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Digital Comics: The New Internet Revolution?

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Associate professor in Communications and Media at the University of Wollongong, Australia, Brian Yecies joined a discussion with UCI Libraries about the growing webcomic industry on March 9. Digital comics, also known as webtoons, originated in South Korea and are now available around the world for people to read. This event was intended to showcase a new addition to UCI Libraries, where webtoons will now be available to students, local residents and staff to enjoy.

Yecies began by discussing his 2018 to 2021 Australian Research Council Discovery Project which focuses on “mobile webtoons and creative innovation in the digital economy.”

“[This project] is to help educate aspiring practitioners and current practitioners to join the so-called revolution. [We] used basic, big data methods to collect platform data, user responses, user activities, user behavior and also how the millions and millions of webtoon series are transforming over time,” Yecies said.

After introducing his research project, Yecies told audience members  what a webtoon is in case some may have been unclear on the subject matter.

“[A webtoon] is a Korean-born phenomenon … that comes out of the early 2000s. It’s specifically a vertically scrolling format where the imagery is scrolled, which makes it very different from other page-turning formats and digital comic types. [They also include] commenting features and external social media entertainment supporting networks,” Yecies said.

Yecies also noted how  webtoons are “creator-owned, creator-led content,” which he describes as what makes webtoons “very unique, very important and very powerful for aspiring and professional content creators.”

Afterward, Yecies moved on to the ecosystem of webtoons and how it created a “mushroom effect,” starting in South Korea.

“We’ve mapped 56 domestic platforms in South Korea and 25 non-Korean platforms in China, France, Indonesia, Japan and the U.S., so we’re starting to see an expanding global effect and global spread with this digital content. While [webtoons] were born in Korea, [they’ve] had an incredible flow …  for content creators around the world,” Yecies said.

The professor went on to present the technology that’s sprouted from webtoons, including  “various levels of user interactivity,” such as horror-toons — which are flash-animated webtoons in the horror genre.

“Webtoon industries have maintained a level of technology, which is quite low-tech at the moment, as its common denominator for audiences around the world. But it’s important to acknowledge some of these experiments,” Yecies said.

While discussing webtoon industries, Yecies introduced the online “English and globally facing platform —  Webtoon.” Formerly known as Line Webtoon, this platform allows users to post their own webcomics for the world to see.

“It’s got a translation corner, this brings cohorts of fans … from 32 languages which help contribute this creator-generated content. It’s what makes Webtoon stand out among all the others,” Yecies said.

One of Webtoon’s features, CANVAS, was also covered by Yecies in the webinar. CANVAS is a section of Webtoon that allows anyone with an account to post and create their own webtoons for others to see. Webtoon’s “Original” page focuses on webcomics that are either made by the company themselves or by other users whose popularity skyrocketed; enough to where they could make money for their artwork. 

Yecies calls the phenomenon where users who post on CANVAS who strive to be featured on the Original page as the “one percent dream.”

“This kind of one percent dream encapsulates the competition rate among all of the practitioners who have launched a webtoon series. Only about one percent of them, according to my understanding in my interviews with practitioners in Korea … are able to license their content for merchandise or sell their series for a transmedia adaptation,” Yecies said.

Yecies said CANVAS as the “wild part” of Webtoon since it holds over “twice as many genres compared to the Original section.” He included this section of Webtoon into his research by observing how users comment in the space. Yecies observed that the readers across the site commented about their feelings about the webtoon, and generally about COVID-19.

To showcase CANVAS, Yecies noted “My Giant Nerd Boyfriend” as one of the few success stories to move from Webtoon’s CANVAS section to the Original section.

Yecies also noted the series “CASTER,” a webtoon that includes music with its illustrations. This series was made by Austin Harrison to “explore and experiment with the webtoon format” instead of a traditional print format.

After presenting a few more series, Yecies moved on to branded webtoons, which are “serialized advertisement campaigns containing weekly episodes that may or may not employ existing characters from an existing webtoon.”

“[Branded webtoons] try to tie in and promote messages, products, services etc. It looks, smells and feels like a regular webtoon series, but has a very different objective, and it’s to enhance the world of that transmedia IP domain,” Yecies said.

To conclude his presentation, Yecies told the audience why he used the term revolution to describe this webtoon phenomenon.

“[Webtoons] energized Korea’s creative industries and soft-power digital wave, expanded beyond Korea’s national borders via fan-translators, it’s divergent from manga and different from Marvel and DC comics,” Yecies said. “ They got these dynamic links to transmedia storytelling and adaptation, new comic styles, innovative platform technical capabilities and also this strong localization effect.” 

UCI Libraries’ next virtual webinar is the “Manga Drawing Event”, hosted by UCI students Mando Eijanantos and Tristyn Caneso on April 14.

Kealani Quijano is a Campus News Intern for the Winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at kaquijan@uci.edu.