So recently I’ve started reading more translated Korean webtoons on sites like Webtoon and Lezhin, and I’ve noticed a significant difference in how webtoons are formatted, paced, and designed vs. western webcomics.
(Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read that many webtoons but I’ve read a lot of webcomics)
And most of these differences boil down to one simple difference:
Formatting for Print vs. Formatting for Mobile Devices
Most western webcomics are shaped like pages in a book, or newspaper strips, out of the expectation that they will eventually be collected into a print volume. Korean Webtoons are formatted to be read conveniently and efficiently on smartphones, and are usually very narrow and vertically long, with a lot of scrolling. Webtoons are also updated by chapter or part of chapter once a week or so, while webcomics are usually updated page by page several times a week, though the exact schedule depends on the comic.
Part of an update of Cheese in the Trap side-by-side with a page from Never Satisfied.
You can also see that Cheese in the Trap has considerably more gutter space- or space between panels, and that speech and thought bubbles tend to bleed into that gutter space. In print, having a lot of white space is inefficient, but for comics designed to be read scrolling on a smartphone, the wide gutters are used to create breathing room between panels.
Western webcomics tend to use techniques and styles from print comics, probably because America has a strong, well-established print comic industry that a lot of webcartoonists work in or want to work in. A webcomic is very rarely someone’s full time job, simply because webcomics are usually put up online by the creators for free and are supported through ads, merchandise, and patreon.
Webtoons in Korea are separate from print manhwa entirely- hosting sites like Naver and Daum pay the creators to host their comics, unlike in the US where everyone puts their comics up for free and hopes for an eventual financial return. It’s rare to find a webtoon on its own in the wild or on the author’s personal website, while most popular western webcomics are on their own sites. Western webcomics hubs like smackjeeves and tapastic have no barriers to entry and are free to use, not curated like Korean webtoons are.
Instead of expecting a print volume of a webtoon, a TV drama series is more likely. The aforementioned Cheese in the Trap aired in Korea on television between January and March 2016, six years after the webtoon was launched on Naver. Webtoon fans and creators also refer to story arcs as episodes, and multiple episodes as seasons, as though they were TV shows. Western webcomics, in contrast, are comprised of pages and chapters, echoing the print comics from which they came.
Webtoons are also a lot more decompressed. Decompressed storytelling is common to Asian comics- it basically means there’s a lot more focus on mood, atmosphere, and space and there’s more panels and spaces that aren’t 100% necessary for moving the plot forward. Scott McCloud talked about it in the books Understanding Comics and Making Comics.
While a western webcomic has to have something happening each page to keep current readers interested, a webtoon that updates in longer bursts can have more breathing room. The Print vs. Digital thing comes into play again here: the longer and more leisurely the pace, the more it will cost to print.
The one thing I’ve noticed that runs counter to the print vs. digital idea is that western webcomics are more likely to use animated panels or pages for effect than webtoons. I haven’t read any webtoons that made use of animation to any extent. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the way they’re distributed, but I don’t know.
The last thing I want to mention is how some webcomics creators have started using webtoon techniques in their work, in addition to more traditional american stuff. I really love the webcomic Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran, and I love how much it’s grown and improved over the years. Gran uses animations, pages of varying lengths and widths, vivid colors and white space to create an emotionally impactful, atmospheric work.