Webtoon is the superhero-free comic space DC and Marvel should take notice

While teaching a workshop on comics in middle school in 2019, I asked each of my students what comics they liked to read. Half the class answered the same way: webtoons. Since its international launch in July 2014, the Korean digital comics giant’s commitment to international reach and significant funding from its parent company, the Naver Corporation, has made it the most successful comics platform in the world, readers winner by millions.

Every day on the Internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become news five minutes later. In the new Polygon series The next generation of everythingwe take a look at what’s happening in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest changes say about the future of extremely online living.

And it’s a platform where compassionate and emotionally aware protagonists rule. In a digital media landscape of dramatic YouTube channels and jaw-dropping TikToks, from thousands of comics to choose from, webtoon readers select narratives that foster healthy communication and self-acceptance.

Most webtoon readers are between the ages of 16 and 24, but all comics on the platform are optimized for mobile natives. Plus, they’re all free, making them an easy opt-in even for readers who don’t have much money to spend. 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 a early access to new episodes.

Two teenagers awkwardly share their names in The Four of Them, three panels arranged on a vertical scroll.

Teen Crush Awkwardness In The four of them.
Image: Mai Hirschfeld/Webtoon

As a business, Webtoon runs extremely effective advertising campaigns on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to reach large international audiences, and as an app, it has a perfectly polished user interface. Even the comics themselves are optimized for vertical screens: each episode of a series is a panel feed that users browse 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 that’s exactly what millions of users are doing.

Like most media streaming platforms, Webtoon showcases what millions of users love the most, breaking down hit series not only by genre, but also by (self-reported) age and gender of the reader. In the top 10 of teen readers, with nearly two million subscribers and a hundred thousand likes on each 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 bumps into the owner of the Cursed Princess Club in the woods, she finds new friends and learns to have better self-esteem.

Self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence are common themes in the Original Webtoon subgenre, as characters realize they need to change the way they treat themselves and others. and take active steps to improve their situation. Join the Cursed Princess Club inspires Gwen to work through her issues, and in Mai Hirschfeld’s Webtoon Original, The four of themJohnny decides he needs to change and joins a football team to branch out and make new friends.

In The four of them, each interpersonal drama is resolved by characters talking about their feelings with each other. Just like in real life, these conversations don’t always go as planned, but they always lead the point of view character to better understand themselves and their position. Likewise, in Nice to meet you by Wishroomness, Mew defends herself by explaining why and how the actions of others hurt her, gently rejecting a classmate who showed interest in her. For teens who are 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 deconstructing cosmetics and beauty culture. Since its launch in September 2020, the English translation of the South Korean webtoon The Cleanser by Lee Yelon has nearly 800,000 subscribers. It follows the journey of photography student Yeseul and famed makeup artist Yuseong, showing its readers that there are many ways to approach beauty and makeup if you’re into it, and even if you’re not. step, presenting characters and configurations. that illustrate different relationships with makeup culture and the industries that create it.

Instead of lamenting their situation, the protagonists of these bestselling comics take active steps to change the things in their lives they can control and begin to live healthier, happier lives—decisions readers can emulate. . And of course, there are plenty of dark and dramatic romances with messy relationships on popular webtoon cards.

But a significant percentage of readers amplify stories with positive messages right next to them. Webtoon funds and promotes hundreds of original comics, whether translated from Korean for English-language markets or commissioned English-language originals for the platform, and part of that success has been following an audience that want to read about kindness, empathy and becoming a better person as much as they read about disasters.

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