Finding the Future of Webtoons in the Comics of the Past - The Fall

김민오 | 2019-07-29 11:56

Finding the Future of Webtoons in the Comics of the Past - The Fall

Mino Kim

During the 1980s, the renaissance of comics lending shops and comic magazines allowed many people to find enjoyment and comfort in comics. However, as we entered the 1990s, published comic books were on their way to fall as if there was a golden age at all. What could have possibly led to the downfall of the published cartoon market in such a short period of 10 years? And how should the webtoon service prepare for the future? I would like to share the three ideas that I have gained by examining the related materials.

Be sensitive to user changes


The main reason for the downfall of published cartoons was that publishers could not detect changes in the context of a service environment surrounding readers. There were not many cultural contents that people could enjoy in the days when the comics lending shops were loved by people. But in the 90s, when the Korean economy grew, the situation changed completely. The contents which people could enjoy became more diversified, such as TV, movies, gaming consoles, computer, and the Internet. Comics were no longer the only content that people could enjoy. To advertise their contents, each industry used the four mediums of the TV, newspaper advertisements, general magazines, and the radio.


New competing industries were actively expanding their market, while publishers' actions were not to improve the cartoon service based on the readers but to reorganize the companies driven by sales figure. At the beginning of the decline of published comics, the publishers reduced the labor cost of comic book production, raised the price of comic books, and resold the past works only by changing the packaging and adding a new title. Behaviors that did not escape from the glory of the past eventually failed to create innovation in the areas of marketing and service improvement, which not only lost many users to competing industries but also formed bad influences such as negative publicity. Hereafter, comic books get removed from bookstores after the issue of cartoon censorship due to the Juvenile Protection Act.




▲ One should always check the diverse service environments surrounding the webtoon service.




As new services such as video games appear, and new technologies and media develop, the way users consume contents changes. If we do not accept these changes and insist on existing operations, the webtoon service will become less competitive than other contents such as games and videos. Why do current mobile users read webtoons? I believe that the reason why people read webtoons these days is that, besides the fact that they are fun, there is a convenient environment built for readers to use the webtoon service.


In reality, the popularity of webtoons in Korea has been achieved due to the appearance of smartphones, people's general use of public transportation rather than driving cars, and the environment in which free Wi-Fi is provided widely. For an extreme example, if people obtain telepathic abilities or teleport skills, would the current webtoon service be able to maintain itself? Clearly, there will be a significant change to the webtoon service in whichever way possible, and only the platform that could cope with such change will survive.


The insight that analyzes the context of the reader's service environment and identifies their needs is as important as the quality of the work. To do so, the webtoon service must stay sensitive to new changes and data surrounding their readers and let go of it's blind faith in previous data. If one could not prepare for a new future by being bound to the glory of the past, the webtoon service will also face the same conclusion as the published cartoons. Last year, I had attended the design seminar by Jason Kim, the designer at Instagram, and I would like to quote his words that impressed me at that time.



If users no longer want the photograph services, Instagram may give up the photos entirely. 
Without users, we are nothing.


Webtoons have to be differentiated from other competing industries such as games and videos.


Another reason for the downfall of published cartoons was that they failed to differentiate themselves from the newly emerging, competitive content industries. Contents which were motionless in the past, such as texts and pictures, have now become dynamic enough to move, react to button presses and get played with friends. Naturally, people became interested in new contents other than cartoons. To solve the situation, the publishers had to solve at least two problems. First, in marketing, the webtoon service had to appeal the merits of webtoons that competing contents could not offer so that webtoons do not get perceived as a content that is lagging behind the new contents. Secondly, the webtoon service needed to improve the quality of the works based on the context of the reader's service environments in a specific era and innovate the webtoon production and distribution processes.


However, in marketing, the publishers were hesitant to conduct marketing activities to advertise comics while competing industries were actively pursuing marketing strategies. Rather than approaching with TV commercials or whole-page advertisements in the newspaper that could target new audiences, publishers only printed articles on comic magazines or a comic section of newspapers.


The publishers also failed to improve the cartoon service. They have tried to improve the quality of cartoon services by adopting successful service cases in the Japanese cartoon market, such as creating comic magazines by dividing target reader groups by age, but this was a service that did not fit the context of the domestic service environment. To make matters worse, the Internet and illegal sharing sites have appeared. Illegal scans of comic books soon have flooded on the internet, and as publishers failed to prevent them, it resulted in the downfall of published comic books.


