Web comics warriors adventurers, Webtoon digital disruption story

New people are reading digital comics. Behind a character head from the comic series "Yumi's Cells" is Ken Kim, who is in charge of Webtoon's business in North America.

New people are reading digital comics. Behind a character head from the comic series "Yumi's Cells" is Ken Kim, who is in charge of Webtoon's business in North America.

People are reading more comics that they can read from top to bottom.

Web comics have become very popular because they have reached a group of readers that the industry had ignored for a long time: young women.

Fans have kept the comic book business going for decades by going to their local comic shops every week to buy the latest issues about their favorite cape-and-cowl heroes. The Wednesday Warriors are named for the day that new books usually come out, which is still the case. They read a lot of printed comics and tend to be older and mostly men.

But now, all you need is a smartphone. Digital disruption is changing the world of comics in the same way that it has changed journalism, music, movies, and TV. In recent years, the number of people reading web comics has grown by leaps and bounds. One reason for this is that Gen Z and Millennial women, who had been ignored for a long time, are now reading them. Most of the stories they offer, like one about a young woman fighting sexism in the world of e-sports or a retelling of a Greek myth with a focus on romance, are free and scroll vertically on smartphones, which is how most people under 25 read.

And they have helped a new generation of creators become stars.

“Even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be doing this,” said Kaitlyn Narvaza, 28, of San Diego, who goes by instantmiso on Webtoon, where her series “Siren’s Lament” has been seen more than 430 million times. “As American creators, as American women authors and comic artists, we have these chances to share these love stories. Before, we didn’t have those chances.”

Webtoon started in Korea in 2004 and is the biggest digital comics platform in the world. More than half of its 82 million monthly users are women, the company said.

Readers have been drawn to the platform by hits that aren’t typical good-versus-evil stories. In “Lookism,” a lonely young man wakes up in a tall, handsome body; in “The Remarried Empress,” the main character is, well, remarried; and in “unOrdinary,” the main character is a teenager with a secret past that threatens to topple the social order at his high school. (“There are enemies around every corner,” the description says.)

In “Let’s Play,” a young woman who wants to make video games is the main character. Its creator, Leeanne Krecic, who quit her job in IT a few years ago to focus on comics, said, “It’s a romance comic with gaming or a gaming romance comic.” She thinks that readers can relate to how hard it is for the main character to balance work and dating.

Kaitlyn Narvaza, from San Diego, is one of the creators who have become famous in the world of digital comics. On Webtoon, she is known as instantmiso.

She said, “Most American comics have been about heroes, which is great and there’s nothing wrong with that.” “But in Korea and Japan, they’ve been telling the high school romance story.”

Some digital comics have been popular with people who don’t just read them on their phones. As a graphic novel, Rachel Smythe’s “Lore Olympus,” which retells Greek myth like a soap opera and focuses on Hades and Persephone’s love, was No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list last year. And other series with more traditional plots of violence, horror, and suspense, like “Hellbound,” “Sweet Home,” and “All of Us Are Dead,” became hits on Netflix.

The success of these digital platforms has caught the attention of traditional publishers. Webtoon has made deals with Marvel, DC, and Archie Comics to make new digital stories with some of their most popular characters.

The company said that Webtoon alone made $900 million in sales on its platform in 2021, up from $656 million in 2020. Since it’s free to read comics, most of the money comes from advertising and selling early access to favorite series to fans.

Print comics are not dead, though. In fact, their sales went through the roof because so many people were stuck at home and bored. Experts think that the total sales of comics and graphic novels in North America will be about $2.08 billion in 2021. This number includes the sales of both traditional publishers and digital publishers, which only add up to $170 million.

Many fans have liked the new adventures, but some have been upset about “wokeism” in the comics world. Even with some of their most famous characters, traditional publishers are still trying to get more of the new readers by writing more modern stories.

Last year, Jonathan Kent, the new Superman in DC Comics and the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, started dating a male friend. Recently, Robin, Batman’s sidekick, also came out as bisexual.

Rachel Smythe’s “Lore Olympus” is a new version of a Greek myth that focuses on Hades and Persephone. When the story was put into print, it quickly became a best-seller.

