The Digital Renaissance: How Webcomics Are Reshaping the Literary Landscape

Explore the digital revolution in the literary world as webcomics redefine storytelling. Discover the impact of Webtoon Unscrolled, the rise of creator-owned comics, and how Inklore's web-to-print titles are reshaping the graphic novel landscape.
True Beauty: A romantic comedy webtoon about a girl who uses makeup to transform her appearance.

Explore the digital revolution in the literary world as webcomics redefine storytelling. Discover the impact of Webtoon Unscrolled, the rise of creator-owned comics, and how Inklore’s web-to-print titles are reshaping the graphic novel landscape. Join the diverse and dynamic community of readers, creators, and fans leading this exciting change.

In the ever-evolving landscape of storytelling, the traditional swipe-right dating model has taken a backseat to the addictive downward scroll of online comics. Readers are no longer measuring success in matches but in how far they can scroll into the captivating world of webcomics.

As the appetite for graphic novels remains insatiable, particularly among middle-grade and young adult audiences, publishers are venturing into the realm of popular digital platforms to discover turn-key titles that can resonate with a broader audience. At the forefront of this webcomics revolution is Webtoon, a South Korean-based global comics platform that prides itself on being the world’s largest webcomics community.

Launched in 2004, Webtoon’s dominance is so pervasive that comics presented in its smartphone-friendly vertical-scrolling format are colloquially referred to as webtoons. Riding on the waves of success, Webtoon expanded its reach in 2022 with the launch of Webtoon Unscrolled, a U.S.-based imprint aiming to bring the platform’s most beloved English-language series into print for the North American market.

The imprint’s initial triumvirate of titles, including “True Beauty,” “Tower of God,” and “Cursed Princess Club,” collectively sold over 200,000 copies in the first six months, signaling a robust appetite for this novel form of storytelling. Webtoon Unscrolled plans to publish 20 ongoing series by the end of 2024, promising a diverse array of narratives that span genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

One standout title in the pipeline is “Lumine” by Emma Krogell, a fantastical journey chronicling the adventures of a runaway werewolf and a witch boy. Another gem is the Eisner Award-nominated “Third Shift Society” by Meredith Moriarty, unraveling the story of a psychically gifted but financially strapped young woman finding employment as a paranormal detective.

Bobbie Chase, the executive editor of Webtoon Unscrolled, underscores the significance of creator ownership in the webtoon phenomenon. She expresses delight in being on the side of creator-owned content, emphasizing that webtoons have empowered first-time creators to produce instant hits.

Webtoon’s readership skews toward a youthful and predominantly female audience. With almost half of the site’s creators being women, the platform boasts a rich tapestry of narratives. While romance comics initially claimed the spotlight on the original Korean platform, the English-language version of Webtoon has diversified its offerings, spanning a spectrum of genres.

What sets webtoons apart is the creator-friendly environment that allows writers and cartoonists to retain their intellectual property, enabling them to sign with other publishers. For instance, Rachel Smythe’s immensely popular “Lore Olympus” started on Webtoon before being published by Del Rey at Penguin Random House, becoming the flagship title of the new Inklore imprint.

Inklore, the latest imprint from Penguin Random House, recognizes the untapped market of webcomics enthusiasts. Catering to an audience aged 18-35, largely female, and with a penchant for LGBTQ content, Inklore plans to publish several web-to-print titles. Among them are series from South Korea and Japan, including “My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999” by Mashiro (April 2024) and “Cherry Blossoms After Winter” by Bam woo (November 2024).

Rebecca “Tay” Taylor, editorial director at Inklore, identifies their audience as those engrossed in romantasy, BL (boys’ love), and horror—essentially, anyone immersed in fan fiction on Archive of Our Own (AO3). She emphasizes that these readers, often neglected by traditional publishing, have taken matters into their own hands, contributing to the surge of webcomics, fan fiction, and fan art.

