The Covid-19 pandemic has brought huge swaths of the publishing industry to a halt, but one channel remains open and thriving: mobile webcomics. What began as an experiment by several companies in the mid-2010s to import the vertically scrolling digital comics format, which is popular in Asia, to North America has grown into a sizable niche within the comics industry. It now reaches hundreds of millions of readers, providing new revenue as well as an audience to a new generation of creators.
The acknowledged leader in this market is Webtoon, a webcomics platform which is owned by Naver, a search engine/portal series in Korea. Webtoon had more than 60 million monthly active users over the past year and whose content had more than 100 billion views worldwide. Webtoon pioneered a successful model of publishing comics in a vertical-scroll format, readable on mobile phones and tablets, and is building a paying audience for serialized stories across a range of genres..
Webtoon began operating in the U.S. in 2014 with modest expectations. The company focused on building its brand, curating a line of original English-language content, and developing a community of fans and creators. For five years, Webtoon invested heavily in these areas, establishing a trove of user-created content on its Canvas platform, a self-publishing unit for emerging artists, while turning many of its top titles into gigantic hits.
A quick glance down Webtoon’s “Best 30” list released at the end of 2019 reveals how popular its U.S. content has become. Rachel Smyth’s Lore Olympus, which reimagines the Greek pantheon as a soap opera, clocked nearly 300 million views since its debut. Un-ordinary, a quirky take on superheroes by uru-chan, and True Beauty, a teen romance series by Yaongyi, have also racked up more than 200 million views each. Indeed the “Best 30” list alone draws massive traffic—a combined 2.4 billion views worldwide, according to the company.
David Lee, Webtoon’s head of content for North America, said the popular titles are just the tip of the iceberg. “We’re trying to grow all our genres, not pigeonhole ourselves into a specific kind of comics. Our goal is to spread the medium. The popular stories are powering a platform that people can grow with their own content.”
Webtoon took a big step in 2019, shifting from a completely ad-supported revenue model to introduce Fastpass, a paid service tier that lets subscribers see the latest installments of their favorite series weeks before they hit the free-to-read portion of the platform. “Reading can still be free, but Web-toon and creators can monetize for people who want to read ahead,” Lee explained.
That helped Webtoon leap into the upper echelon of the AppAnnie in-app purchase rankings in 2019. “What makes [the revenue model] work is the weekly release schedule,” Lee said. “We implemented Fastpass for creators who can deliver episodes on a regular basis, with strong endings that motivate readers to want to see what’s coming next without having to wait.”
Webtoon primarily appeals to readers ages 13–24, skewing about 60% female, according to Lee. These are the same young consumers who can’t get enough teen-oriented prose fiction and graphic novels, and who flock to platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and WhatsApp.
Webtoon isn’t the only company focused on the mobile/social digital world of vertical-scroll, bite-size content. Tapas, an American startup with strong Asian partners, has been steadily growing an audience with the same combination of proven imported work, user-created content, and originals.
“We saw a huge jump in our key metrics last year,” said Tapas CEO Chang Kim. “We have about 2.2 million monthly active users, and our revenue increased nearly 250% in the last year.”
Kim said that 65% of the audience is women ages 18–24. They enjoy the site’s mix of fantasy, romance, and slice-of-life series. “It’s not the traditional comic book audience and it’s not the traditional comic book reading style,” he noted, describing Tapas as “an open community” that encourages feedback and user support.
Most of Tapas’s growth in the past two years has come from original content. Kim said his team tracks data on the performance of user-created content to identify stories that are building followings, then works with creators to develop them into professional-quality work. These creators receive revenue shares, advances, and participation in any licensing or media development opportunities.
The massive growth of the mobile audience also attracted Stela, a U.S. company with Chinese funding that pivoted from mobile gaming to mobile comics in 2015. Rather than going with user-generated content, Stela tried to build a studio model along the lines of animation or game development, with staff writers and artists working on company-owned IP. Stela produced about 30 series and was just starting to build a significant audience when the U.S.-China trade war forced its Chinese partners to withdraw financing.
Nevertheless, Stela founder Jason Juan said he sees massive potential in a new generation of digital-focused creators, especially as publishers learn the strengths of the mobile format and the vertical swipe/scroll. “The major factor is making the story a mobile-first experience,” he said. “You don’t necessarily need technical skills if you understand the storytelling, and a lot of younger creators do.”
David Lee agrees, citing the importance of developing Webtoon readers and amateur creators into professionals. That’s why both Webtoon and Tapas are so eager to grow the user-generated content on their platforms. “More creators are seeing us as a legitimate option,” Lee said. “That will help us develop content for the upper end of our audience demographic, so they don’t age out of our platform.”
Will this mobile webcomics boom spill over into other media? Both Webtoon and Tapas hinted at some major media announcements in the coming months. Webtoon has successfully propelled many of its Korean properties into live-action or animated adaptations in its home market.
Asked about the potential for print, the mobile webcomic publishers were guardedly optimistic. “Strong stories and strong characters work well in any medium,” Lee said. “However, we want our creators to think natively digital.” He added that the company is working on some deals with “top-tier publishers,” the details of which he wouldn’t disclose.
In the meantime, while most of the comics industry is flat on its back as the distribution of physical products is frozen in place, content by creators on the mobile-digital side is doing just fine. It seems reasonable to believe that this new model, which has already found an audience of younger readers, may offer the kind of evolution comics need to lead the medium forward out of this crisis and into a post-pandemic marketplace.
Correction: the description of Webtoon and a sister company in an earlier version of this story were inaccurate.