When most Americans think of comics, they either think of caped superheroes like Batman and Superman or they think of sterilized Sunday morning spreads like “Garfield” and “The Family Circus.” The more astute reader might namedrop the “Watchmen” or “Maus,” but in America comics still occupy the same geeky space reserved for “World of Warcraft,” “Risk,” and Civil War reenactments.
But in South Korea, Web comics – or “Webtoons” – are enormously popular. So popular that Chang Kim, a former project manager at Google and the co-founder of the Asian blogging service TNC, says that one in three South Korean Internet users view Web comics daily across a variety of genres, from comedy to drama to horror. And with Tapastic, his latest startup which just received $750,000 in funding, Kim wants to find out if Americans are ready for the Web comic craze.
Tapastic operates a bit like YouTube but for comics. Some of the comics are submitted by amateurs looking for a more focused distribution channel for their work. “It turns out a lot of artists aren’t happy with the US comic structure,” Kim says. “It’s predominantly Marvel and DC comics controlling the whole market. As an indie artist you don’t have many places to go.” But what about Tumblr or online art communities like DeviantART? Kim says these outlets are okay, but that Tapastic offers an experience tailored solely toward comics. It also allows for serialization and regular scheduled release cycles for content, not unlike a television station.
Other submissions come from artists specifically sought out by Tapastic. Kim says he’s looking into offering minimum monetary guarantees for these artists or perhaps setting up a revenue-sharing model based on ads and clicks. He will likely monetize the service by selling ad space or sponsored content, though he’s also looking into implementing a freemium model wherein users get to read X number of comics in a series before they have to fork over cash.
Of course just because something’s popular in Korea doesn’t mean it’s going to hit it big in the US. Raise your hand if you expected “Gangnam Style,” PSY’s ode to equestrianism and posteriors, to become one of the biggest global hits of the year (over 700,000,000 hits and counting…)
Even Kim has a healthy amount of skepticism. In a blog post at 500 Startups, where Kim is a founder/mentor, he writes, “Why hasn’t the Gangnam Style craze opened the door to more K-pop hits going global, when there are plenty of other K-pop stars who arguably have much better global appeal than the chubby PSY?” But Kim also thinks the appeal of Web comics, or, as he likes to call them, “visual stories,” is universal. It’s a format that’s uniquely well-suited for the Web — more visceral than a block of text, but more user-friendly than video. Unlike video, Kim says, “You actually can scroll down at the speed that you want. You have control over the speed of consumption. You can skip skip skip until you find something interesting.”
The American market hasn’t been entirely resistant to Web comics. The popular series the Oatmeal helped its creator Matthew Inman land a book deal. There’s also the more esoteric but whipsmart comic strip xkcd. And last week, the Guardian got into the comics game with their brilliant, responsive graphic novel “America: Elect!”
But is the format popular enough in America to deserve its own distribution hub? Maybe not yet. But Kim isn’t worried that cultural differences are to blame for Web comics’ relative lack of popularity in the states. He emphasizes that Korea is not a historically comic-obsessed nation, not to be confused with Japan where “Manga” has been a big part of pop culture since the 1950s. The tool and platform for distributing comics are universal he says, he just needs to populate it with local content that appeals to Americans. That’s easier said than done. But whether Kim succeeds or fails, he’s blazing a unique trail for entrepreneurs looking to adapt Korean tech trends to the US, and not the other way around.