Death of young webtoon artist sparks controversy over harsh working conditions

A teaser for the upcoming animated series adapted from popular webtoon, "Solo Leveling" / Courtesy of Kakao Entertainment

By Park Han-sol

In the wake of the death of 37-year-old webtoon illustrator Jang Sung-rak last month following an unexpected health issue, concerns have been once again mounting over webcomics artists' poor, harsh working conditions. Since 2018, Jang had served as an illustrator for the globally popular fantasy action series, "Solo Leveling."

"While the causes of the late artist's death may be attributed to multiple other factors … we can clearly see that he was subject to physically demanding working conditions," the Webtoon Association said in its recent statement, adding that it was time to address properly the harsh working conditions of the job as a serious and chronic issue within the webcomics industry.

Citing the results of in-depth interviews it has conducted with a number of webtoon artists in the field, the association highlighted that over 90 percent of the respondents have felt burdened with the number of frames they must produce for the webcomics series every week: 60 to 70 per episode.

In the case of "Solo Leveling," each weekly episode contains 70 to 80 frames on average, with some nearing 100.

As webtoons are gaining momentum to be recognized as an established medium of entertainment internationally, more quality illustrations are naturally being sought out by readers, making the artists' workloads more excessive than ever, the organization said.

Instead of relegating such an issue to being the "personal problem" of an individual artist, it urged the concerned parties to launch official dialogues to seek an effective, industrywide solution.

"All players in the industry ― webtoon platforms, content providers and artists ― must come to an understanding in regards to illustrators' current excessive workloads and guarantee their rights to health," it continued.

"Even at this moment, webtoon artists are dying a slow death … They should not be treated like expendable goods," the organization stated.

Redice Studio announced last month that Jang died of a brain hemorrhage on July 23, adding that the artist had been suffering from an unspecified chronic illness.

His "Solo Leveling" is a fantasy action series centering on a weak hunter's struggle for survival in a world full of humans with supernatural powers, until he is given the rare ability to "level up" one day and comes to possess unmatched strength.

Published in both the original web novel and comic formats, the series has surpassed 14.2 billion views worldwide as of the beginning of this year.

It nabbed the Piccoma award, granted by the Japanese webtoon subscription service of the same name, in both 2019 and 2020, and is scheduled for an animated adaptation in Japan next year.

Park Han-sol

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