Webtoon: A New Trend in Korean Digital Comics with Manhwa writer Yoon Tae-ho

A few weeks back, Korean Class Massive wrote about The London Book Fair – Korea Market Focus 2014 .

One of the events was a special talk with Korean webtoon writer, Yoon Tae-ho, also in attendance was ILYA, author of the graphic novel ‘Room for Love’. The theme shows a parallel to Yoon Tae-ho’s work with the difference being ILYA’s work is only in the traditional media print. The event was hosted by the Korean Cultural Centre, UK and I  was fortunate to be a part of the audience

First off, a Webtoon is an animated cartoon that is published online in episodes. The Korean term for it is Manhwa. This is fast becoming an important trend reaching a lot of adult audience. An estimated 10 million Koreans are downloading webtoons everyday. The comics are published on a website known as Portal.

Yoon Tae-ho is a renowned graphic artist who works both in the traditional media print and Webtoon. He is from Gwangju, South Korea. From an early age, he had shown keen interest in drawing, which led him to apprentice under Jo Woon-Hak and Huh Young-man, who are Known as some of greatest in the field. In 1993, he debuted his first work ‘Emergency Landing’. He later became popular for writing the Webtoons, Moss and Misaeng, leading literary critics to call him as one of the leading voices of the next generation of Korean cartoonists.

미생~Misaeng

After a brief introduction by Paul Gravett, the chair for the occasion, he went straight into the Q & A section.

Paul Gravett: How different were the Opportunities from working in Print only and now working in digital. What are the Pros and cons?

Yoon Tae-Ho: When you publish Physical books it is all about the editor’s approval of your work. If they don’t like it then it wouldn’t be published. But, with Webtoons it is easier to convince portal manager of your vision and the barrier is lower. The other side of that is with the readers. If you publish a physical book, you need to have loyal readers who would go to a bookstore to buy it, but with Webtoons, there’s a wider base of people largely due to how easily accessible it is. You might go online to check a different thing but end up reading a comic book.

Paul Gravett: What I find interesting is the level of connection and efficiency with publishing online, there is more interaction with your readers what with about 20,000 comments a day.

Yoon Tae-ho: When you have physical books, you usually get feedback a month or two after it is published, your readers tell you what they thought of the book and even suggestion on how to make it better. But you can’t fix a book that has already been published. But with webtoons, you get your response as soon as every episode is written. You learn from the comments readers leave at the bottom of each episode. Now this won’t necessarily change the fundamental essence of your work, but, you will be able to fine tune it to the taste of your readers.

With my work Misaeng, it is a story about a Salary man, but I have never worked in an office, so I didn’t know much about it. I had to conduct interviews to learn about office life and also thanks to my readers comments, I learnt a lot and it was also a meaningful experience.

ILYA: Moss was delivered as a scrolling while Misaeng was presented as a Page Unit. Can you tell us a bit about this difference.

Yoon Tae-ho: In moss, I published it online in scroll format to bring the readers central focus on the picture itself rather than the word bubble. However, when it was time to publish Moss into a book, because the word bubble was placed outside the frame, it was difficult to rearrange it to fit a book format and in the process the picture had to be compromised because the word bubble was added to the picture panel.

That was why when writing Misaeng, I finished the story before I separated it so as to keep focus completely on the centre of the artwork and why the word bubble is on the outside, so as not to take away focus from the drawing.

It can be compared to a musician creating an album, the final goal is to create an album and not performing a concert. But in the case with the scroll format, the final album was sacrificed for the sake of a concert. That is why I prefer to finish my book before breaking it down into frames.

From L-R: Paul, ILYA and Yoon.

Paul Gravett: In your stories, the characters have struggle and issues and are not the perfect role models. Is this because it is on the web that negativity and social realism can be expressed in complex forms unlike published Manhwa where the editor might say you can’t portray such characters as they might be unappealing to the audience.

Yoon Tae-ho: As an artist I think it is important to record reality of what is happening in the world. You have a responsibility to your readers. I don’t want to give a binary definition of a hero and non-hero, I don’t want to separate it. I believe my readers will be able to follow my story and understand the reality of my stories and they will connect with it and come to the conclusions on their own.

Paul Gravett: Can you explain the Financial Model of Webtoons?

