Korean webtoons have emerged as a niche and novel source of inspiration for streaming giants and binge-worthy content for global Koreaboos. Tipped to be the next big genre of Hallyu, can webtoon-based K-dramas usher in a new era of content that sustains the K-entertainment hype?
Just five days after its release on 10 November 2023, the official teaser for Netflix’s Sweet Home Season 2 reached almost 640,000 views on YouTube. The first season of the monster apocalypse series established itself as a global streaming phenomenon in 2020, snatching the #1 spot in eight regions and a spot in the Top 10 in 42 others – so the second season was bound to be a hit.
“They certainly didn’t waste their 3 years for this season! Can’t wait, this looks amazing🔥,” commented YouTube user @airbreather3510 on the teaser video. With anticipation for Season 2 building, fans are collectively rewatching the first season in what seems to be a streaming tradition of dusting off memory cobwebs before a new season airs.
One thing that audiences may not be aware of, though, is that this beloved Netflix series is based on a webtoon. Similar to All of Us Are Dead, Itaewon Class, Kingdom, Love Alarm, Business Proposal and a lot more made-for-Netflix content, pick a K-drama with an interesting plot twist and chances are it’s based on a webtoon.
But what makes webtoons an ideal content format for streaming adaptations?
According to Song Jae-jung, head screenwriter of webtoon-turned-TV series Yumi’s Cells, with K-drama being a Hallyu staple it now requires more money to produce episodes and hire A-list actors that would pull in viewers. But with webtoons being readily available online, diverse and original stories that derive from webtoons have become easier for TV execs to get their hands on.
Birthed from a culture of “scanlation” or the fan-led scanning of manga and manhwa pages translated into English, each comic page is laid out for seamless scrolling on digital screens. Eventually, this became the designated format in webtoon platforms like Naver WEBTOON, Daum and Amazon Fliptoon.
Webtoons boast infinite stories in various experimental and sometimes overlapping genres. Due to their expansive format, stories can run indefinitely like Lore Olympus – which is still ongoing despite starting in 2018 and having over 250 episodes.
Webtoon platforms also let creators tailor new “episodes” based on reader demand, as comment sections allow for organic interactions and a tight-knit community that can last years. As webtoon fans share obscure, niche and novel stories, they have evolved from an online activity that revelled in relative obscurity to a media juggernaut in and of themselves.
Webtoon fans can now get their hands on merch, attend international conventions, spot their webtoon faves on subway billboards, and inspire live adaptations of Western narratives like Heartstopper. One webtoon inspired by Gen Z boy band ENHYPEN even got turned into its own theme park in Lotte World, providing fans with an IRL immersive experience that celebrates overlapping fandoms.
Now adapted for live-action, webtoon-based K-dramas are responsible for both local and global acclaim of Korean actors like Business Proposal's Seol In-ah, who is now the muse of luxury brand Marhen.J, and Song Kang, dubbed the son of Netflix after appearing in K-drama hits Sweet Home, Love Alarm, and Nevertheless.
And with #webtoon gaining 30.4 billion views on TikTok, streaming giants like Amazon Prime and Apple TV are following Netflix’s strategy of tapping into the webtoon fandom’s cultural cachet to build up their audience bases.
As webtoons become a way for South Korea to platform its unique media and entertainment culture to the world, webtoon fandoms aren't just breaking the internet; they’re breaking borders and making content go global faster than people can scroll.