Webtoons, or webcomics, are digital comics designed to be read on a smart phone, with consumers scrolling vertically to progress through the panels. The market got its start in the early 2000s and has exploded in the last few years, both in the medium’s country of origin, South Korea, and in other countries such as Japan, the U.S., and France. Webcomics tend to appeal to global fans of manga/anime, K-pop, and other Asian pop culture—especially females—and top series can generate significant audiences. Lore Olympus, a romance series by Rachel Smythe, has generated 68.6 million views.
Two of the leading players in webtoon distribution are Naver and Kakao, both based in South Korea. The former’s U.S. webtoon division shares its name with the generic word for the medium, Webtoon, while the latter’s is called Tapas. There are many other players, from specialists such as Tappytoon, Kidari Studio, and Manta, to social media platforms such as Instagram. New entrants coming on the scene include French studio Ellipse Animation, which announced in January that it is launching a new production facility for webcomics distributed on sibling platform ONO and elsewhere, and Amazon, which began testing original webcomic content last year through its new Amazon Fliptoons platform, starting in Japan.
Just last month, the South Korean government said it planned to support its domestic webtoon industry by launching a Netflix-like webtoon development and distribution platform, a webtoon film festival (in fall 2024), and a school (in 2027).
Some of the commercial areas where webtoon productions and IP have been demonstrating notable growth of late include:
- TV adaptations. Many television shows in Korea are adapted from webtoons, and many of those are broadcast on U.S. and other western channels and platforms. Several TV series based on Webtoon properties are on Netflix and Crunchyroll, while Kakao has 24 webtoons currently being developed for Korean television and has already had success with TV shows based on webcomics such as Solo Leveling and The Bequeathed. One of Ellipse’s goals for its new webcomics studio is to use the medium to evaluate properties for TV and film potential.
- Books and comic books. Webtoon launched Webtoon Unscrolled, a U.S. print publishing imprint, in 2022. Its mission is to bring titles such as True Beauty, Tower of God, and Cursed Princess Club into physical publishing formats. Penguin Random House has a new imprint called Inklore that publishes several titles based on webtoons, including Lore Olympus. Scholastic’s Graphix imprint released a graphic novel based on Magical Boy (distributed on Tapas), while HarperCollins Children’s Books released a tie-in to UnOrdinary (Webtoon). Ablaze has titles tied to the webtoons Terror Man and Get Schooled, Oni publishes Covenant, Iron Circus offers Lackadaisy, and Skybound released Good Comics for Bad People: An Extra Fabulous Collection. Yen Press founded its IZE Press imprint to specialize in webtoon-based graphic novels.
- Gaming. Although not as active an area as TV production or print publishing to date, another medium where webtoons can play a role is in video games, from console titles to mobile apps. South Korea’s leading mobile company, Netmarble, is creating a game based on Solo Leveling, to name one example.
- Licensed webtoons. Webtoon producers and distributors are not only involved in outbound content licensing, but they serve as licensees as well, creating webtoon content for third-party IP owners. Licensors that have gotten into webtoons include traditional comics publishers, such as DC Comics, which has created Batman: Wayne Family Adventures and other productions with Webtoon; video game companies such as Ubisoft, which offers Assassin’s Creed webcomics through Webtoon; and K-pop artists including BTS with 7 Fates: Chakho, Tomorrow x Together with The Star Seekers, and Enhypen with Dark Moon: The Blood Altar, all produced with HYBE.
- Korean merchandise shops. In South Korea, webtoon platforms have had recent success with physical pop-up shops selling merchandise based on their properties. Naver Webtoon had such a shop at Starfield COEX Mall that sold products based on Webtoon productions such as Maru Tour (Maru is a Puppy) and Chunbae (Meow Man). The shop included 260 Webtoon character-based products, from dolls to bags, with 200 of them being exclusive to the pop-up. Kakao had a similar pop-up at The Hyundai Seoul department store featuring products tied to Debut or Die. It attracted 15,000 people in less than two weeks, reportedly purchasing an average of more than $375 per person in products. Beyond these shops, webcomic-based licensed products in traditional retail venues of all kinds have proven attractive to consumers in Korea.
- Licensing outside South Korea. In the U.S., Surge Licensing announced a range of licensees last fall for Webtoon Original Comics including Lore Olympus, UnOrdinary, Tower of God, Cursed Princess Club, Hooky, Boyfriends, and Morgana & Oz, after signing on to represent the company for licensing in 2022. Among the current partners are Bioworld for apparel, Walter Foster for how-to-draw books, and FiGPiN for collectible pins and cards. Prior to its relationship with Surge, Webtoon had put together a few of its own partnerships, including a Lore Olympus capsule collection at Hot Topic.
Several researchers have estimated the size of the webtoon market, as of 2022, between $3.5 billion and $4 billion globally. Their growth projections vary, but all agree the market will expand significantly over the next decade, with most forecasting a compound annual growth rate of 25% to 40%, pushing the market to well over $50 billion by the 2030s.