The webcomics phenomenon is not confined to the giant platforms; it extends to various corners of the internet. Macmillan senior editor Holly West stumbled upon the indie webcomic “DnDoggos” during the pandemic lockdowns—a delightful creation imagining dogs engaged in tabletop RPG campaigns. Feiwel and Friends seized the opportunity to publish a spin-off titled “DnDoggos: Get the Party Started” (February 2024) as an original middle-grade graphic novel.

Drawn & Quarterly, a venerable name in the world of comics, embraces the digital era with its third print collection of comics by Aminder Dhaliwal, first serialized on Instagram. Titled “A Witch’s Guide to Burning” (March 2024), this departure from Dhaliwal’s previous cartoony style showcases the adaptability of webcomics across diverse platforms.

The convergence of webcomics and traditional print is not a new phenomenon, but its current momentum is undeniable. Successful graphic novels like Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese” and Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile” originated as online comics in the 2000s. Random House Graphic’s senior editor, Whitney Leopard, notes a substantial increase in this trend in recent years, with promising titles like “Woe: A Housecat’s Story of Despair” (July 2024), a collection of cat comics by Lucy Knisley that gained popularity online.

Scott Kurtz, a veteran in self-publishing online comics since 1998, highlights the transformative impact of social media and a generational shift. His middle-grade graphic novel spin-off, “Table Titans Club,” is set to publish with Holiday House in March 2024, reflecting the evolving landscape of storytelling.

Publishers are quick to recognize the inherent advantages of online comics when evaluating new titles. Michael Petranek, editorial director at Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, notes that editors can review complete story arcs and gauge audience interest before committing to print. Ablaze’s editor, Kevin Ketner, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the visibility of online metrics and the potential for wider reach.

The term “bingeable” frequently crops up when publishers describe the appeal of webcomics. Readers immersed in daily episodes often yearn for a tangible experience, seeking the permanence of a printed graphic novel. Sierra Hahn, editor-in-chief at Oni Press, captures this sentiment, emphasizing that after the prolonged engagement of reading online, readers desire something they can hold or share.

Oni Press is set to release web-to-print titles like the Webtoon hit “Covenant” by LySandra Vuong (April 2024), a queer dark fantasy romance. The anticipation is that existing fans will seamlessly transition to print, and a new segment of the audience will discover these captivating narratives.

Spike Trotman, publisher of Iron Circus, recognizes the “unfair advantage” that webcomics hold over straight-to-print titles. Established audiences, excited to support their favorite creators, often contribute to successful crowdfunding campaigns. Iron Circus recently shattered its previous records after acquiring Tracy Butler’s long-running webcomic “Lackadaisy,” set to release as a collected volume in February 2024, with an animated web series also in the works.

Skybound Entertainment, adopting a similar crowdfunding model, embraces titles like “Ava’s Demon” by Michelle Fus and “Good Comics for Bad People: An Extra Fabulous Collection” by Zach M. Stafford. The shift toward online processes, from acquisition to funding, enabled Skybound to navigate the challenges of publishing during the Covid lockdowns.

As the webcomics phenomenon continues to gain momentum, publishers are confronted with the puzzle of reformatting for print. The unique vertical scroll of webtoons poses a challenge in adapting to traditional print layouts. Issues such as converting art files, dealing with interactive elements, and maintaining pacing add layers of complexity to the transition.

Despite these challenges, publishers are increasingly willing to tackle them, recognizing the fertile ground for scouting talent in the webcomics arena. Alex Antone, editorial director at Skybound, points out that if there’s an existing audience ready to be engaged, offering them an exciting premium experience in print seems like a logical next step.

The biggest challenge lies in translating the dynamic pacing of webcomics into the more structured format of graphic novels. Holly West from Macmillan emphasizes the freedom of pacing in webcomics, where a single joke can unfold over multiple pages. Adapting this to the concise nature of a graphic novel requires a thoughtful approach that balances the essence of the original while aligning with the expectations of print readers.

Publishers, creators, and readers alike are navigating this evolving landscape, recognizing the undeniable allure of webcomics and the potential they hold for shaping the future of storytelling. In a world where readers seek engagement, online comics have become more than a fleeting trend—they are a transformative force propelling the art of storytelling into new and exciting territories.


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