Comics Are Trying to Break our Heart #70 by Drew Barth
One of the biggest challenges for comics over the past decade has been digital presentation. Even with guided readers and motion comics, there hasn’t been a solid way for readers to comfortably read comic and manga pages electronically. Outside of larger tablets, traditional graphic narratives have always been constrained by their physical pages when it comes to the digital counterparts. Webcomics have helped to bridge the comic page to computer screen gap, but now we have a whole different space in smartphone screens. It’s also here where we have free comic apps like Webtoon that are working with form and access in ways comics really haven’t been able to explore in the past.
Launched in 2004 in South Korea by JunKoo Kim, Webtoon started as a way for manhwa, Korean comics, to be more accessible online. Over time many of the comics had made the transition from being primarily web browser based to being more adapted to smartphone browsing. And with Webtoon’s launch in English in 2014, some of the most popular manhwa finally received a proper English-language release.
One of the most interesting things about Webtoon currently is that it serves as this melting pot of comic cultures with one of the largest comic audiences globally. Creators like Warren Ellis, Colleen Doran, and Ronald Wimberly are posting next to Rachel Smythe, Cho Seok, and mosske with no delineation. There is equal footing among creators—an artist’s first foray into comics can become one of the most popular series on the app overnight.
xAnd one of the most interesting things about Webtoon as a platform for new comics is the breadth of material available. From my first experience in to the app, I read through ten different series. They touched on anything from hardboiled crime series, sci-fi anthologies with music and animation, re-tellings of the myth of Hades and Persephone, and a kid whose only dream in life is to own a toaster. Figuring out where to start was its own challenge. But the app already knows that, and from the beginning shows you the top comics overall, the top comics by genre, the newest releases already generating buzz, and classics that have already ended their run. Being who I am, I immediately jumped on FINALITY by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran. And, of course, it’s good. It’s a Warren Ellis story with Colleen Doran on art, it can’t not be good. But then this opened up the app to show me more.
Works like FINALITY, Moon You by Cho Seok, Wolfsbaneby Ryan Cady and Morgan Beem, and Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe crack open the idea of comics on a smartphone as they’re able to fully embrace their new peripheral. There are panels, but only briefly; there are speech bubbles, but only to denote if there are multiple people talking; there’s pages, but not really. So much of the work here would be difficult to publish traditionally as the momentum of their stories relies on the physical momentum of the reader scrolling through. The best option for many of these works would be one long scroll of paper, like Jack Kerouac illustrating an On the Road graphic novel. But then this is what makes these stories so interesting to the comic medium—they work with their digital materials instead of in spite of them. Webtoon has created a synthesis of comics and audience many other publishers still struggle with and I can only hope it continues to thrive.
Get excited. Get scrolling.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.