For decades, the fans who powered the comics industry made the weekly pilgrimage to their local comic book stores to shop for the latest issues about their favorite caped-hooded adventurers. These Wednesday warriors, named after the day new installments typically hit shelves, still do. They are voracious readers of printed comics, slightly older – and mostly male.
But now all it takes is a smartphone, as the world of comics is being reshaped by the kind of digital disruption that has transformed journalism, music, movies and television. Webcomics have grown in popularity in recent years, in part by tapping into an audience that the industry had long overlooked: Gen Z women and millennials. The stories they offer – from a young woman battling sexism in the world of e-sports, to a romantic retelling of a Greek myth – are mostly free and vertically scrolling on smartphones where readers live under 25.
And they have shaped stars of a new generation of creators.
“I wouldn’t have done that 10 years ago,” said Kaitlyn Narvaza, 28, of San Diego, who is known as Instantmiso on Webtoon, where her series Siren’s Lament has had more than 430 million views. “We have these opportunities to share these love stories as American creators—as American writers and comic artists. We didn’t have these opportunities before.”
Webtoon, which originated in Korea in 2004 and is the world’s largest digital comics platform, said more than half of its 82 million monthly users are women.
The platform has attracted readers with hits that deviate from traditional good versus evil stories. In “Lookism,” a friendless young man wakes up in a tall, handsome body; The Remarried Empress features a protagonist who is, well, remarried; “unOrdinary” centers on a teenager with a secret past that threatens to topple his high school’s social hierarchy. (“Enemies,” the description warns, are “around every corner.”)
“Let’s Play” is about a young woman who wants to design video games. “It’s a gaming comic with romance or a romance comic with games,” said its creator Leeanne Krecic, who quit her job in IT a few years ago to focus on comics. She believes readers are relating to the main character’s struggles with career and dating.
“The majority of American comics have been the hero story, which is great, there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. But “in Korea and Japan, they tell the love story, the high school story.”
Traditional publishers have noticed the success of these digital platforms. Marvel and DC and Archie Comics have signed deals with Webtoon to produce original digital stories featuring some of their greatest characters.
Webtoon alone generated $900 million in revenue on the platform in 2021, up from $656 million in 2020, the company said. Since the comics are free to read, most of the revenue comes from advertising and selling fanatic readers early access to their favorite series.
But printed comics are far from dead. In fact, their sales skyrocketed during the pandemic with so many people getting bored and stuck at home. Experts estimate that total comics and graphic novels sales in North America in 2021 were approximately $2.08 billion, a number that includes the combined sales of multiple legacy publishers as well as their digital sales, which add up to just amounted to US$170 million.
While the new adventures have been welcomed by many, some fans have complained about wokeism in the comics world. That hasn’t stopped traditional publishers from capturing a larger chunk of new readership with more modern storylines, even featuring some of their most iconic characters.
Last year DC Comics let its new Superman Jonathan Kent – the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane – start a romantic relationship with a male friend, and Batman’s sidekick Robin recently admitted his own bisexuality.
The older brands are also experimenting with online offers. Marvel has developed its own “Digital First” stories, including its Infinity Comics, which use a vertical scroll bar. A recent comic about gay mutant Iceman focused on both his romantic and heroic life. Marvel executives said they plan to expand Infinity Comics with a focus on creators and characters from diverse backgrounds, which the company hopes will help reach new readers.
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DC Comics has also produced Digital First comics and last year collaborated with Webtoon on the Batman: Wayne Family Adventures series. The series has served up stories that are quieter than crime-fighting: about dating, family dynamics, school integration, and a hero’s post-traumatic stress.
Ken Kim, Webtoon’s chief executive for North America, said that successful digital creators understand that young readers – the platform’s target audience – tend to want stories that reflect their lifestyles and dreams.
Tapas Media, another major webcomic platform, says more than 80 percent of its readers are between the ages of 17 and 25, and about two-thirds are women.
Some of the most popular series revolve around topics that the current generation of young readers can relate to directly. Michael Son, Tapas’ vice president of content, pointed to “Magical Boy,” a series starring a transgender teenager who was discovered to be the descendant of a goddess. “Sailor Moon meets Buffy,” he said.
“We wanted to get rid of gatekeepers,” he said. “The readers really determined the directions we took in terms of content. What emerged organically was a very young, very female-centric readership, which was also reflected in the creator base.”
Digital comic companies have increased their presence at Comic-Con International in San Diego, one of the industry’s oldest and most important trade shows, which runs until Sunday. Webtoon, which has had a significant presence since 2018, saw Ms. Smythe’s “Lore Olympus” earn this year’s Best Webcomic Eisner Award, and Tapas debuted this year.
Vincent Kao, 30, known as “The Kao” on tapas, is the creator of “Magical Boy”. Growing up, he read Japanese comics and graphic novels, drew his own comic in college, and earned a degree in illustration, but always assumed that comic drawing would remain a hobby.
He then published a slice-of-life comic on Tapas, where he rose to prominence. He suggested “Magical Boy” after seeing a call for submissions.
“When I look at American comics, I always think, ‘There’s not enough gay stuff — where’s my agency?'” he said. But, he added, artists are often warned that making money from comics is difficult and that publishing LGBTQ content is likely to be even more difficult.
When he introduced “Magical Boy” about a trans man, “I was blown away that it was something that a company would back and fund,” he said.
Before Elliot Basil, 22, a trans man from Ohio, discovered “Magical Boy,” he felt he could only relate to characters in comics “in a roundabout way,” he said.
But in Max, the main character of “Magical Boy”, Mr. Basil finally found a character that was close to him. He said that seeing Max try to stand up for himself and find people to stand up for him is really something I wished I had done when I was so young.
Digital platforms offer creators new ways to publish, sometimes with ownership of most, if not all, of their intellectual property. (Struggles between comic book creators and traditional publishers date back to Superman’s arrival from Krypton: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their rights to Man of Steel for $130 in 1938, then fought for restitution for decades.)
The money today’s developers make is often modest — Webtoon said it paid more than $13.5 million to its roughly 1,500 English-speaking developers in 2021, meaning most aren’t able to to give up their main job. But the most successful can do well: Webtoon said its top Korean developers can earn in the $250,000-per-year range.
Still, industry veterans warn young climbers to proceed with caution. Contracts should be carefully reviewed before signing. And the weekly release schedule can be a punishment for creators.
Webtoon came under fire in June for an ad campaign that boasted, “Comics are literature’s side hustle.” Creators were furious. The company apologized.
And some developers didn’t find digital platforms that good. Veteran cartoonist Dean Haspiel, 55, published his comic The Red Hook, about a Brooklyn superhero, on Webtoon in 2016. he said.
“Eventually I started to understand that the webtoon reading audience is a very different audience than the kind of comics I would be producing,” he said.
But many new YouTubers are excited to reach this audience.
“I’ve always said, ‘The money is there, the readership is there, we’re just tapping into it,'” said Ms. Krecic, the creator of Let’s Play. “We found a gold mine.”