The strange fate of the Korean webtoon

While manga has once again become kings, Korean comics are also invading the world and mobile phones thanks to webtoons, their digital version. But in Europe, it is their adaptation into a paper album that could revolutionize everything.

The variety knew K-Pop, comics must now count with K-Comics! K for Korea (of South, of course), whose popular culture today benefits to the maximum from the digital turn that the country has taken, the first, with the century: Korea, the most digitalized and dematerialized country in the world, is now also the most trendy. Trend in series (Squid Game, on Netflix, read on page 8), in the cinema (Parasite, Palme d’or 2019), in music (K-Pop groups have replaced the girls and boy bands of the 1990s), on social networks (Korean influencers abound on TikTok) and, therefore, in comics where the “webtoon” – digital version of “manhwa”, which is to South Korea what manga is to Japan – has succeeded in s ” establish very quickly as a staple of digital comics, consumed on smartphones, thanks to a box-by-box reading that we “scroll” from top to bottom.

The variety knew K-Pop, comics must now count with K-Comics! K for Korea (of South, of course), whose popular culture today benefits to the maximum from the digital turn that the country has taken, the first, with the century: Korea, the most digitalized and dematerialized country in the world, is now also the most trendy. Trend in series (Squid Game, on Netflix, read on page 8), in the cinema (Parasite, Palme d’or 2019), in music (K-Pop groups have replaced the girls and boy bands of the 1990s), on social networks (Korean influencers abound on TikTok) and, therefore, in comics where the “webtoon” – digital version of “manhwa”, which is to South Korea what manga is to Japan – has succeeded in s ” establish very quickly as a staple of digital comics, consumed on smartphones, thanks to a box-by-box reading that we “scroll” from top to bottom. If in Korea, the webtoon and the digital have now dethroned the manhwa and the paper in the consumption of comics, in old Europe, in France and in Belgium above all, it is almost the opposite: while the major players in the sector have embarked on the webtoon, so far without much success, the paper adaptations of said webtoons are booming! And this, while the manga itself has once again become the sales leader, with sometimes phenomenal progress (see box on page 86). These new Asian waves could well reshuffle the cards of a publishing world shaken up in its old habits. This real “take-off of Korean comics” was embodied in Brussels in a series of events and exhibitions: South Korea was thus the guest of honor at the recent Brussels Comic Strip Festival, and finds itself at the heart of two exhibitions. One at the BELvue museum, until October 24 (Speak through comics), which offers a crossed look between Belgian and Korean comics, but also and above all the last major exhibition to date from the Belgian Comic Strip Center (CBBD), precisely dedicated to manhwas and webtoons and visible until January 2022 (1). Co-organized with the Manhwa Museum in Seoul, it retraces, through hundreds of reproductions and some biographies of authors, a hundred years of dazzling evolution during which history, with a capital “H”, shaped that a medium that has become, over the decades, both extremely popular (notably thanks to “manhwabags”, modules between bookstore and library almost free) but also one of the rare spaces where Korean authors could express themselves almost freely ( Korea was for a long time under Japanese domination and censorship), even on seemingly the most trivial themes. An abundance and a freedom of tone in turn very influenced by the explosion of manga in the 1990s, to join today this galaxy of Asian productions which are favored by a young audience fond of “made in Asia”, and now also fed, not to say force-fed, thousands of hours of anime that can be found, among others, on Netflix. The webtoon thus sits at the top of all these confluences and has become the ergonomic standard, but also largely thematic, for online comics, while offering a finally profitable economic model based on the principle of an application, an offer. “premium” free and, above all, a flood of productions. The CBBD exhibition, if it deciphers and highlights some webtoon trends and artists, obviously offered them for reading on tablets made available to the public. But the Covid has, alas, been there, destroying any idea of ​​manipulation. The co-curator of the exhibition, Mélanie Andrieu, then opted for some anime adaptations, visible on screen but not “scrollable”, unknowingly anticipating the new webtoon trend in Europe: consumption … on paper! As we know, the Old Continent remains resistant to digital technology, whether one is a reader or a producer, and the turnover achieved, even if they are increasing, remain very marginal. On the other hand, everyone is getting started: after the Delitoon platform, independent leader in this small market, which launched before everyone else in 2011, Dupuis created its “Webtoon Factory” and Delcourt its “Verytoon” platform , with a mixture of own productions, imports and, sometimes, adaptations of these webtoons in comics. Delcourt thus founded at the same time as its platform, at the beginning of January 2021, the KBooks label, dedicated to webtoons adaptations. And the results of this funny idea – going from digital to paper, the complete opposite of the norm – are unexpected: the Korean fantasy series Solo Leveling thus trustees the peak of sales of books, all genres, even literary, combined! The release of volume 4 is already scheduled for November 10 and should be able to count on a first printing of at least 150,000 copies! Other adaptations, fashioned on the chain and in the studio, hit the mark, once again with a young audience that was no longer interested in comics. We can cite, for example, Killing Stalking (18,000 new copies from the publisher Taifu), a very dark thriller which features a young homosexual man in love with a serial killer. Themes, genres and ways of telling that catch most of the Franco-Belgian publishers by surprise. Which indeed see a shovelful of small independent publishers (Ototo, Ki-oon, Todag, ReLIFE …) rushing into this new editorial niche – the adaptation in paper album of anime or webcomics – and who promise a multiplication of releases in the weeks and months to come. Conveying, in fact, new ways of telling other stories, far from the canons of local publishers who see, behind overall sales figures a priori flourishing, their audience aging, “gentrifying” and detaching themselves from this culture Korean multisupport, protean, non-gendered and now global.

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The strange fate of the Korean webtoon

Hank Gilbert