#parent | #kids | Webtoon Review | PCMag

You can subscribe to digital comic book reading services like Comixology Unlimited, Marvel Unlimited, and DC Universe, but if you’re sick of superheroes—and in 2020 who can blame you—there’s an attractive alternative called Webtoon. The service specializes in webtoons, or vertical-scrolling comics, from professional and amateur creators. What makes Webtoon a killer app, though, is that it offers everything to the reader for free. What’s the catch, you might ask? There are a few pesky content restrictions, but there’s an in-app currency called Coins that can help you get around them—if you’re willing to invest real money. Still, Webtoon’s positives far outweigh its negatives, and puts the service among the digital comic book service elite.

What Are Webtoons?

Webtoons are a form of digital comic that originated in South Korea. While American comic books are read left to right and manga is read right to left, webtoons are read vertically. The webtoons format was born out of traditional Korean manhwa during its transition to being a digital-first art form. As smartphones became ubiquitous in European and North American societies, webtoons quickly spread because their vertical format is easier to read on smart devices than traditional book-oriented comics and manga.

Overall, webtoons differentiate from comics and manga in a few key ways. They employ a vertical orientation that encourages scrolling on smart devices. Webtoons are also typically in color over back-and-white, since publishing on physical paper isn’t a concern. Many, though not all, also use music and animation that plays while the user reads each episode, creating a mixed media experience.

Webtoon, not to be confused with the format itself, is a global webtoons service that lets professional and amateur creators upload their digital comics and monetize them, and everyone else to read them for (mostly) free. As a mobile-first service, Webtoon puts most of its focus on the iOS and Android apps, while the website is mainly for uploading content. You can read stories, manage your subscribed series, and track recently read series, but you won’t be able to start reading on mobile and pick it back up on the web (or vice versa). You also can’t read series between mobile operating systems either. Comixology doesn’t suffer this issue.

Starting out as a Korean app in 2004, Webtoon has since expanded into multiple languages and countries and is now one of the most popular apps in the world (far more popular than anything Marvel or DC is doing these days). There are separate apps for Korea, Japan, and China, but the English language app also includes Mandarin, Thai, Indonesian, Spanish, and French. Any other language is handled by the service’s fan translation website.

The Price of Being Free

Everything on the Webtoon service can be read for free, but that price tag comes with some (small) caveats. For one, the app contains display ads in certain sections, as well as at the end of every webtoon. However, these ads are so non-intrusive that you might not even notice them there, or at least not mind their presence. What the service doesn’t do is hit you with annoying pop-up ads any time you open a new episode.

While the service itself doesn’t have much in the way of hidden fees, creators are allowed to put in place whatever restrictions they prefer. For example, some series have a Fast Pass that can be purchased to permanently unlock episodes before they would normally become available. Many of Webtoon’s completed Originals (more on this in a bit) use a Daily Pass model that offers one (or more) free episode each day, and makes it available to read for 14 days.

This drip feed of new content forces you to ponder your time’s worth, because you can read everything you want without paying—you just may need to be patient. It’s a way for Webtoon to ensure you come back for more each day, instead of binging the whole thing and moving on. This way they can replicate the series’ original weekly release schedule to some extent, or get you to pay up if you don’t want to wait.

webtoon daily pass

Coins cost real money, which can be purchased through Google Play or the App Store. The cost of a Fast Pass is typically 5 Coins, though it may vary depending on the series, while Daily Pass purchases cost 3 Coins an episode or 50 Coins for a 25-episode bundle. For reference, you can buy 10 Coins for $0.99, 50 Coins for $4.99, 100 Coins for $9.99, 300 Coins for $29.99, and 500 Coins for $49.99. Webtoon also bundles extra bonus Coins for your bigger purchases.

On top of purchasing Coins, Webtoon also has regular events that let you win a few coins if you can read a certain number of episodes from specific series over a set time period. It’s a great way to get readers interested in new series they may not already be reading, but be aware that the Coins you get from these events will expire after 30 days. The service keeps track of which Coins you bought and which you won.