Yoon Tae-ho: The portal where webtoons are published pays you for each episode and for the final work. And with webtoons, each episode serves as a brochure of your work. If the film industry wants to purchase the right to a webtoon, this makes it easier and more engaging because they can keep track of the views, readers comments, and loyalty to a story so it can help in their decision, which is good for a writer.
Also another method to earn income is when company’s place adverts on your page related to the content you write about. Even though the episodes are free, if you want the finished product/stories you have to pay and the artist has the right to decide the price, either high or low and because I put a high price, it gained me enemies. (This caused a general laughter in the room).

Source: KCCUK

Paul Gravett: I take it that you have the copyright to your Work?

Yoon Tae-ho: The artist have the right to all their stories and revenue form advert. The portal is just a site for publishing, they do not own the content.

Paul Gravett: As an artist, do you need the Portal? Can’t you just create your own website to publish on?

Yoon Tae-ho: In Korea, a Portal is like an online profile for yourself. It is not just Manhwa that is on the website, you can do so many things there like check your e-mails. So if Korean writers start their own websites for webtoons, I don’t think it’ll pick up like the portal. Because people are already using the portal and koreans value their time so they like to do a few things at once.

At this point, ILYA mentioned how he loved the model of publishing webtoons and how it was set up. He mentioned how he wrote his book in 8 months, doing 10 to 12 pages a week and it was a struggle. But with Yoon, he does about 30 pages twice a week which is about 240 panels. He went on to ask Yoon “Do you have a life”? “Do you Sleep”?, there was obviously a general laughter in the audience. Paul asked if he had assistants?

Yoon Tae-ho: Yes I have an assistant. My life may seem unhappy to others but I feel so fulfilled. I Sleep 3 out of 7 days a week. And I sometime spend days in the studio. Each work I do completely consume my life at the time. The artist I look up to is Huh Young-man, a monumental artist who created hundreds of work. So far I have only created 30. If you look at the time I spent making my work, with Moss it was 5 years and 4 years and a few months for Misaeng. If I keep up with this I wonder what I’ll achieve when I’m 60 so I feel sleeping is a waste of time because I have so much I want to accomplish. People tell me I need a life or a hobby, so I got a bicycle and got so much into it that I’ll cycle a 100km. So now If I have extra time, I sleep or have a drink with my friends and I am satisfied with that.

Paul Gravett:Can you tell us about your latest Project.

Yoon Tae-ho: As you know Korea is a divided country and surprisingly the younger generation are in a way unaware of the Korean war history and I think it is too early for us to be ignorant of it. So I’m using my new work to showcase that. It is about the time from after the Japanese occupation, end of WW2 and when American allies came to Incheon. I want to depict the pain of that time and how it has dragged along to now. I want to show how it was like to be an individual in that difficult time and the result of the politicians reactions to issues relating to the war.

Paul Gravett:What is the effect of the Movie adaptations of Webtoons?

Yoon Tae-ho: Comic book writing is a very private process. It is personal to you, so when you think of it being shown on the screen, you make it suitable and relatable to readers which is positive.
However, the negative side is when the writer realizes that when a comic has been turned into a movie, it represents a huge success for them. So they write their comics around the possibility of it turning into a film, loosing the uniqueness and originality of the Art, because writers think of things such as production costs if it does get turned into a movie. This goes against the spirit of comics also loosing the brilliance of your ideas which I think is not good.

This brings us to the end of the Q & A session.

Overall I believe this was a very insightful talk about the world of Manhwa and what happens behind the scenes. Before attending this event I wasn’t very much interested in comics in general, however I have been enthralled by Mr Yoon’s passion for his work that I have decided to check it out and see what is keeping 10 million people interested everyday. I intend to Watch Moss as soon as possible and I shall eagerly await the release of Misaeng, which is being adapted into a film. I liked the idea of incomplete and complete life and would very much like to explore it more.

I managed to get an autograph from Yoon and I think he has the coolest signature ever, I didn’t get what he was doing at first but check out the finished result below.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the fascinating Mr Yoon, I thought the entire talk was very interesting. I would also like to mention that his passion and commitment for what he does left me inspired to go after what I want and spend as much time as possible doing what I love.

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About the Author

Rabiatu A Bobboi

Rabi is a West African girl in a love Affair with East Asia, or as I like to say I'm a Korean Geek. I have my little bubble on the internet where I share my love for the 'Land of Morning Calm'. This usually involves me writing about traipsing around London/Nigeria exploring the Korean delight it has to offer. I also write about my adventures self-studying the Korean language, indulging KPop and KDrama plus a bit of randomness in between.