▲ 2019 App Trend Report - App anie

The situation is not so different nowadays. According to the 2019 mobile app trend report released by the mobile app data analyst company, App Annie, the top ten applications with highest consumer expenditures in Korea consisted of video, music, and dating apps. Among the list, Kakao Page was the only application that offered webtoon service, but it is still doubtful whether Kakao Page would have secured such a high rank if it weren't for it's video service. For reference, the list did not even include mobile games. From 20 years ago, when published comic books were declining, games and video services have taken up the leisure time of many users even until now. Do webtoons appeal enough to mobile users like Lineage M or Netflix? Regardless of how much profit major webtoon platforms make, it won't be significant compared to that of Lineage M or Netflix. The webtoon service still has a long way to go. It certainly needs to improve itself to compete against games and video services.


Here are some ideas that could appeal the webtoon's advantages at the current moment.


The first idea is to reduce people's burden when using paid contents. One of the reasons why published cartoons were so popular as the predecessor to webtoons was their low cost. I believe that providing huge impressions and great comfort is a valuable advantage of webtoons. Releasing free episodes regularly, reward marketing, offering discounts and developing a new business model would all reduce people's burden in purchasing webtoons. However, the webtoon service should be careful not to make such cost-saving efforts threaten the artist's livelihood.


The second is to raise people's satisfaction in purchasing webtoons. Just as Amazon Kindle has taken offline reading experience to online and has succeeded, the webtoon service could be a way to bring the experiences of reading published cartoons to online. For example, it is expected that users would be more satisfied in purchasing webtoons if they are provided with the functions to read webtoons offline without worrying about data and enjoy webtoons on various devices other than their mobiles, such as tablets and desktops.


The third is to develop a technology that could maximize people's impression of webtoons. Cartoons were constrained in their expressions due to the limited space on papers, but webtoons are not restrained by any space. As webtoons are contents that are displayed on screens, infinite scrolling is possible and various interactive technologies such as VR and AR could be applied. Interactive technologies could be applied to maximize people's impression of webtoons by making them more dynamic like in 'Ok-su Station Ghost' by Horang or 'Came Across' by Ha Il-Kwon which was released more recently. While interactive movies and interactive storytelling games in which users could determine their own stories are being produced, webtoons could create similar contents with faster production speed and more affordable costs. This could definitely be an advantage for webtoons to differentiate themselves from other contents. I wish that many new technologies get developed as supplementary devices to maximize people's impression of webtoons, rather than hoping for webtoons to simply appeal their technology, which would the other way around.


The final idea is to implement active marketing activities. The webtoon service should constantly appeal webtoons to new users who have never encountered the webtoon service before. Even without relying on celebrities such as Park Bo-Gum, it is an era in which companies could advertise and promote on various channels such as YouTube and SNS. The webtoon service needs to acquire more webtoon users by informing them about the advantages of webtoons that are different from games and videos. And if the webtoon service prevents the negative images that are being applied on webtoons due to specific disgraceful events in the industry and continually improve the system, the hardships that the published cartoons had to go through would not happen again.

 The webtoon service needs to make efforts to improve the artists' creative environment.


The final cause of the downfall of published cartoons was the decline in the quality of their works. So then, what could have possibly brought on such decline in the work quality? There were two simple factors behind the final cause of the quality decline.



The first factor was the censorship of the contents due to the 1997 Juvenile Protection Act. In this period, the perception of cartoons was negative, claiming that violent cartoons were encouraging school violence. In order to prevent the situation, all the works containing violent or provocative scenes at that time were subject to censorship. Lee Hyun-Se, the legendary artist in Korean manhwa, was no exception. Lee Hyun-Se, who was publishing 'Mythology of Heaven', had been also summoned to the court because his work was violent and sensational. The artists were in a situation where they could not make any new attempts.  


In such circumstances, Japanese comic books with global competitiveness were regularly imported. Japanese manga armed with innovative stories and drawing styles such as 'Dragon Ball' and 'Slam Dunk' made the qualities of Korean comic books look rather poor. Moreover, as the license fees of Japanese comics were lower than than the labor costs for domestic artists, it had a substantial impact on publishers to lose their interest in producing domestic comic books.