Unfortunately, the Coins have a few additional restrictions that make things difficult. Coins do not carry over to different operating systems. Since these transactions take place in your device’s app store, currency cannot be transferred from one store to another. That means if you buy Coins on your Android smartphone, you cannot spend them on your iPad. Furthermore, if you’re bilingual and want to change between different languages, your Coins will not carry over from, say, English to Spanish.

Webtoon also cracks down pretty hard on pirating by deactivating your device’s ability to take a screenshot and limiting you to one device per account, with two changes allowed each month. Every episode you unlock has a clear warning against pirating the app’s content. Considering all the little irregularities between web and mobile and iOS and Android, it’s clear that (whether purposeful or not) your Webtoon account is not easily shared with others.

So, What’s on the App?

Forget about everything you’re familiar with from Marvel and DC. Webtoon only publishes creator-owned work that lacks any continuity between series (unless it’s by the same creative team) and most of the focus is on non-superhero stories. Still, if you’re familiar with manga or all-ages comics you know the kind of work to expect.

Everything is split between Originals and Canvas. Originals are series commissioned by Webtoon itself and often have an editor, a higher profile, and greater resources. Canvas series are uploaded by self-publishing creators, so they may be without an editor, proof reader, or other support. Aside from some awkward translations or the occasional typo, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference because there are many great series on both sides of the divide.

Beyond these distinctions, the content is dispersed among 16 genres, though many series are tagged as belonging to more than one. These genres include drama, fantasy, comedy, action, slice of life, romance, superhero, sci-fi, thriller, supernatural, mystery, sports, historical, heart-warming, horror, and informative.

webtoon popular rankings

Some of the service’s more popular series are being adapted into television series, including Lore Olympus, All of Us Are Dead, and Sweet Home at Netflix, Tower of God, Noblesse, and The God of High School at Crunchyroll, and many others on Korean and Chinese networks.

In my time on the app, I’ve enjoyed a good mix of Originals and Canvas series. My favorites include Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe, The Wolf & Red Riding Hood by Xuann, ShootAround by suspu, Bastard and Sweet Home by Youngchan Hwang and Carnby Kim, Lavender Jack by Dan Schkade, Cursed Princess Club by LambCat, Rotten by Goodguy, Live Forever by Raùl Trevino, Star Children by Ro-taniah, and Freaking Romance by Snailords.

If you need help figuring out what to read, the For You section of the app has all the recommendations. This page includes the series to which you are subscribed, new and popular Original and Canvas series, recently updated Originals, popular completed series (which may use the Daily Pass model), series popularity rankings, and the app’s genres.

Tap the Originals tab to see a breakdown of which original series are scheduled for an update on each day of the week, or select Completed to view those that have reached their official end. You can also see the titles broken down by genre or ranked by popularity. The Canvas tab shows recommended, ranked, and new series.

The Webtoon Reading Experience

Getting started is a simple process. Tap on the icon for a series you want to start reading to view the series page. Here, you will see buttons for Subscribe, Info (for a series summary and any other series from the creators), Download (if available), and share options. Under the series title, creative team, and synopsis are numbers for readership, subscribers, and ratings. Below that is a button to start reading from the first episode, and you may also see a button that links to the creative team’s Patreon. There’s also an episode list.

Each episode is read by scrolling down the page as if you were reading an article on your smartphone. The scrolling process is effortless and quickly becomes a convenient alternative to the left-to-right reading of American comic books. If you have a poor internet connection, the episode may be missing panels of art, but in my experience it was as easy as tapping the reload icon, moving into better Wi-Fi coverage, or disconnecting my phone from my spotty internet connection to fix the issue.

webtoon reader screenshotFreaking Romance by Snailords

When you get to the end of an episode, you will see a display ad, followed by notes from the creator, a link to the next chapter, as well as buttons for Subscribe, Share, and Report. You may also see another link to the creative team’s Patreon. A neat trick the app uses is requiring you to pull down on the screen to read the next episode. The transition is typically quick and smooth as it places you at the top of the next episode.

At the end of each episode page is the comment section, which is actually pretty tame compared to the comments on any other part of the internet. By default, the app shows the top three comments, but if you tap on a comment you can open up the full comment section. Here, you can write your own comment, sort by Top or Newest, reply, agree, or disagree with other comments, and report a comment.

