Nowadays people spend all their time on their phones just scrolling the day and night away. It’s the scourge of society. And it’s also a very good thing. At least, it is if you’re in the business of webcomics. The category is exploding in growth—and it’s only going to get bigger.
The global webcomics market is expected to grow from $7.36 billion in 2021 to $11.12 billion in 2028, at a compound annual growth rate of 6.1%, according to Fortune Business Insights.
Towering over the space is Webtoon, a digital comics platform based in South Korea that has 89 million monthly active users globally, 1.3 million global titles, and 750,000 creators around the world (120,000 of them are in the U.S.). In 2021, the publisher raked in $900 million in gross merchandise volume.
Launched in 2004, Webtoon was created, as Webtoon America’s CEO Ken Kim puts it, “to revolutionize storytelling technologies”—by publishing comics specifically made to be read on mobile phones. “Twenty years ago the comics industry market was kind of stagnant,” he says. “By making comics consumable in a native mobile form, we’ve made comics more accessible. You can read them anywhere.”
Because “episodes” of a Webtoon comic are each, on average, only several frames long (in scrollable form), they’re ideal for readers on the go as well as for those who want to sneak in a quick snippet of an ongoing story while doing other things on their phones.
And it’s working, especially with young audiences.
“Around 75% of our readership are millennials and Gen Z,” Kim says. “They live on their phones.”
East meets West
Webcomics are gaining steam in the U.S., but they’ve long been incredibly popular in South Korea, where Webtoon and some other mobile webcomics publishers are based.
“Per a Korean Creative Content Agency report in 2021, in Korea, over 70% of comics consumers are reading comics in webcomics forms, and among them, 24% are consuming webcomics on a daily basis,” says Tony Oh, head of strategy at Manta, a webcomics app that debuted in the North American market in 2020 and publishes more than 10 titles per month.
“In Korea, webcomic has already become a mainstream content format that the masses enjoy on a daily basis,” Oh says. “We expect this trend to globalize in the next decade or so.”
In webcomics, one tends to see a mix of manga, manhwa, and traditional Western art styles. “Some generations who grew up consuming the Japanimation more, they prefer Japan’s style of content,” Kim says. “But at the same time, someone who grew up consuming Disney or Marvel content often prefers Western types of content.”
Black Sands Entertainment, which in May 2021 launched its digital comics platform, the BSP Comics app, also sees a mix of styles from its creators. “Some of our series are heavily manga influenced,” says CEO Manuel Godoy. “But the overwhelming majority have a more traditional comic book style.”
New opportunities for creators
When doors open for digital webcomics, so too do doors for comics creators.
Emmett Hobbes, creator of the queer/heist Webtoon comic Royale (which has raked in over 530,000 views), was drawn to the platform in part because of its accessibility. “Honestly, I think the main reason webcomics are such a melting pot is because the cost barrier to entry is extremely low,” he explains. “If you’re doing it by yourself, nobody but you has to make back their investment, so you can technically make and distribute a webcomic in an afternoon about whatever you want. I’m not saying it’d be any good, but it’s technically possible—and that’s something you just can’t do in physical media, because printing and distributing is so expensive.”
Brent Bristol, creator of the Webtoon action/adventure hit Ordeal (which has amassed more than 10 million views), was ready to dive into another career entirely before his comic began picking up momentum on Webtoon. “Webtoon came at the nick of time for me,” he says. He was signed by Webtoon as an original creator in 2021—three years after publishing on Canvas, Webtoon’s space for user-generated content creators to publish their digital comics for free.
Rachel Smythe, the creator of Webtoon’s biggest hit to date, Lore Olympus (weighing in at over 1.1 billion views), a stylish contemporary retelling of the Persephone and Hades Greek myth, wasn’t even pursuing a career in comics until she started posting on Canvas in 2017. “I was working in marketing and communications and events,” Smythe says. “But I was always quite interested in illustration and comics. ”
Fast-forward a few years and Smythe wasn’t only working full-time in illustration and comics—she was a Webtoon icon and a literary superstar. Random House Worlds published Lore Olympus, Vol. 1 in November 2021. The book became a #1 New York Times bestseller. So did Lore Olympus, Vol. 2, which was published in July 2022.
