So since I started blogging about webcomics, I’ve been massively curious about the entire “webtoons” thing. That’s one of the benefits of taking two years off. When you’re blogging consistently, change never seems to happen. It’s mainly because you’re observing things on a constant basis, making actual changes seem static. But the moment you step back, you’re forced to catch up. Every change over the last two years are compressed, and revolutionary events start to shift more into focus.
And webtoons, to me were the most exciting new thing to pop up in quite sometime.
But wait… what are webtoons even? Are they like motion comics or Flash comics or whatever new fad that claims they’re going to replace webcomics? Not exactly. Webtoons are webcomics. Or rather, they’re a term interchangeable with manhwa, which are South Korean webcomics. While similar, webtoons evolved in a path that seemed to favor mobile devices over desktops and laptops. Which is to say: the panels are layed out vertically.
Apparently, quite a few of these became huge successes. Early webtoon Ragnarok became the MMORPG Ragnarok Online. Others have made inroads in TV and movies. Orange Marmalade, a romance webtoon about a vampire girl, ended up getting a live action TV series in 2015.
I’m assuming that there may have been some followers in the West through fan translations. (Hmmmm…. I wonder if manhwa was subject to an entire “subs vs. dubs” debate?) A Google Trends query, though, kinda shows that the term itself didn’t gain much traction until about two years ago. Most of this is probably attributable when publisher Naver launched an English service (snagging the all important webtoons.com domain) in July 2014.
It’s a great looking site, though it’s at the same time daunting and overwhelming. The design reminds me of an iTunes or app store. There are all sorts of different icons representing different comics, and each comes with a mouse-over description and a star rating. Curiously, only a few of them appear to be of the manga-style variety. As part of their branching out into new markets, Naver seems to be adding artists with more Western sensibilities. The one that resembles a traditional webomic the most is Shen’s Bluechair, a slice of life comedy strip.
So before I get started on this, here’s a little something more about webtoons: the interfaces are super versatile. You can read it like you always have read webcomics, presumably on your laptop. But you can also read it on your phone browser or an app. If you sign up for an account, you get notifications when a new strip comes out, keep track of your comments, and save your favorites. (I have my alerts on for the Webtoons app, and Bluechair seems to be putting out new strips all the freaking time.) It’s a system that not only beats traditional webcomics at their game, it’s actually more user-friendly and advanced than digital comics interfaces like Comixology. This isn’t some otaku version of “the Koreans are way superior to us in every way” tirade. Webcomic creators and digital comic progammers alike need to pay attention to what the Webtoons guys are doing.
Bluechair is a comic that’s meant to live on the phone. Shen draws his characters simplicity, like adorable little scribbles. Which means… it looks great on the tiny screens, but not so great when the images get blown up to the width of the browser. It’s not a problem with the webtoons that have sexy anime characters with a decent amount of detail, but with Bluechair? It doesn’t look so great.
Which doesn’t matter, though, since I personally am spending more of my me-time on my phone anyway. Desktops and laptops? Psssh. That’s purely for business now, bro. Like for Excel spreadsheets and paying your bills and doing your taxes. But when it’s time for fun, you bring out the small screen. And let me tell you: there ain’t nothing more fun than being able to read through a whole comic using just your thumb to scroll down from frame to frame. Seriously, guys, don’t knock it until you try it.
Most comics follow a pretty standard format. Typically sitting in a blue recliner, Shen addresses the readers and makes an observation. “I never remember making these comics.” “Making friends is hard as an adult.” “When I was little, I hated eating mixed foods.” “There’s only one way to make a perfect circle.” You know, the sort of things that pop into your mind when you’re in a sort of zen trance.
But then of course the comic takes a turns into the surreal. Like a reasonable thought about never remembering to make the comics eventually ends with Shen wondering how he got blood on his hands. Ah, life’s great adventure. You get a pretty good portrait of Shen himself: good natured but self-deprecatory, chill but struggling with self-esteem, but able to approach the minor inconveniences of life with a wry, low-key sense of humor. It’s almost like how I imagine hanging out with Chris Pratt would be like.
Shen also finds some interesting ways to connect with fans as well. Each strip begins with a featured panel of fan art of varying quality. Then, from time to time, Bluechair solicits ideas from readers, and then draws comics based on their answers. I think it benefits both parties: the readers get to see their ideas come to life, and Shen gets to work out some creative ideas he’d never come up with himself.
One of the things that Bluechair reminded me of was how effective the vertical format is at horror. You may remember some time ago that there was a Korean webcomic making the rounds that was totally scarifying. I even filmed a video of myself freaking out when it got to the money part. Why is that? I think it’s in part because you are in direct control of your fate. You are moving the slider or thumb-scrolling to your own demise… the comic equivalent of walking down a flight of creaky stairs to the spooky basement. There’s also the fact that you can’t see what’s waiting for you, hidden beyond the unseen edges of the next panel. Bluechair does a few comics in the same spirit, and they do a good job both setting the mood and managing expectations.
Bluechair is a fun strip, and it’s a good introduction to one of the slickest online comic interfaces out there. If you haven’t tried out webtoons yet, Bluechair is a great place to start.