A brief history of webtoons – accessible version

A webtoon is a type of digital comic that originated in South Korea and is read vertically by scrolling down on a computer or smartphone. Accessible anywhere and practically free of charge, each episode takes less than five minutes to read.

Webtoons began as online daily chronicles, created by people out of work during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. These eventually evolved into more complex narratives produced by both professionals and amateurs, mixing styles and genres in unexpected ways and engaging with contemporary Korean social issues.

In 2020, webtoons' combined sales topped 1 trillion won (£684.6 million) for the first time, representing a year-on-year increase of over 64%. Today, webtoons stand as a foundation of Korean storytelling industries, having become an inexhaustible source of inspiration for K-drama, cinema, musicals and computer games.

Discover the history of webtoons in our specially commissioned webtoon

Story by Jaemin Lee, comics critic and independent researcher.
Graphics by Seong In-Soo.

A brief history of webtoons

In a time before webtoons, the printed comic ruled supreme.

But then in 1997, Korea is hit by a major financial crisis, otherwise known as the IMF Crisis.

As the economy suffers, people can only afford to rent and not buy comics.

To make matters worse for its comics industry, in 1998 Korea ends its censorship of Japanese media unleashing a deadly rival: Japanese Manga.

Before the crisis, 200,000 Korean comics (Manhwa) were published annually, with over 80% of these sold.

During the crisis, this figure plummets to just 20,000 with only half sold. (Source: A study on the problems and improvements of Korean publishing comics distribution. SH Park, 1999)

In the same period, the introduction of high-speed internet by the Korean government means comic fans can now scan, translate, and share Manhwa and Manga for free.

And so, one by one, the comic rental stores close.

By the late 1990s/early 2000s the Korean comics industry is on its knees.

2000 – 2009

But here comes the internet to the rescue!

The early 2000s sees the rise of a number of innovative tech startups, such as N4 and Comic Plus, which offer a brand-new way of consuming comics: buying and reading online.

The experience though is not a good one. And at a time when internet shopping is still in its infancy, the concept of paying and reading online is far from popular.

The term ‘webtoon’ is first used by Cheollian, one of Korea’s earliest internet search engines. Web + cartoon = Webtoon. It describes a new type of comic that’s digital and presented in a vertical scroll, just like the one you are reading right now!

Producing webtoons at this time is more like a hobby, with most artists publishing their creations on their own websites. Kang Full, Snowcat and Marine Blues are the most famous artists in this period.

And then in 2004, a game changing moment: Korean web portal Daum launches Daum Comics World – the most successful platform of the 2000s.

On Daum, the artist Kang Full publishes Love Story – the world’s first serialised, long-form webtoon. It becomes a hit sensation with over 60 million views.

In 2005, Daum’s rival Naver launches Naver Webtoon, officially announcing the start of the webtoon era.

A year later, Kang Full’s webtoon Apartment is adapted for the big screen. Despite starring one of the biggest names of the era Go SoYeon, it is unfortunately a box office flop.

In the same year, Jo Seok’s webtoon Sound of Heart is serialised on Naver webtoon. It runs for 1,000 episodes over 14 years and averages 5 million views per episode.

2009 – 2013

Welcome to the smartphone age! The iPhone 3GS (also known as iPhone 3) launches in Korea.

Yoon Tae-Ho’s, mystery thriller webtoon Moss is adapted for the big screen. It is watched by 3.4 million making it the most successful webtoon-based film at the time.

In 2010, Joo Ho-Min’s webtoon Along with Gods is serialised on Naver Webtoon. A film adaptation released in 2017 is watched by 17 million.

In 2012, Daum publishes Yoon Tae-Ho’s webtoon Misaeng. Within a year it registers 1 billion views!

Show me the money! In 2013, Naver Webtoon launches ‘Page Profit Share’ (PPS), which, for the first time, offers the artist a share of the advertising revenue. Daum also monetises its platform with a pay-to-read service.

In the same year, the film Secretly, Greatly, based on the webtoon series Covertness by the artist Hun, is released. It stars Kim Soo-Hyun, one of the highest-paid actors in Korea.

The first pay-to-read platform Lezhin Comics launches in June 2013. In just 6 months, the webtoon Bad Boss makes £125,000, proving that platforms that charge for content can be successful.

The internet giant Kakao launches KakaoPage, which includes a webtoon and webnovel service.

A webnovel is a type of serialised novel that can be read online. You have to buy a book to read a novel, but in the webnovel world you can purchase it chapter by chapter.

The mobile webtoon war begins as Daum Webtoon and Lezhin Comics launch their apps.

2014 – 2018

This is an era where webtoon sites perfect the art of making money across a mix of mobile and desktop platforms.

Naver Webtoon declares 2014 as “The first year of overseas expansion” as it launches its webtoons service in the United States.

For the first time mobile use in Korea overtakes desktop. Since smartphones have narrow, smaller screens, artists start to change the way they present their webtoons. (SOURCE: KT Economic and Management Research Institute)

Daum and Kakao merge to form (you guessed it!) Daum Kakao. Daum Webtoons continues as normal but KakaoPage changes its strategy to focus on webnovels.

In 2014, Yoon Tae-ho’s hit webtoon Misaeng is turned into a television series. Winning multiple awards, it becomes a cultural phenomenon.

KakaoPage launches its ‘free-if-you-wait’ strategy, offering older webtoon episodes for free, whilst selling Fast-Passes to those that crave the newest episodes.

In 2015, webnovels Moonlight Sculptor and Daughter of the Emperor become the first to be webtoonized.

A year later, Lehzin Comics secures a whopping £31.5 million investment from a private equity firm, making it the largest investment in webtoon-comics history.

Soo Shin-Ji's webtoon Myeoneuragi is serialised on Instagram and Facebook. It proves to be a huge hit with more than 400,000 followers.

2018 – TODAY

Webtoons go global!

In 2018, the legendary webnovel-based webtoon Solo Levelling by Chugong launches and becomes a major hit in Korea, Japan, Brazil and Germany. It is read by over 14 billion and earns more than £25 million in revenue.

Webtoon platforms continue to expand. Naver merges with US webnovel platform Wattpad for a cool $60 million and Kakao merges with US platforms Tapas and Radish for a cool $95 million.

The first webtoon-based Netflix original Love Alarm by Gye-Young launches in 2019. This is soon followed by Itaewon Class (2020), DP (2021), Sweet Home (2021), and All of Us Are Dead (2022).

And it's not just Netflix spreading the global webtoon love! Japanese streaming service Crunchroll releases animations of webtoons Tower of God, Noblesse and God of Highschool.

TV and film adaptations of webtoons continue apace with 21 aired globally in 2021 and 12 more in Netflix’s pipeline set for release in 2023 and 2024.

Today, the mighty webtoon is an indispensable part of 'Hallyu' – the Korean wave, delivering its latest episode directly to your smartphone!

Find out more

  • WEBTOON – Thousands of free webtoons to read or download
  • Korean Webtoons Wiki – a wiki dedicated to listing and describing all Korean webtoons.

2000 – 2009

2009 – 2013

2014 – 2018

2018 – Today