For decades, the fans who powered the comic book industry made weekly pilgrimages to their local comic book stores to pick up the latest issues of their favorite hooded and hooded adventurers. Those Warrior Wednesdays, named for the day new installments usually hit shelves, always do. Voracious readers of printed comics, they are 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 exploded in popularity in recent years, in part by tapping into an audience that the industry had long neglected: Gen Z and millennial women. The stories they offer – from a young woman tackling sexism in the world of esports or a romantic retelling of Greek myth — are mostly free and scroll vertically on smartphones, where readers under 25 live.
And they created stars of a new generation of creators.
“Even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t do this,” said Kaitlyn Narvaza, 28, of San Diego, known as instantmiso on webtoon where her “Siren’s Lament” series drew more than 430 million likes. views. “We have these opportunities to share these love stories as American creators – as American female comic book writers and 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 tales. In “Lookism,” a friendless young man wakes up to a big, handsome body; “The Remarried Empress” features a protagonist who is, well, remarried; “unOrdinary” centers on a teenager with a secret past who threatens to bring down 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 game comic with romance or a romance comic with game,” said its creator, Leeanne Krecic, who quit her IT job a few years ago to focus on comics. . She thinks readers relate to the main character’s struggles with her career and romantic relationships.
“The majority of American comics have been the hero story, which is great, nothing wrong with that,” she said. But “in Korea and Japan, they told the love story, the high school story.”
Traditional publishers have noticed the success of these digital platforms. Marvel and DC and Archie Comics have struck deals with Webtoon to produce original digital stories featuring some of their biggest characters.
Webtoon alone made $900 million in platform sales in 2021, up from $656 million in 2020, the company said. Because the comics are free to read, most revenue comes from advertising and selling fanatical readers early access to their favorite series.
But print comics are far from dead. In fact, their sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, with so many people bored and stuck at home. Experts estimate that total comic book and graphic novel sales in North America were around $2.08 billion in 2021, a figure that includes the combined revenue of several legacy publishers, as well as their digital sales, which , together, only grossed $170 million.
While The New Adventures have been embraced by many, some fans have complained about “wokeism” in the comic book world. That hasn’t stopped traditional publishers from trying to capture more of the new readership with more modern stories, even featuring some of their most famous characters.
Last year, DC Comics had 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.
Older brands are also experimenting with online offerings. Marvel has developed its own “digital-first” stories, including its Infinity Comics, which use vertical scrolling. A recent comic about the gay mutant Iceman has focused on his romantic life as much as his 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 for the past year has collaborated with Webtoon on the “Batman: Wayne Family Adventures” series. The series served up quieter stories than crime-fighting: about dating, family dynamics, school integration, and a hero’s post-traumatic stress.
Ken Kim, Webtoon’s General Manager for North America, said successful digital creators understand that young readers – the platform’s target demographic – tend to want stories that reflect their lifestyle and their dreams.
Tapas Media, another major web comics platform, says more than 80% of its readers are between the ages of 17 and 25, and about two-thirds are women.
Some of its most popular series revolve around topics that today’s generation of young readers can directly relate to. Michael Son, Vice President of Content for Tapas, highlighted “Magical Boy,” a series featuring a transgender teenager discovered to be a descendant of a goddess. “Sailor Moon meets Buffy,” he said.
“We wanted to get rid of the goalkeepers,” he said. “Readers really drove the content directions we were taking. What naturally emerged was a very young, very female-centric readership, which was also reflected in the creator base.
Digital comics companies have expanded their presence at Comic-Con International in San Diego, one of the industry’s oldest and largest conventions, which runs through Sunday. Webtoon, which has had a significant presence since 2018, saw Ms. Smythe’s “Lore Olympus” receive this year’s Best Eisner Webcomic Award, and Tapas appeared this year for the first time.
Vincent Kao, 30, known as “The Kao” on Tapas, is the creator of “Magical Boy”. He read Japanese comics and graphic novels growing up, drew his own comic in college, and earned a degree in illustration, but had always assumed that drawing comics would remain a hobby.
Then he posted a slice-of-life comic on Tapas, where it gained traction. He started “Magical Boy” after seeing a call for entries.
“When I watch American comics, I always think, ‘There’s not enough gay stuff, where is my representation?'” he said. But, he added, artists are often warned that making money in comics is hard and publishing LGBTQ content is likely to be even harder.
When he introduced “Magical Boy,” about a trans man, “it blew my mind that it was something a company would support and fund,” he said.
Before 22-year-old Elliot Basil, a trans man from Ohio, discovered “Magical Boy,” he felt he could only relate to comic book characters “in a roundabout way,” said he declared.
But in Max, the main character of “Magical Boy,” Mr. Basil has finally found a character that hits close to home. He said seeing Max “trying to stand up for himself and finding people who will stand up for him is really something I wish I had when I was so young”.
Digital platforms offer new avenues for creators to publish, sometimes with ownership of most, if not all, of their intellectual property. (Battles between comic book creators and mainstream publishers date back to the arrival of Superman from Krypton: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their rights to the Man of Steel for $130 in 1938, then fought for decades to get restitution.)
The money creators make today is often modest – Webtoon said it paid more than $13.5 million to its roughly 1,500 English-language creators in 2021, meaning most are not able to quit their day job. But top performers can do well: Webtoon said its top Korean creators can earn around $250,000 a year.
Still, industry veterans warn young talent to tread carefully. Contracts should be carefully checked before signing. And the weekly publishing schedule can be penalizing for creators.
Webtoon came under fire in June for an ad campaign that bragged, “Comics are literature’s side hustle.” The creators were furious. The company apologized.
And some creators have not found digital platforms as well suited. Veteran cartoonist Dean Haspiel, 55, published his comic book “The Red Hook,” about a Brooklyn superhero, on webtoon in 2016. The series continued for more than four seasons but “didn’t received the kind of response we wanted”. he said.
“Ultimately, I started to realize that the webtoon reading audience is a very different audience than the type of comics I would be producing,” he said.
But many new creators are thrilled to have a way to reach that 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 have found a gold mine.