The older brands are also trying out what they can do online. Marvel has made its own “digital-first” stories, like the vertically scrolling Infinity Comics. In a recent comic about Iceman, a gay mutant, as much attention was paid to his love life as to his heroic work. Marvel executives said they want to grow Infinity Comics by putting more focus on creators and characters from different backgrounds. They hope this will help them reach new readers.

DC Comics has also made “digital first” comics, and they worked with Webtoon on the series “Batman: Wayne Family Adventures” in the last year. The show has told stories that aren’t about fighting crime, like ones about dating, family relationships, fitting in at school, and a hero’s PTSD.

Ken Kim, Webtoon’s chief executive for North America, said that successful digital creators know that young readers, who are the platform’s target audience, tend to want stories that reflect their lifestyles and dreams.

Another big web comics site, Tapas Media, says that more than 80% of its readers are between the ages of 17 and 25, and that about two-thirds of them are women.

Some of its most popular series are about things that young people today can easily relate to. Michael Son, the vice president of content at Tapas, brought up the show “Magical Boy,” in which a transgender teenager finds out that she is a goddess’s descendant. He said, “It’s like Sailor Moon meets Buffy.”

“We wanted to get rid of gatekeepers,” he said. “It was the readers who really told us what to write about. What naturally happened was that a very young, mostly female readership grew up, which was also true of the creator base.

An Infinity Comic from Marvel is a digital-first story about the gay mutant hero Iceman. The company wants to make this series bigger and include more characters and creators from different backgrounds.

The number of digital comics companies at Comic-Con International in San Diego has grown. This is one of the oldest and most important conventions in the industry, and it runs through Sunday. Since 2018, Webtoon has been a big deal. This year, Ms. Smythe’s “Lore Olympus” won the Best Webcomic Eisner Award, and Tapas was published for the first time.

“Magical Boy” was made by Vincent Kao, who is 30 years old and goes by the name “The Kao” on Tapas. He grew up reading Japanese comics and graphic novels. In college, he made his own comic and got a degree in illustration. However, he always thought that drawing comics would just be a hobby.

Then he posted a slice-of-life comic on Tapas, where it became popular. After seeing a call for submissions, he sent in “Magical Boy.”

“When I look at American comics, I always think, ‘There’s not enough gay stuff. Where’s my representation?'” But, he said, artists are often told it’s hard to make money in comics, and it’s likely to be even harder to publish L.G.B.T.Q. content.

When he pitched “Magical Boy,” a story about a transgender man, “it blew my mind that a company would support and fund it,” he said.

Before Elliot Basil, a trans man from Ohio who is 22 years old, read “Magical Boy,” he said he felt like he could only relate to comic book characters “in a roundabout way.”

But Mr. Basil finally found a character that hit close to home in Max, the main character of “Magical Boy.” He said that seeing Max try to stand up for himself and find people who will support him was something he wished he had when he was Max’s age.

Mr. Kim skateboarding in his Los Angeles office. Webtoon thinks that in three to five years, the U.S. market will be bigger than Asia.

Digital platforms give creators new ways to get their work out there, and sometimes they can keep most or all of the rights to their intellectual property. When Superman came from Krypton, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to the Man of Steel for $130 in 1938 and then fought for decades to get their money back.

Most creators today don’t make a lot of money. Webtoon said it paid its roughly 1,500 English-language creators more than $13.5 million in 2021, so most can’t quit their day jobs. But even the most successful: Webtoon said that its best Korean artists can make between $250,000 and $300,000 a year.

Still, industry veterans tell young people just starting out to be careful. Before signing a contract, it should be carefully looked over. And having to publish every week can be hard on the people who make the comics.

In June, Webtoon was criticized for an ad campaign that said, “Comic books are literature’s side job.” The creators were very angry. The company said it was sorry.

And some creators haven’t been as happy with digital platforms. Dean Haspiel, a veteran cartoonist who is 55 years old, put out his superhero comic “The Red Hook” on Webtoon in 2016. The show ran for more than four seasons, but “we didn’t get the response we were hoping for,” he said.

The vice president of content at Tapas Media, Michael Son, said, “We wanted to get rid of gatekeepers.”

“In the end, I started to realize that the people who read Webtoons are not the same people who read the comics I would make,” he said.

But a lot of new creators are happy to have a way to reach those people.

The creator of “Let’s Play,” Ms. Krecic, said, “I’ve always been like, ‘The money is there, the readers are there. All we have to do is tap into it.'” “We hit the jackpot!”

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