But this isn’t to say there aren’t cons for comics creators publishing on Webtoon.
“Schedules are really demanding, and audiences are really demanding,” Hobbes says. “As the creator, you’re often wearing an entire company’s worth of hats without compensation for that extra work,” he adds. “So it’s easier to get into but harder to maintain, I think, which is why a lot of creators burn out and leave projects unfinished. So while it does open a lot of doors, the corridor on the other side is full of quicksand. You have to get really, really crafty in order to stay afloat and keep moving.”
Romance, drama, and slice-of-life stories tend to garner the most traction in webcomics. Action, adventure, and superhero stories still make waves, but not to the same degree as they might in a traditional bricks-and-mortar comic store.
Take DC Comics’ Webtoon smash hit Batman: Wayne Family Adventures (nominated for an Eisner this year), for example. It’s something of a superhero sitcom, centered on characters that spend more time fighting over dessert than fighting crime. It has reeled in more than 57.5 million views.
Meanwhile over on Tapas Media, a U.S.-based webcomics and prose publishing site founded in 2012 that is home to more than 75,000 creators and more than 110,000 stories, there is almost no superhero content. “The majority of the stories that we produce and that thrive on our platform skew toward slice-of-life,” says Michael Son, v-p of content at Tapas. “There are a lot of character-focused dramas and stories about characters who are going through transitions or being a fish out of water and trying to create relationships. I’d say it’s everything but superheroes.”
Print takes the hint
Print comics publishers are taking direct cues from webcomics by turning out print versions and expansions on the most popular series. Random House Worlds’ publishing of Lore Olympus is perhaps the most outstanding web-to-print success story.
“We had a number of Lore Olympus fans on staff before we acquired the project,” says Elizabeth Schaefer, editorial director, licensed fiction at Random House Worlds. “Their enthusiasm was contagious, and it only took one lost afternoon of binge-reading the webcomic to realize that Lore Olympus was something special. The art of Lore Olympus is stunning and unique. Add to that a swoonworthy romance and Rachel’s effortless modernization of a myth that has lasted millennia, and it’s no wonder that Lore Olympus has connected with so many readers.”
There are now more than 1.5 million copies of the Lore Olympus series in print, with a first printing of 500,000 copies for Lore Olympus, Vol. 3, which hit the market earlier this month. Lore Olympus was Random House Worlds’ first Webtoon acquisition, but it surely won’t be its last. “Partnering with webcomics creators gives us the perfect opportunity to both give an already established fan base a beautiful physical edition to treasure, while also expanding the webcomic audience to people who might otherwise never encounter the story,” Schaefer says.
And there are other publishers giving webcomics the print treatment.
The webcomic artist Kao first published Mondo Mango with Tapas back in 2015. “We connected with him again back in 2016,” Son says, “when he pitched us Magical Boy, which was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We were immediately all in on the characters and story. We ended up publishing the digital serialization in 2018. We recently partnered with Scholastic to print the comic in two separate physical volumes.”
Skybound is also getting in on the webcomics-to-print craze—and then some. “We’re publishing books for Ava’s Demon [Webtoon], Mr. Lovenstein [Tapas, Instagram], Scurry [Webtoon], and Extra Fabulous [Instagram, Twitter, Reddit],” says Alex Antone, editorial director at Skybound. “In some cases, we’ve also partnered with webcomic creators for non-book publishing ventures, including tabletop games for Extra Fabulous and Mr. Lovenstein, and plushies and audio guides for Ava’s Demon.”
Print’s rebirth through digital
The industry is also seeing the reverse come into play: print comics are being converted or evolved into web- and mobile-friendly versions.
“We’re already seeing companies like Boom! Studios and Vault Comics publish traditional print comics with us,” Son says. “We are able to work with them to help reformat the stories to look and feel like they were always meant to be read on a mobile device. I believe we can work together with a large array of traditional publishers and reintroduce these stories to a younger and more diverse reader demographic.”
Black Sands Entertainment reformats print comics into digital form. “Lots of people we sign have never done digital comics in their life,” Godoy says. “They have nothing formatted for digital. So after we pay to license and get their print files, we have in-house editors set up all their comics for digital.”
