By Tim Alper

Comic fever is highly contagious. It has already spilled overseas. Messenger apps like Kakao Talk and Line, as well as a host of others, have launched successful Japanese and simplified Chinese online comic book platforms, with many titles also available in English and other languages. Meanwhile, Netflix this year unveiled plans to launch a series based on "Love Alarm" (손사람 : 좋아하면 울리는), a popular Korean comic, marking a major first in the Korean comic universe.

Many of Korea’s biggest soap operas now begin life as online comics. These include "Misaeng" (미생), aired on cable channel tvN in 2014. The program was a runaway hit, scoring viewership ratings of over 10 percent, previously unheard of for a cable series. 

Comic book and soap opera fans alike are now eagerly anticipating next year’s TV adaptation of yet another online comic hit, "First Clean Up, Passionately" (일단 뜨겁게 청소하라). This romantic comedy follows the exploits of a wealthy cleaning company owner who falls for a neat-freak germaphobe. The TV version’s producers are hoping to cast top-billing actors, with the likes of Kim Yoo-jung reportedly in talks. 

For Korean language learners like me, comic books are a very beneficial resource. Many titles are free to download, and reading them lets you understand the sort of issues that now occupy young people's minds. Furthermore, comic bubble dialogue is usually comprised of short sentences, making these comics easier to read than full-on newspaper articles, and thus ideal for study purposes. They are also a good introduction to contemporary colloquialisms, essential if you want to have any idea as to what young people are saying to each other these days.

It's tempting to see the online comic book industry as some sort of Cinderella story, but you can trace its origins back over centuries of Korean art. Authors and artists have long considered the written word and images to be complementary. Particularly during Joseon times (1392-1910), the line between poetry and drawing became very blurry indeed. Many Joseon-era paintings feature not just pictures, but also short poems, all crafted with that indispensable tool of Joseon scholarship, the ubiquitous calligraphy brush.

Books were once the preserve of the nobles and ivory-tower academics, but as the 20th century dawned, they started to become available to ordinary folk. This led to the birth of manhwa graphic novels and deepening the image-text bond that exists in Korean literature.

As the country began to industrialize in the wake of the Korean War (1950-1953), the popularity of manhwa grew fast. Titles tackled a range of themes, varying from traditional folklore to fantastic visions of the future, and even realistic looks at contemporary life.

When I first came to Korea in 2005, the country was at the zenith of its manhwa fever. Everywhere you went, you would pass a manhwa rental shop. These stores were perpetually full, mostly with young students, usually borrowing armfuls of volumes at a time. At public saunas back then, you would see readers sitting on the floor in communal rooms, rifling through entire series of comics in a single sitting.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the advent of the smartphone has helped not only modernize, but diversify this artform. The paper manhwa book may have had its day, but its digital descendent is a perfect fit for the modern age.

Manhwa were never intended to be appeal to fans of highbrow literature or fine art. Rather, early manhwa pioneers sought to shake off the shackles of scholarship, democratizing art and making it accessible to both readers and would-be artists. Online comic strips, like manhwa, can be devoured at high speed and in large quantities. Launching your own online series is surprisingly easy, as there are so many platforms out there, all looking for inventive ideas from promising new authors.

When you consider that the online comic strip, or "webtoon," industry, which didn't even exist in 2005, is now worth in excess of USD $800 million, it's evident that online comics have really struck a chord with readers, and that they will do so for many years to come.

If you want to take a glimpse at the future of not only media, but also ever-evolving artistic spirits, perusing the latest popular webtoon titles provides no shortage of fascinating insights. 

Tim Alper is a writer and columnist, originally from the U.K., who has lived in Korea for more than ten years.