How did mobile app Webtoon become a global comics juggernaut? (2022)

Webcomics are often dominated by the types of stories and creators that can’t access or aren’t welcome in the traditional print comics market, rendering them largely invisible if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That means plenty of readers have never heard of some of the largest comics audiences in the world. The mobile app Webtoon has over ten million daily users and 100 billion views annually, a juggernaut that’s somehow not the topic of every industry conversation. Formally called LINE Webtoon, the app is a global version of a publishing portal that was launched in South Korea in 2004 and continued to grow since. Our comics writers explore why Webtoon has become so popular, the creative opportunities of the vertical scroll format, and what other comics publishers could learn from Webtoon’s success.

How did mobile app Webtoon become a global comics juggernaut? (1)

Caitlin Rosberg: We’ve talked before about how webcomics are helping to change the face of the comics industry writ large. In our last Crosstalk we went over some of the lessons that print comics can learn; even as the direct market and print books destabilize, Webtoon is seeing steady use, if not growth.

A lot of that is due to the format and structure of the app itself. I’ve been reading webcomics for nearly two decades, so when I first started using Webtoon and a similar app called Tapas, I accessed it from a computer like I always had previously. The layout was clunky and awkward, but I switched to mobile and it clicked immediately: Comics there are formatted for vertical scrolling which leverages familiar social media behavior. Users can easily subscribe to titles they want to keep up with and get notifications for updates, which is a boon for those of us still mourning the loss of Google Reader and RSS feeds.

Oliver, your dive into webcomics is relatively recent, so I’d love to hear about your experience with Webtoon. What made you finally check it out? Did you have any qualms about the format?

Oliver Sava: I had heard about Webtoon via the usual social media chatter and their aggressive ad campaign last year, but I wasn’t really compelled to check it out until I saw David Harper write about it on his SKTCHD website. [Full disclosure: I am a SKTCHD contributor.] That article plus a recent rewatching of Disney’s Hercules convinced me to finally download the app and start reading Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus, the platform’s most popular title. A modern retelling of Greek myth focusing on the romance between Hades, king of the underworld, and Persephone, goddess of spring, Lore Olympus is a massive hit with nearly 300 million views in 2019, and it’s currently in development as an animated series by The Jim Henson Company.

How did mobile app Webtoon become a global comics juggernaut? (2)

Lore Olympus is phenomenal, and it makes incredible use of the vertical scroll to create a dynamic and immersive reading experience. The vertical scroll offers a lot of new creative opportunities, particularly in how the scrolling movement impacts the storytelling. One of my qualms about this format is that it complicates pacing because there isn’t the fixed structure of a page. Some creators put too much space between panels, which makes the scrolling feel like a chore as you move through what is essentially a giant panel gutter. With some Webtoon books, I’ve found myself falling into the mindless scrolling action that happens when I’m browsing social media feeds. That’s not the case with Lore Olympus, where Smythe uses that space for graceful, atmospheric transitions that distinguish this series from printed comics.

Webtoon really nails the user experience, making it easy for readers to sort through the millions of Webtoon comics and find series that match their interests. How has that accessibility propelled the platform’s popularity? What do you think other publishers could learn from Webtoon’s success?

CR: I think you’ve gotten into the heart of what’s made Webtoon work so well for so many creators and readers. The homepage is filled with suggested comics based on both popularity and users’ own reading habits (as well as some banner ads and leaderboards). Just like the vertical scrolling, it taps into social media habits that readers have accepted elsewhere in an effort to keep them on the app longer. This is how I found several of my favorite Webtoons: after starting Sweet Home, an excellent horror comic from Youngchan Hwang and Carnby Kim that currently has 1.8 million subscribers, Webtoon suggested I check out The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn, an atmospheric supernatural mystery comic by Tri Vuong perfect for fans of books like Blackwood or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Unless you have access to a knowledgeable and helpful friend or comic shop employee that’s willing to go through your reading history and help you find new titles, it’s nearly impossible to replicate the comic discovery process on Webtoon—and never as easy.

How did mobile app Webtoon become a global comics juggernaut? (3)

If there was one thing I could suggest publishers, creators, and comic shops do, it would be to update their websites. One of the best ways to find something new is to pick up a book by a creator you already love, but there’s an industry-wide problem with crediting creators properly, and most creators don’t have robust, SEO-friendly websites of their own. Some publishers don’t even have titles that are no longer actively published on their website, and many don’t offer anything other than series or issue summaries. Looking for a particular story or arc is next to impossible unless you know the issue numbers. It would be great if going to the series page for Giant Days on BOOM!’s website would point me to other BOOM! titles I might enjoy. (To be fair to BOOM!, I can at least find a guide on where to start reading the series and where to find a comic shop, which is more than most publishers offer.) This isn’t a new problem, or one limited to comics publishing, of course. Amazon has dominated online shopping in part because of the robustness of their proprietary search and recommendation algorithms.

After diving into Lore Olympus, did you check out any of the titles that Webtoon suggested to you? Did you find yourself reading something that surprised you, or checking out a genre you normally aren’t drawn to?

How did mobile app Webtoon become a global comics juggernaut? (4)

OS: Yaongyi’s True Beauty is probably the biggest surprise from Webtoon’s recommendations, a romance series about a nerdy girl who discovers the transformative power of makeup. I’ve seen screenshots of this series online, and it’s easy to see why the book is a hit given the huge popularity of online makeover culture. The lead character, Jugyeong, is more interested in Junji Ito horror manga than the latest celebrity gossip, and I’m curious to see how Yaongyi explores the tension between Jugyeong’s old self and the expectations put on her as she rises in social rank. While on the topic of romance, Fishball’s My Giant Nerd Boyfriend is a delightful slice-of-life comic about a woman and her titular boyfriend, delivering addictive, adorable short strips throughout the week.

The shoujo manga aesthetic is very prominent in Webtoon comics, so I actively sought out titles with different art styles to see how that informs the storytelling. Anne Delseit and Marissa Delbressine’s The Shadow Prophet tells a thrilling, twisting tale of a young girl on the run with some very lush digitally painted artwork, and like Lore Olympus, The Shadow Puppet has an extremely smooth flow that takes advantage of the format to energize the narrative. I’ve enjoyed Dean Haspiel’s print comics, and found his New Brooklyn titles (The Red Hook, War Cry, and STARCROSS) really compelling, both in how he’s building his own superhero universe and how he’s adapting classic superhero storytelling for the vertical scroll format.

But I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Webtoon has to offer. I’m currently reading two comics about magical food and drink: Danie Stirling’s Crumbs and Raúl Trevino’s Magic Soda Pop. I’m extremely excited for the continuation of Ronald Wimberly’s GRATNIN: KGMR, which debuted on Webtoon last month. There’s so much content here, and there are so many different ways for me to find new books and easily sample them. Anyone with a smartphone or a computer can hop onto Webtoon right now and start reading, and because it’s all digital, there’s no shortage of new comics to get you through quarantine and beyond.

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