While teaching a middle school workshop on comics in 2019, I asked each one of my students about the comics they liked to read. Half the class responded the same way: webtoons. Since its international launch in July 2014, Korean digital comics giant’s commitment to international outreach and significant funding from its parent company, the Naver Corporation, has made it the most successful comics platform around the world, gaining readers by the millions.
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And it’s a platform where compassionate, emotionally aware protagonists reign. In a digital media landscape of YouTube-drama channels and tea-spilling TikToks, from thousands of comics to choose from, Webtoon readers are selecting narratives that promote healthy communication and self-acceptance.
Most of Webtoon’s readers are between the ages of 16 and 24, but all of the comics on the platform are optimized for mobile natives. Plus, they’re all free, making it an easy opt-in, even for readers without lots of cash to throw around. Some creators are commissioned and paid by Webtoon to create “Originals” for the platform, while others monetize their comics through services such as Patreon, and still others allow users to subscribe for early access to new episodes.
As a company, Webtoon wields extremely effective advertising campaigns on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to reach a wide international audience, and as an app it boasts a seamlessly polished user interface. Even the comics themselves are optimized for vertical screens: Each installment of a series is a stream of panels that users scroll through just like any other feed. When a new chapter comes out, the Webtoon app will send you a push notification to make sure you come back to read it, and millions of users do just that.
Like most streaming media platforms out there, Webtoon showcases what millions of users like the most, breaking down hit series not just by genre, but (self reported) age and gender of the reader. In the top 10 for readers in their teens, with almost two million subscribers and around a hundred thousand likes on every episode, is the Webtoon Original Cursed Princess Club by Lambcat. Cursed Princess Club is a comic about a princess named Gwen, a sweetheart with a loving family and an... unconventional appearance. When she accidentally stumbles on the titular Cursed Princess Club in the woods, she finds new friends and learns how to have better self-esteem.
Self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence are themes that come up often in the Original Webtoon subgenre, as characters realize they need to change how they treat themselves and others and take active steps to improve their situations. Joining the Cursed Princess Club inspires Gwen to work on her issues, and in Mai Hirschfeld’s Webtoon Original, The Four of Them, Johnny decides he needs to change, and joins a soccer team to branch out and make new friends.
In The Four of Them, every interpersonal drama is resolved through characters talking through their feelings with each other. Just like in real life, these conversations don’t always go as planned, but they always lead to the viewpoint character having a better understanding of themselves and their position. Similarly, in Nice To Meet You by Wishroomness, Mew stands up for herself by explaining why and how other people’s actions hurt her, gently rejecting a classmate who was interested in her. For teenagers still learning how to communicate properly with others, webtoons can serve as a potential model for doing so.
And webtoons have even gained popularity by tackling topics like the deconstruction of cosmetics and beauty culture. Since its launch in September 2020, the English translation of South Korean webtoon The Makeup Remover by Lee Yelon has almost 800,000 subscribers. It follows the journey of photography student Yeseul and celebrity makeup artist Yuseong, showing its readers that there are many ways to approach beauty and makeup if you’re interested in it, and even if you aren’t, by introducing characters and set-ups that illustrate different relationships to makeup culture and industries that create it.
Instead of lamenting their situation, the protagonists of these hit comics take active steps to change things they can control about their lives and start living healthier, happier existences, decisions that readers can emulate. And sure, there are plenty of dark, dramatic romances with messy relationships on Webtoon’s popular charts.
But a significant percentage of readers are boosting stories with positive messages right alongside them. Webtoon funds and promotes hundreds of original comics, whether translated from Korean for English-language markets or English-language originals commissioned for the platform, and part of that success has been following an audience that wants to read about kindness, empathy, and becoming a better person just as much as they’ll read about disasters.