Webtoons – the nickname for comics published online – are a massive industry in Korea, worth 724 billion won (£480 million), according to the KT Economics & Management Research Lab.

The webtoon industry got started around 2003, when major web portals Daum and Naver set up webtoon pages to revive the flagging Korean manhwa (comic) industry. New readers were lured by the idea of reading on their smartphone – and more webtoon portals began to pop up. As technology has improved, so too has the webtoon industry.

The look and feel of a Korean webtoon is now very different to the old web comic style of simply scanning a page and putting it online. It scrolls vertically rather than horizontally, and some comics have sound effects and dynamic features that move at the reader’s pace. Tapastic, Spottoon, TappyToon, Lezhin Comics and Line Webtoon officially translate some of their webtoons into English as well. Most are for free, and you can donate to the artist’s Patreon account if you want to show your support. Some of the most popular titles in English are Lookism, Untouchable, Yumi’s Cells, Noblesse, and Tower of God but there’s a wide range to choose from.

Webcomics have become such a key part of modern Korean culture that their content is inspiring dramas and movies. The hugely popular 2016 drama Cheese in the Trap started out as a webtoon. The ongoing Noblesse has spawned two animes. The drama W, Two Worlds, even delved into the world of webcomic creation, as a comic character crossed over into the real world.

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However, as the speed of the industry continues to grow, its artists are facing increasing demands and crazy deadlines from the webtoon portals they work for. Lehzin Comics in particular has been criticised by webtoon artists this year for treating its artists badly. Over 100 artists protested outside their offices in the freezing temperatures of January to get the issue some attention. They claim the company has a blacklist of artists who are treated badly if they fail to meet any particular rule.

“After signing a contract, I had to change the initial plot and character design for my webtoon as the platform requested,” one artist told the Korea Joonang Daily. “Soon after my serial started being published, I was told it would be discontinued.”

While stronger regulations seem to be needed in this growing creative industry, webtoons show no sign of losing popularity with readers not just in Korea, but worldwide. Have you read any Korean webtoons yet? Share your recommendations with UKP.

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British writer and editor living in Japan. Currently studying Japanese, Korean, K-pop dance, and the fine form of 이성종's legs.