Korea’s battles for webcomics are only heating up, with billion-dollar companies looking to expand from Korea to the United States – and a possible acquisition of Tapas Media by Kakao is in the works.
Many years ago, I remember talking to a friend who worked at the Big Two who complained that he wasn’t taking enough risks. We could both see that the graphic novel format was the way to go. Superhero editors, my friend said, “are big dinosaurs that don’t even see the mammals coming and stealing their eggs.”
Aside from the fact that dinosaurs and mammals never co-existed outside of a Steven Spielberg movie, the metaphor is still relevant when talking about print comics and the webcomics boom. Now, for many long-listed reasons, I don’t see print comics dying out in the United States. People like to hold things in their hands! I stick with that.
However, the fact that Korean webcomics and American content on a similar model – read through mobile app-based portals like Webtoon and Tapas – are a huge and growing source of readership and revenue is something that goes very unnoticed by the American market. now.
In 2019, Webtoon claimed to have 100 billion views per year worldwide, with the US app having over 55 million monthly active users and over 15 million daily readers. (The former number has since been increased to 70 million active users.) That’s a lot, but Webtoon – owned by Naver, the Korean version of Google – could still be eclipsed by Kakao, a rival Korean webcomics company that plans to expand into the North American market.
It’s all explained in this revealing Bloomberg article about Kakao’s plans to come to the US with an IPO that could leave the company valued at up to $18 billion, double its current value. Kakao was inspired by the $4.8 billion IPO of Coupang, Korea’s Amazon, in March, says Kakao’s chief executive Lee Jinso.
Kakao is an internet platform that runs popular games and social media apps, in addition to its online comics, which makes it hard to give it an easy descriptor “the ––––––– of Korea “. They also have a huge entertainment division. Kakao merged with Daum Communications in 2014, which is notable as Daum launched its own webcomics portal in 2003, making it the first webcomics company in Korea. Kakao/Daum also refer to their comics as “webtoons”, as this is a generic term in Korea.
Since then, webcomics consumed through mobile phone apps have become the main form of comics in Korea and, increasingly, throughout Asia. Here’s an article laying it all out with charts and graphs – webtoons make up 70% of Japan’s digital comics market. Webcomics are also the source of tons of Korean TV shows, but print comics are almost non-existent in the country. And the digital comic book model is spreading, according to Bloomberg:
Already, it’s gaining fans in Japan, the world’s largest comics market. Manga app Piccoma, owned by both Kakao Entertainment and its parent company, was actually the most popular manga app in the country last year. Its webtoon sales tripled last year to 414.6 billion won ($371 million). Kakao Entertainment-owned webtoons accounted for 40% of Piccoma’s sales according to the company.
“Japan’s digital comics market could triple in three to four years,” said Kim Hyunyong, an analyst at Hyundai Motor Securities Co., adding that global digital comics and web fiction markets are expected to grow. 30% per year.
Lee hopes to grow aggressively with his webcomics platform worldwide — a goal just 10% achieved, he says. And to grow faster, they plan to spend around $889 million on acquisitions, potentially including Tapas, currently the #2 webcomic portal in the US, and Radish, a US-based fast-paced drama app.
Now I know what you’re saying: it’ll never happen here! But a few things to remember.
Korean culture is having a major moment in the United States — Parasite and minari for adults, of course, but more importantly, K Pop powers much of youth culture on social media and beyond. BTS and Black Pink are just the vanguard of this – it’s huge and endless. Just as Japanese culture is now dominant, K culture is here to stay.
Also, adults have no idea how important webtoons are with kids. I only know this because I have a webtoon backpack and when I wear it I am constantly asked if I work for webtoon or read them – always by people under 21. Webtoon does a lot of advertising on social media like Instagram for teens — advertising that older comic book readers don’t see because they’re out of the population. And I’m sure there are more secrets to their success that are hidden in my Boomer X world.
But 70 million active users don’t lie. The mixture of light comedy, romance, boy love and fantasy on Webtoon, Tapas and other portals is extremely appealing to readers who like to hold something in their hand which is a cellphone. It’s as different from the American comic book model as the manga, and like the manga, it’s worth examining how and why it connects so successfully with readers. In this case, because the content is purpose-built for the platform (it takes a long time to convert webtoons to print) and can be narrated in short bursts.
Now, I’m not saying the genre of comics we primarily cover here at The Beat is going away. Or that readers of these comics are offline. We have a very robust retail environment for physical comics in the United States, and that market is investing even more. It’s here for next time.
Kakao’s $18 billion valuation is probably big talk for an investment site, but I’ve heard from multiple sources that they’re definitely coming to the US and pumping even more money into the webcomics business . More comics for everyone, everywhere. It will be a good thing; don’t be surprised when it looks a little different than you expected.