Webtoons, a form of fun and nifty virtual comics designed to be read on the go, have become a fairly regular part of Western pop culture. Today, this medium, which was originally popular in Korea and other East Asian countries, continues to evolve. As the webtoon industry changes, it has the potential to help bring Asian entertainment further into the foreground for the rest of the world.
As with other aspects of Korean popular culture — like skin care, K-pop, food and makeup — once the market for webtoons became known in the United States, Americans quickly grew interested in the industry.
WEBTOON, a popular webtoon reading app, was originally launched in Korea in 2004 by JunKoo Kim. It debuted its services to the United States in 2014 and is often considered to be one of the most popular webtoon apps, with more than 64 million monthly users and over 16.5 million dedicated daily readers. Another less popular but well-known webtoon service is Tapas, created by Chang Kim in 2012.
The primary difference between webtoons and other webcomics is that webtoons are designed to fit into a specific vertical storytelling format. This changes the way readers interact with the content. This vertical design allows artists to approach their panels creatively, freeing them from some of the constraints that typically come with more traditional publication styles.
I myself am obsessed with WEBTOON. Throughout my time using the app, I noticed a rather interesting trend — WEBTOON has been adapting some of its most popular comics into Korean dramas, or, more simply, K-dramas. I first noticed this when watching the 2016 drama “Cheese In The Trap.” It wasn’t until later when I realized that the show had been based on a webtoon of the same title, originally published on WEBTOON in 2010.
In December 2020 alone, WEBTOON released two major K-drama adaptations — “True Beauty,” released on the streaming service Viki, and Netflix original “Sweet Home.” WEBTOON doesn’t show signs of slowing down, with other adaptations already planned for the coming year. One highly anticipated show is an adaptation of “Yumi’s Cells,” a comic that has over 500 thousand readers.
Converting comics into live–action shows isn’t limited to just the WEBTOON service, however, as other Korean-made comics from alternative services have found their places on the small screen. Other K-drama adaptations include “Love Alarm,” originally published by Kye-Young Chon on Daum Webtoon.
There have also been a handful of webtoons converted to Japanese animation or, more commonly, anime. Anime, as most people know, is another popular form of East Asian media that has found a diehard following in the United States. Some of these adaptations include “Tower of God” and “The God of High School,” which are both webtoons with over 2 million readers.
The WEBTOON service has converted some other comics like the slice-of-life comic “My Giant Nerd Boyfriend” into a bite-size internet miniseries. However, anime and cartoons are already a staple in Western entertainment and receive recognition from audiences all around the world. K-drama is a new, primarily unexplored market outside of Asia, and these adaptations carry the potential to expose Western audiences to a fresh genre.
American consumers make up 5–6% of K-drama national viewership, but the genre is still not widely mainstream in this country. It wouldn’t surprise me if K-drama saw a boom in popularity in the coming years, much like webtoons saw in the 2010s. Webtoons are already popular among Americans, and adapting globally popular comics into dramas is a pretty solid way to get more foreigners interested in this niche.
An increase in K-drama popularity wouldn’t be out of character for American consumers either. The world is a bit obsessed with Korean culture right now –– just look at the massive amounts of Americans who have become enamored with K-pop music. BTS, the wildly popular South Korean boy band, has over 29 million monthly listeners on Spotify. The group was also the first–ever Korean music group to be nominated for all three major American music awards: The Grammy’s, the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards.
The move to webtoon drama adaptations is a clever marketing strategy. With any luck, it will diversify America’s entertainment content and hopefully give K-drama the recognition it deserves.