Mike Gagnon writes for Bleeding Cool:
Korean webtoons, also known as Manhwa, have exploded into the comics industry.
For those who follow the trends, Manhwa, Korea's answer to Japan's Manga, have become a major element in modern comics in the last couple years. The trend shows no sign of slowing down.
With the advent of digital media platforms, webcomics in Korea — known there as webtoons — have become a rapidly expanding and celebrated part of Korean culture and identity.
It's this cultural acceptance that has spurred the Manhwa and webtoons' healthy and stable growth. This is in stark contrast to the often-fluctuating western counterpart found on American shores, waxing and waning with popularity, movies and media spinoffs, scandals, wallet fatigue, creative changes, and oversaturation of any property that seems remotely profitable. (How many Avengers, X-Men, or Deadpool series are there now?)
No surprise then that Manhwa has proven itself to have ever-increasing international appeal, as well. Along with that fan appeal for something outside of the standard capes and tights faire of America's mainstream also comes interest from business. Big business.
Being born of digital media, webtoons lend themselves very well to the mobile reader environment, with new publishers and distributors popping up via subscription websites and apps that seem to overcome the hurdles of user adoption much quicker and easier than their traditional counterparts of the past. One example is English language Manhwa publisher TappyToon, which reported an astonishing 2000% growth in North America's $1 billion+ industry in 2017 alone.
Those kinds of statistics are in stark contrast to the ever-deflating market shares reported by North America's mainstream print publishers. That's especially impressive when you consider that TappyToon positions itself as a premium English Manhwa publisher, with a paid service for full access to its hand-vetted series. A Netflix for comics, if you will.
With a premium branded offering, you may envision an aloof programming nerd running the show somewhere, in a room full of computers, shunning society — a preconceived notion of comics being shattered as incorrect. One of the things setting Manhwa publishers apart from that approach is that even the most premium of publishers share a deep love of the art and sharing that passion on a personal level with their customers. In Manhwa, every member of the team, all the way up to the CEO, love to connect with comics readers personally, whether it be on app forums or in person at fan conventions.
Taking TappyToon as the leading example, the company's top executives, CEO Sun Bang and head of product Ernest Woo, along with creators such as Narae Lee (known in North America for for her work on James Patterson's bestselling graphic novel Maximum Ride) have happily travelled from South Korea to New York to attend Anime NYC, with the express purpose of meeting and greeting as many Manhwa fans as possible. The company's New York-based marketing agency, Root Communications, even sent invites to comics media that had confirmed to be attending, for exclusive interview times with the company principals and talent. This is another drastic difference from North American comics, where fans and web media often find executives from their favourite publishers distant and inaccessible.
There's little surprise that this more personable approach has been rewarded by fans, with TappyToon's Kickstarter campaign for their first-ever print collection, a massive 600+ page color collection of Narae Lee's supernatural romance Bloody Sweet, hitting its $10,000 funding goal within just a few short days. Loyal fans have continued to fund the publisher's print project, with the total reaching $16,000 as of this writing. If the campaign hits $20,000 by the time it concludes on November 25th, the company will reward fans with the stretch goal of additional chapters that have previously not been published in English.
The avid and loyal fan base doesn't just support premium services, but a wide range of webtoon services such as CrunchyRoll, Vertical, Comico, Line Webtoon and more popping up all the time, offering various levels of service and quality.
Manhwa publishers know their audience, as well, some reporting demographics as high as 90% female readership — another drastic difference between this growing trend and mainstream comics. Recognizing this diversity in readership may account in large part for the wider diversity of characters and subject matter found in Manhwa, something frustrated North American fans have been asking for from mainstream publishers, who have been slow to comply, fearing to stray too far from the decades-old male-centric profit plan.
Will Manhwa help the North American comics landscape make drastic changes? Only time will tell, but if fan response is any indication, comics fans have a lot of positive changes and great comic content to look forward to.