The Weekend Binge: "Today's Webtoon"
Webtoons are a massive cultural force in South Korea. Fuelled by ultra-fast internet and a populace hooked on their smartphones, the webtoon industry and its by-products (such as k-drama adaptations) have grown tremendously in the past few years. Current estimates put the value of South Korea’s webtoon industry at nearly US$400 million! So it was only a matter of time before we had a k-drama that takes a look at the lives of webtoon artists, their management teams, and everyone who works hard to deliver episodes to millions of waiting readers every week.
On Ma-eum (Kim Se-jeong, Business Proposal) is an ex-judo athlete who dreams of working in the webtoon industry. She finally gets a chance when she lands a temporary gig as a contractual employee at Neon, a web company that publishes webtoons. While she gets to work with her favorite webtoon artists, she soon realizes that even if she gives the job her all, there’s still no guarantee of a permanent position when the year is through. To make matters worse, there are rumors that the entire webtoon department will be closed down if sales don’t pick up.
But thanks to her many years as a competitive athlete, Ma-eum remains unfazed and unjaded. At Neon, she quickly throws herself into learning the ropes of artist management and office politics. From protecting an aging artist who now finds it increasingly difficult to keep drawing, to championing rookie artists who have untested styles, and to giving difficult feedback to problematic artists, Ma-eum embraces the challenges of the webtoon industry while working closely with her incredibly patient mentor Seok Ji-hyung (Daniel Choi, The Ghost Detective) and the ever-sunny Jang Man-cheol (Park Ho-san, Would You Like a Cup of Coffee?).
Adapted from Matsuda Naoko’s manga series Jūhan Shuttai! (Second Print Run Confirmed!, or Sleepeeer Hit!), Today’s Webtoon is a sweet and entertaining love letter to webtoons and their fans everywhere. It’s also a love letter to everyone who works behind the scenes to ensure that episodes are released at the quality fans expect — from the artists, to their management, and even their families. Truly, Today’s Webtoon is a show that celebrates the highs and lows of teamwork in the service of great art.
While it may not be as dramatic or as depressing as classic work dramas like Misaeng: Incomplete Life (2014) or On the Verge of Insanity (2021), Today’s Webtoon does have its share of painful work realities and doesn’t make light of them. Webtoon PDs ("producer-directors" or people assigned to artists who ensure that the artists deliver their comic episodes on time) surprisingly have tons of drama as they go about their work. Through the eyes of rookie PDs like Ma-eum, we see them navigate the difficulties of artist management and the unspoken rules of the webtoon world and its politics. We also see the lengths PDs will go to ensure their artists are comfortable and protected. From running unrelated personal errands to ordering food to shielding their artists from malicious rumors and dangerous stalkers, the webtoon PD's job is never really done. But to the show’s credit, it’s not always doom and gloom. Every episode contains lovely insights on how we approach work, and what kind of work is worth investing our talents and efforts on. Ma-eum's progressively apt similes and metaphors for a PD are indeed fitting — the webtoon artist's biggest cheerleader, the "solutionist" (problem-solver), the running mate, a Christopher Columbus who embarks on an adventure to discover new artists, and a gardener who looks after the trees and flowers, i.e. the artists.
We also get to see how the scrappy team members of the Neon Webtoon Department mentor their rookies, how they welcomingly train their newbies (onboarding scenes are rarely seen in workplace k-dramas), how the pros give feedback to their artists and young PDs, and how they navigate politics when other webtoons start playing dirty (again, protecting whistleblowers is a rarity). From the ever-present threat of closing down to navigating unpaid salaries and broken promises, to hunting for new talent, Today’s Webtoon also makes a strong case for how critical the webtoon industry is, not only to artists and readers but to the paychecks of the “shadow artists,” the people behind the scenes.
Today’s Webtoon is also a great reminder that major artistic works are never produced alone. We often have the image of a solitary artist, hunched over his drawing board, slaving away till the morning comes, and we think that’s all there is to producing a webtoon. But this k-drama generously showcases how crucial the artist’s management team is for audiences to enjoy high-quality creative outputs. It offers a fascinating look at how creative control and compromise are navigated between webtoon creators, their managers, and their audiences. This is especially pronounced in the relationship between On Ma-eum and the eccentric artist Shin Dae-ryuk (Kim Do-hoon, Doctor John), whose webtoons are fuelled by his own personal nightmares and fears. We also see how a webtoon team protects artists from painful comments and viral fan opinions, and how they still manage to communicate difficult feedback to artists without disheartening them entirely.
The show also does a mighty fine job of showing how different artists approach their creative processes and showcases the painful toll it takes on everyone involved. We see the psychological prices the artists pay, the mental blocks they need to overcome, the hurt when their episodes aren’t well-received, and the way they persevere despite having to face myriads of personal issues and tumultuous feedback. They show how webtoon artists have to work more than 12 hours a day, and what happens when they run out of creative inspiration.
Today's Webtoon also shows how incredibly difficult it is to become a webtoon A-lister. In fact, nearly hundreds of artists post their work online every day, hoping to become the next big webtoon star. Interestingly enough, Today’s Webtoon also pays attention to webtoon writers who don’t make it; those who put in years to prepare for a debut that painfully does not come. What does one make of artists whose dreams are dashed before they even begin? People often have no idea how saturated the webtoon market is, or how many artists never even get to debut at all. But the art world is littered with more failed artists than those who succeed, and artists who manage to debut aren’t even guaranteed any security. The show doesn’t gloss over the fact that a successful debut is only the start of many, many thankless nights, and a well-received episode is only the beginning of many more grueling deadlines to meet.
So whether you are a webtoon fan or a total beginner (or even if you’ve never read a webtoon in your life), Today’s Webtoon is a gentle but grounded introduction to the massive webtoon industry and to those who run it.
Available on Viu, 16 episodes
Stream if: You like casual workplace dramas.
Skip if: You’re looking for a romance. There’s none to be had here, even if Daniel Choi is an incredibly attractive (and unproblematic!) mentor. It seems like K-drama doesn’t like pairing up mentors and their mentees. The "Han Ji-pyeong-ification" of hot k-drama mentors continues.