Tap the screen at any time to open the reader’s menu overlay. At the top of the screen is a bulleted icon that will take you back to the series’ list of episodes. Some series also show an ellipsis button, which will open options for certain functions, depending on what the series creator has allowed. Options that may be available to you are Download, Share, Screenshot, or Report. If the episode supports music, there will be a hovering music note button that can turn the sound on and off. At the bottom of the menu overlay are buttons to like the issue, open the comment section, or go back or forward one issue.

Managing What You’re Reading

The service throws a lot at you, but thankfully there are some useful ways to manage what you are reading or hoping to get into soon. The My section tracks everything you are currently reading under the Recent tab. Under Subscribed is a list of all the series to which you have subscribed—which the app caps at 300 Originals and 300 Canvas series.

webtoon recent reads

You can download an episode (or multiple episodes) only if the creators have made the feature available. If they have, tap the download icon at the top of the series’ list of episodes and select what you want. You can long press an episode, then drag to select multiple episodes at once. All downloads will remain available for 30 days before disappearing. They live in the appropriately named Downloads section.

When you unlock an episode using Daily Pass or Fast Pass, they appear in the Unlocked section under the My tab. What makes this all even easier is that there is a checkmark button that lets you select series to delete from any of these lists, making things more manageable when you finish a series or no longer wish to read one.

In order to help you keep track of everything you are reading or subscribed to, the service sends a healthy amount of push notifications. If you don’t want to be bothered by these kinds of notifications, Webtoon lets you turn off everything, or only get notified about very specific things. The addition of a Sleep Mode also lets you turn off notifications during specific times. This all feels very refreshing, particularly when Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe send out push notifications to advertise new available series and giveaways, but give you no options to control which alerts you get.

A Word of Caution to Parents

Webtoons are particularly popular among teenagers, but that doesn’t mean all content is appropriate for every young child. While Webtoon’s Terms of Use state that you must be at least 13 years of age to use the app, there’s really no way to monitor this because all you need is an email address to sign up and you can start reading even without an account.

webtoon daily updates

The good news is that Webtoon has a strict policy against depicting nudity, sexual acts, excessive violence, and gore, as well as a community policy that you can read here. Many of the series you find on Webtoon were created to be all-ages content, but there are still many that are clearly intended for a more mature audience. The issue here is that there is no age rating system to distinguish the two and no way to filter out certain content, other than an initial warning when you start a “mature” series.

On top of this, the app’s Coins use real money and Webtoon has no mechanism for preventing children from purchasing these coins with your payment methods in the App Store or Google Play. If your child ends up buying Coins (whether on purpose or accidental), you will need to get a refund from your phone’s app store; if they spend those Coins, Webtoon will not provide a refund. Since only one device can be used per account at any one time, there’s also no way for you to set up an account and have them use yours.

For these reasons, it’s not recommended that younger children use the app, unless under direct supervision. For everyone else, rest assured that the app isn’t completely filled with sex, drugs, and violence, but it may be a good idea to remain aware of the content your child is consuming here, just in case.

The Final Panel

Many of us grew up reading comics starring Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman, but kids these days aren’t reading things printed on paper and sold at the local comic book shop. Instead, they are flocking to apps like Webtoon, that offer them beautiful art, fantastic stories, and relatable characters at a price point they can actually afford. It’s no wonder the service boasts over six million daily users.

More importantly, Webtoon is fostering a place for young creators to upload their work and immediately gain a following. The website lays out a guide on how to start publishing through the service and make money on the app. It’s unlikely anyone is making a living off these webtoons alone (yet), but it’s already helped many creators go from amateur to professional. It’s far more than companies like Marvel and DC have done for the industry in years.

Technology connects readers to communities and creators far faster than traditional publishing can, and it’s making a dent. Webtoon, and the greater vertical art form, is eating away at the future target audience the US comic book industry needs to survive. The app isn’t perfect. It needs cross-platform reading, a better in-app currency, and some kind of rating system. Still, Webtoon offers superb digital comic book content.

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