At some point in your life, you might have had a phase where you were super into reading comics, and you might still be these days. We could never go wrong with classic superheroes like those from Marvel and DC. And, of course, many iconic manga have been published in Japan, such as “One Piece” and “Dragon Ball”.
When I was younger, all the comics I read were in the form of printed books. Since I didn’t use the internet as often as I do now, I didn’t mind physically carrying the comics with me wherever I went. However, in today’s age, where we almost all use our phones to access all sorts of media, I’ve started bringing physical comics less frequently and relying on my phone.
At first, this transition from physical to digital was an act of peer pressure. I didn’t want to be the only person in the world to carry a comic in public to pass my free time.
But I slowly started to realize that it’s actually much easier to bring my phone rather than a book. Not only do I have a convenient way to communicate with others, but I can also easily access comic books and other online reading materials.
Alright, let me back up a bit. These online “comic books” might not be exactly what you think, but there’s actually quite a large selection that the typical “comic book” fan might not have heard of. In fact, I personally consider them a great alternative for anyone who enjoys reading not just comics, but anything in general.
A Crash Course in Webcomic History
The term “webcomic” originated from a German website in 1995, the intention of which was to combine the words “web” and “comic” into one. The first known webcomic is “Doctor Fun,” which was a panel gag published in 1993 by David Farley. As the web increasingly became a convenient and popular platform for creating all kinds of content, the year 1995 saw a breakthrough in the emergence of webcomics. By the end of 1994, 3,000 webcomic sites existed on the Web. The following year, another 20,000 websites were launched, resulting in hundreds of new webcomics being released on the web. The webcomics “Kevin and Kell” (1995) and “Sabrina Online” (1996) particularly raised the bar as two of the longest-running webcomics of all time.
In the late 1990s, many webcomic artists began to experiment with their art. They opened up new genres, one of the most popular being those on the theme of gaming, as phenomenally evidenced by works such as “Penny Arcade” (1998), created by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.
In 2000, American cartoonist Scott McCloud published the book Reinvent comics, which explores many different perspectives and discoveries from webcomics and digital art. In this book, he introduced a concept known as the “infinite canvas”, which implies that a web page contains unlimited space, giving artists the freedom to pace their art however they wish.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, webcomics in the United States particularly boomed compared to their counterparts, mainly due to strong communities of readers and artists, such as Joey Manley, as well as the rise of the internet bubble.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, the comics industry experienced a major turning point in the history of publishing. In 1997, South Korea was hit by a major financial crisis known as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) crisis, which forced people to only be able to rent comics instead of buying them. Then, in 1998, Korea concluded its censorship of Japanese media, which included manga (a strong rival to Korean comics). Considering all these events, the Korean comic industry (also known as manhwa) nearly collapsed.
That was until more and more people turned to the internet to buy and read comics. Kang Full and Snowcat were among the most renowned artists of the time, paving the way for what the standard South Korean webcomic would become in the following years.
In the early 2000s, Korean web portal Daum launched Daum Comics World, considered the most successful webtoon platform of the 2000s. The very first webtoon to have a long, drop-down format on Daum was “Love Story” (2003) by Kang Full.
It didn’t take long for Daum to face the competition. In 2005, Daum’s competitor, Naver, launched Naver Webtoon. It was spearheaded as a passion project by founder JunKoo Kim, who envisioned creating a platform that would allow comics to scroll and, therefore, be easy to read.
In the late 2000s, webtoons grew in popularity as some of them were adapted into TV shows and movies, while others were translated into multiple languages.
Since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, many readers have started reading webcomics on their smartphones. This has further mobilized the use of apps, the most popular of which is Line Webtoon. Around the same time, the growing use of social media led to artists posting their work on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Not only has this helped many artists gain attention for their work, but it has also given some of them the opportunity to share their voice on social, political and economic issues through art.
In 2011, artist Andrew Hussie released “Homestuck”, which paved the way for more narrative webcomics, as opposed to short, single-panel gag strips.
Patreon, launched in 2013, became a vital source of income for many artists whose billing model supported long-running projects and gave fans space to support their favorite artists financially.
In 2014, Naver and Daum made efforts to expand globally. Naver launched Line Webtoon worldwide, which allowed international artists to upload their work and readers around the world to easily access webtoons. Daum merged with Kakao, the maker of South Korea’s top messaging service (Kakaotalk), to create a $2.9 billion company.
Over the past few years, the efforts of webtoon platforms have steadily taken off. “Solo Leveling” (2018), an action-fantasy-based web novel written by Chugong (and also a favorite of mine) became a global hit, reaching over 14 billion readers and generating revenue over $28 million. In 2019, “Love Alarm”, which is the first Netflix original to be based on a webtoon, was released. Then came the following versions that became fan favorites: “Itaewon Class”, “DP”, “Sweet Home” and “All of Us Are Dead”.
My Experience with Webcomics
My first exposure to webcomics was in 2013 when I came across a fan-made music video for “Ava’s Demon.” Since then, I’ve been catching up on updates to “Ava’s Demon” from time to time. On top of that, I regularly scrolled through platforms like DeviantArt and Tumblr for fanart comics. A few years later, I naturally took a break from webcomics to explore other hobbies that interested me.
Just then, in early 2019, I learned that BTS was planning to release a webtoon titled “Save Me,” based on the storyline featured in several of their music videos.
Browsing through the episodes of “Save Me,” I was instantly hooked on the intense plot and gripping art. My curiosity took over and I started discovering other webtoons that would match my interests.
One of the first webtoons I got into besides “Save Me” was “True Beauty.” This is a romantic comedy about a girl named Jugyeong Lim, who likes to wear makeup to enhance both her appearance and her self-confidence. Little did I know it would become a massive hit later on, as it became one of the most anticipated Korean drama adaptations of 2021, with the webtoon itself reaching its finale after a total of 222 episodes.
Since I was busy with a lot of things at the time, like school, I barely had time to catch up on another webtoon besides the two mentioned above.
Then came a moment that probably no one expected. Quarantine. Starting in March 2020, I started using Webtoon as a way to both pass the time and calm down from all the chaos. I even remember telling one of my friends that Webtoon is “the only thing keeping me sane right now”.
So, in a way, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise. In ten months (March to December 2020), I discovered and read a total of 20 webtoons.
Since the webtoons I’ve read vary in genre, it’s hard to tell if I have a favorite webtoon genre. It’s even harder to name my favorite webtoon. However, one thing I do know is that I was able to gain a lot of webtoon knowledge during this time, and if there ever was a profession known as “Webtoon Critic”, I would would definitely take it.
Nowadays, I am currently much busier than I was during the quarantine period. Yet despite this, I still managed to keep up with several ongoing webtoons I discovered in 2020. (And not to mention the events that let you earn free coins to buy fast pass episodes.)
As someone who has been reading webtoons for almost four years, I think it’s safe to say that I have a pretty good judgment about which webtoons are worth reading. One of the main factors that help me determine the overall quality of a webtoon is whether it incorporates a variety of emotions, as opposed to just being 100% sad or 100% happy. The art style is a plus, but since I feel like it’s subjective, I don’t really prioritize it in my reviews.
While webcomics, namely webtoons, continue to thrive, it’s only a matter of time before they emulate some of today’s most popular forms of media entertainment. And as your so-called Webtoon Critic friend, I highly recommend trying to read a webtoon or webcomic as soon as you can. I doubt you’ll regret it, or at least I know you’ll learn from it.