Joseon Attorney: Webtoons on the Screen

In terms of general popularity, Joseon Attorney wasn't exactly a major hit. The historical fusion drama ended with television ratings of 2.9% in South Korea on May 20th, never getting much higher than 3% since its premiere on March 31. For the sake of comparison, on the same night in the same timeslot, Dr. Cha, a drama about a housewife turned medical resident, could hit ratings around 18%. Nor did Joseon Attorney have much of a presence in English when it was running, mostly because it was distributed worldwide by the video streaming platform Rakuten Viki rather than Netflix. Yet the relatively unremarkable nature of this series underscores the fact that webtoons in South Korea have increasingly emerged as a chief form of source material for television dramas - and that the mere potential of such has been a boon to both industries.

There’s no shortage of more famous webtoon adaptations from South Korea, although, like Joseon Attorney, their roots as webtoons are often obscured; in English-language markets particularly, South Korean webtoons are very much niche content. Bloodhounds, which premiered on Netflix June 9th, was based on a webtoon. See You in My 19th Life, which debuted last weekend on Netflix internationally and South Korean television locally, is also based on a webtoon. Significantly, the forthcoming second series of the popular superhero-type drama, The Uncanny Counter, will be airing after See You in My 19th Life in the same timeslot; it is also based on a webtoon.

But as with any creative industry, it’s often not the bigger, flashier hits that give a good idea as to current fashions. As the title implies, Joseon Attorney is about a lawyer, and is set in the Joseon era of Korea - specifically 1476, in the seventh year of the reign of Seongjong. These details aren’t entirely relevant to the story, which is why the television adaptation omits them. The webtoon includes them because grounding the seemingly goofy comic tone of such historical webtoons in past reality is key to their success, as well as their international popularity. By 'international' I mean that South Korean webtoons are especially popular throughout southeast Asia, and the prominent appearance of South Korean traditional clothing is always a good tell for a comic’s national origins.

Joseon Attorney is also a fusion comic, in that the legal drama and historical drama are mixed so that the exact nuances of the cases aren’t as formal as would be expected in a contemporary legal drama. Indeed, the first case, which deals with a small merchant being bullied out of his marketplace for not paying protection money, explicitly hinges on the protagonist's assertion that the laws at issue are obscure and arcane to the point that they no longer matter as legal precedent. But in the silliest, most whimsical twist, our lead character, Kang Han-soo, turns out to be just bluffing with this entire argument - merely assuming, correctly, that neither opposing counsel nor the judge would cross-reference whether the old law he has cited is valid or not.

Kang Han-soo holding forth on Ming Dynasty jurisprudence re: libations. The law in question is intended for the regulation of large-scale alcohol production; however, because Korean manufacturers operate on a smaller scale, they should be covered under a Joseon-specific law, rather than a Chinese law with no local applicability.

Kang Han-soo does not actually know himself whether the old law had been superseded by the new one; his strategy is to showboat - implying to the crowd that a verdict in favor of the protection racket is fundamentally a verdict in favor of Chinese influence, the old law having come directly from the Ming Dynasty. The contemporary appeal of such a twist is easy enough to see, both in terms of writing as well as popular nationalist appeal. After all, who doesn’t want to avoid having their laws written by other countries?

The continued political relevance of such a plot point is especially striking, given that the webtoon version of Joseon Attorney started all the way back in 2015. Written by Author Jung and drawn by Shim Kun, Joseon Attorney is also notable for its not especially prestigious roots. It runs on the relatively low-tier South Korean webtoon service Bomtoon, which doesn't license comics in English as aggressively as rivals like Naver (which owns the English-language "Webtoon" platform) and Kakao (which owns the rival platform Tapas). But, like Naver and Kakao, Bomtoon is fairly aggressive about paywalling its material, or at least requiring a free membership. New chapters of Joseon Attorney come out a little less than once a week, but you’ll only get as far as August of 2022 before the website requires that you pay in some form of digital currency.

The model’s not pretty, and makes Joseon Attorney quite difficult to access for those webtoon readers from western countries that can read Korean (there is no English translation). Nevertheless, the work has come to define the careers of both Author Jung and Shim Kun. While Shim Kun’s body of work prior to the start of Joseon Attorney wasn’t awful, it was much more scattershot. His best-known prior work was probably this comic guide to the online multiplayer game World of Tanks, which led to him being able to make a more serious comic titled Red Witch, viewable here, also set in the World of Tanks universe.

Pan-gyeol nae-li-getta!! The court announces that a verdict is imminent.

Once Joseon Attorney got going, though, Shim Kun appears to have stopped doing such 'commercial work' - which is something more akin to doing marketing in the western understanding. In English-speaking countries, social media and Patreon have become increasingly important to comic creators trying to fund their work; in South Korea, portal web sites like Bomtoon are able to provide more consistent work, although it's difficult to guess how good of a living it is. In this way, a lot of the cultural importance of South Korean webtoons and their worldwide popularity aren’t a matter of South Korean people themselves being unusually creative. It is the means of webtoon distribution that gives the creators a chance to find a solid audience for an original work without having to tirelessly promote themselves, as is the norm for freelancers.

The production end of South Korean comics marks a significant deviation from those of the United States and Japan, and gives South Korea a big advantage in terms of putting original works in front of readers. Joseon Attorney isn’t just a hybrid of historical and legal drama. It also represents a fairly mainstream approach to the distribution of genre stories that have broad appeal. They don't need to be huge hits - just finding the right audience is good enough.