Not only painters but also musicians can get public exposure for their art, as the digital format allows for musical pieces to accompany the episodes, when it fits the storyline.
Webtoon culture thrives through easy accessibility
The fact that a person can read webtoons as long as they have a free hand makes this comic format suitable for when commuting, in busy subways, and buses. User Lunar Coffee, a webtoon fan active on the webtoons server on Discord, commented that webtoons are very easy to find and access, and that’s what makes them so attractive to the readers. Similarly to manga, popular webtoons are often adapted to film, television, anime, and even theatrical plays and games. Furthermore, like manga, webtoons have loyal fans that are active on social platforms and organize relevant events. However, as argued by Lunar Coffee, “finding and interacting with webtoon communities is as simple as finding the comments sections”; no further actions are needed to engage with fellow readers. One could also argue that webtoons, as they are not owned in the physical form, are more budget-friendly. By contrast, to access printed manga you must either purchase or borrow them, which can exceed some people’s budgets.
Manga and webtoons both have their own qualities and you can convince yourself of them
No matter the choice, each form of comics has its charm, as the simultaneous success of manga and webtoons has indicated. Let’s not forget that for the majority of people, reading manga and webtoons is a form of escapism from everyday life. As long as readers enjoy the story, the art, and the perks that come with it, that’s more than one can ask for. If you are intrigued and ready to dive deeper into the world of manga and webtoons, I have compiled a list of recommendations as reviewed by friends, fans on Reddit, and myself. I will be assuming that the readers do not necessarily speak Japanese or Korean, therefore, all the following titles are available in English.
Naruto (adventure, fantasy, martial arts)
Written by Masashi Kishimoto
“No need to explain this one; it’s a classic and could be considered a cult worldwide”
Vinland Saga (adventure, epic, historical)
Written by Makoto Yukimura
“A thrilling experience of a historical drama; Vikings, vengeance, fight for power and real medieval characters create an outstanding manga.”
One Piece (adventure, fantasy)
Written by Eiichiro Oda
“We tend to go back to things and places that we enjoyed as children. This is the feeling I have been getting for the past 10 years every week when I start reading the adventures of Luffy and his crew. The slow pace of time - where one day in the manga takes 1,5 years - is masterfully managed by the creator of the story. An enormous diversity of characters and proportional character developing makes everything very magical. One of the best manga of all time, no doubt.”
A silent voice (drama)
Written by Yoshitoki Ōima
“Not your typical teenage drama. A story about bullying, forgiveness and redemption that is emotionally draining at points. Great for reflection on what truly matters.”
Banana Fish (action, crime, thriller)
Written by Akimi Yoshida
“The protagonist, a teenage boy but also a gang leader, has gone through a lot since childhood. Having found himself in the middle of something bigger, it’s in his hands to prevent a powerful drug ending into the wrong hands. Stick around until the end if you want to break your heart in a thousand pieces.”
After the rain (coming of age, slice-of-life, romance)
Written by Jun Mayuzuki
“The teenage heroine falls in love with her much older part-time job's manager, but in aesthetic. It left me wistfully reminiscing of younger days and raw human emotions.”
Ryushin6 from Reddit recommends:
GOSU (Action) - WEBTOON
Written by Guin Ryu/Mun Jeong Hoo
“An action webtoon story about a young man who was trained by the greatest martial artist in feudal Korea and was tasked to hunt down the students that betrayed him when he was in power. He ends working at a dumpling shop as a delivery boy and the story revolves around the situations he finds himself in that usually require him to fight his way out.”
Love Advice from the Great Duke of Hell (comedy) - WEBTOON
Written by unfins
“It’s a comedy webtoon about a guy who summons one of the top demons of hell and makes a contract with him so that he can give him advice on how to talk to a girl he likes and ask her out.”
The Beginning After the End (fantasy) - Tapas
Written by TurtleMe and Fuyuki23
“A fantasy webtoon about a powerful king on his deathbed that is reincarnated into a different world filled with magic and monsters. Now with a second chance to relive his life, he lives in his fantasy world and uses his skills and expertise from his previous life to his advantage.”
Rotten (thriller) - WEBTOON
Written by Goodguy
“The first thriller I ever read on WEBTOON. Only 49 episodes long, it follows two teenagers and a policeman trying to solve the murder cases that continuously occur in the neighbourhood.”
The Croaking (fantasy) - WEBTOON
Written by echorise/Megan Stevenson
“Anthropomorphic birds studying in a military academy must fight against murderous crows and corrupted ospreys to uncover ultimately what the Croaking is.”
Note: All the manga titles have also been adapted to animated films or series, so make sure to check those out if reading is not your thing.