Godoy admits that it’s a lot of work, but all well worth it. “We have about 150,000 downloads total and, on average, 8,000 daily users,” he says.
Meanwhile, Archie Comics is breathing new life into its classic Archie series through a partnership with Webtoon, with the webcomic series Archie Comics: Big Ethel Energy. “Ethel was never a spotlit character, but people love Big Ethel Energy,” says Jamie Rotante, senior director of editorial at Archie Comics. “It’s an ongoing slice-of-life and romance comic with an audience that ticks slightly older than standard Archie readers. It’s really interesting, because in print we’re doing a lot more short-form one-shots, but we have long-form storytelling living on Webtoon with Big Ethel Energy.”
People are responding so well to the first season of Big Ethel Energy, which has more than 21 million views, that a second season has been greenlit. More works between Archie and Webtoon could be on the way.
“If the option is there for us, we are always happy to do more with Webtoon,” Rotante says. “Right now our focus is still solely on Big Ethel Energy—and we will have more volumes of that coming out in print too.”
Manta is also recognizing tremendous opportunity for comics publishers that pivot from print to web. “We strongly believe that the expansion of powerful stories is limitless, and adapting existing novels into webcomics is a big growth opportunity for print publishers,” Oh says. “We have already seen some novel-based stories brought into other media formats helping the surge of interest and sales of the original content. With the rise of webcomics, we think that webcomics also can—and already are—playing the role in driving the growth of IP originated from printed novels.”
A friend—not an enemy—of print
Anyone concerned that the rise of mobile webcomics heralds the death of classic print comics shouldn’t be. It’s not as though people don’t still want good old-fashioned superhero comics in print form—plenty do. But there’s no arguing that mobile webcomics are transforming the concept of comics as we once knew them, just as there’s no arguing that print publishers aren’t taking the webcomics movement—and all the trends that it’s spawning—seriously.
“There is so much untapped potential and you don’t have to pick a side” between print and web, Rotante says. “Print and webcomics work in tandem, instead of fighting against one another. Yes, you will always have people in one camp or another, strictly webtoon and strictly print, but we’re seeing people loving the print collection and then maybe being more open to reading webcomics because they’ll see them there before the next volume is printed.”
There’s also the accessibility factor that Hobbes pointed to.
“With the Webtoon format, there is, first and foremost, accessibility,” Rotante says. “Print comics are not always available everywhere if you don’t have a local comic shop. But as long as you have the means and ability to read digitally, comics are there for you. This is especially appealing to teens and older readers. Also, on the print side of things you have to pack a lot into a short space, but with webcomics, you can tell a long-form story. Archie has always been a great slice-of-life publisher, and we always did short-form romance, and Webtoon is the perfect medium to really elaborate on that.”
Then there’s the fact that webcomics are just less of a headache to produce than physical books, and they’re easier to distribute.
“Webcomics, on the production side, are relatively easier to create and publish, while having the ability to visually deliver the story in full,” Oh says. “For readers, it’s easy to access, easy to follow, easy to read—while the experience is fun, exciting, and inspiring. With all these strengths, webcomics are an efficient tool to boost the awareness and sales of the original stories among a larger audience and, eventually, lead to further expansion of the original IP.”
Webcomics are helping to grow print—not only literally in terms of works published but conceptually in terms of types of content explored.
“In our printing we are taking more risks because of webcomics,” Rotante says, once again citing Big Ethel. “People are responding so well to the episodes that it allows us to say, ‘Maybe we can spotlight other characters.’ ”
Since the success of Big Ethel Energy, Archie Comics has seen an uptick in interest in its print collections. “We’re really helping each other out and bringing people back to print,” Rotante says.
Print publishers will wisely continue to embrace—and build on—what webcomics deliver to the comics industry as a whole.
“Wherever there are talented and engaging voices, that’s where we want to be,” Antone says. “So we’ll continue to scout all webcomics platforms for possible publishing partnerships, and maybe one day we’ll be producing originals in the space ourselves.”
As for Webtoon—it’s certainly not slowing down anytime soon. “I can confidently say that we’re only just getting started,” Kim says.
Nicole Audrey Spector is a freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.