The second factor was unfair trade. In the period of published comics, it was common for the artists to only make verbal contracts instead of writing a formal contract. As a result, there were many unfair trade practices, such as the failure to settle the cost of manuscripts and the change in the cost of manuscripts depending on their genre. This was because the industry did not consider about changing such practices and brought in the system of Japanese comics which had different contexts to the domestic cartoon market even when the times were changing. In the environment that threatened the artists' living, aspiring cartoonists looked for careers that could ensure more stable income such as game graphics designer. As the infrastructure for artists became narrower, the decline of publishing comics accelerated.


After twenty years from the collapse, how are webtoons doing? Is the artist's free creative environment fully guaranteed?

Unfortunately, the threats still remain.


Even after the era of webtoons came in, the threat of censorship is always there. In 2012, as 23 webtoons were designated as harmful media for juveniles, the webtoon industry had to overcome the nightmare of censorship once again. After this incident, access to Lezhin Comics website also had been temporarily blocked because of censorship problems with some of Lezhin Comics' running webtoons. Lezhin Comics was able to restore it's service as the webtoon platform and it's artists reacted to this matter immediately, but it was a case where the whole industry could perceive that the freedom of creation could be threatened by censorship at any time.


The unfair trade issue is still a homework for the webtoon industry to solve. With the growing popularity of webtoons and their global competitiveness, contract issues between artists and webtoon platforms which also involve copyright concerns emerge. Due to such conflicts, the webtoon platforms lost not only talented artists and their exceptional works but the readers as well in recent years. The webtoon industry clearly knows that these problems are improving at this point. However, if these problems do not get fully resolved and cause constant issues, the entire damage would be imposed on the webtoon users. I sincerely hope that the problems between the webtoon platforms and the artists get resolved as soon as possible so that the issue of declining work qualities that the published comics had to go through do not get repeated in the webtoon industry.



Exceptional works could only be produced if the artists' creative environment is favorable. In the case of Lezhin Comics, which later created negative issues by acknowledging the existence of blacklists, their earliest growth engine was the service management policy that always considered artists first. Firstly, Lezhin Comics provided an environment for artists in which they could openly address different themes that were usually restricted in free webtoon platforms such as adult contents, BL and politics. Such measure disproved the prejudice that artists should create a work that all ages could enjoy for their work to be published. Secondly, through the introduction of regular health checkups for artists and the minimum wage guarantee system to ensure the artists' living, artists could not get disturbed by problems other than only focusing their creative activities. Thirdly, Lezhin Comics formed a special team dedicated to eliminating illegal websites and achieved success in this area. As a result of these efforts, Lezhin Comics was able to acquire great artists, and the artists were able to create outstanding works and secure a large number of paid users. I hope all webtoon platforms would remember this and protect the free creative environment of the artists. I believe that such efforts would help prevent the decline in the work quality of webtoons. 

  So far, we have looked at the growth and decline of published comics. Many people may well already know about such history, but understanding some information in one's head and absorbing the knowledge to transfer it into wisdom is different. Through the thoughts which I have put together, I learned about the critical goals that the webtoon service should accomplish in order to improve itself. Gaining such insight was my greatest joy and reward while writing this article. What is now left for the webtoon service is to work out a detailed strategy to achieve the critical goals. I would continue to do my best to make the webtoon service into a culture that is loved not only by our country but also by people all over the world. I hope that my article would contribute to inspire someone and come up with better ideas to improve the webtoon service. Thank you for reading.


Nanji Hong - Malnyeon Lee: webtoon writer review

Gijin Lee - Mina Hwang: webtoon writer review

Seonghoon Kim, Messages of censorship, blacklisting and repeated experiences in Korean comics,  Digital Gyujanggak -

Sangmin Seong, Slow News -

jongwoo won, Variations of 'Borrowing' and 'buying' in the Korean Cartoon Market, Dugoboza Webgin -

Hyeonjung Yoon, Book rental store swallowed cartoon magazines, Mobile threatened the age of Webtoons, Hangyeorae news -

Donghoon Lee , Correct the distorted perception of cartoons, Gyeongi News -

Jaeguk joo, The Beginning and Present of Daily Cartoon, Digital Gyujanggak -

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