Interview: Line Webtoon Makes Its SXSW Debut

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 17, 2016.

LINE Webtoon SXSW

LINE Webtoon, one of the leading publishers in digital comics, is attending SXSW in Austin for the first time this week. On Friday, March 18 they will be presenting the “Women in Comics” panel. Their lineup of creators is 42% composed of women and 48% of their comics feature female leads. It is a company setting a standard for diversity in comics and being rewarded for it with over 6 million daily readers, half of them being women.

ComicBook.Com was able to speak with several of those speaking on Friday, including Tom Akel (LINE Webtoon’s Head of Content), Kaitlyn Narvaza (creator of Where Tangents Meetand Siren’s Lament), and Beth Behr (new comics creator and star of Two Broke Girls). While we had a chance to speak with these very talented comics creators beforehand, on Friday fans will be able to ask questions by sending them on Twitter with the hashtag #WebtoonSXSW. Fan questions will be asked during and after the panel, and fans can watch it live starting at 1:30pm ET on the SXSW panel on Twitch here.

But for now, enjoy getting a glimpse into the inner workings of LINE Webtoon right here.

What attracted you to working in digital comics as opposed to traditional publication routes? What exactly do you see as being the greatest strengths of the format LINE Webtoon as a publisher?

Tom Akel: My background has been almost exclusively in digital content development, with a focus on mobile, since 2004. I think the flexibility of digital content development is what attracts me the most. There aren’t any limits. And that holds true for all digital formats. There aren’t 22 page comics that need to printed at a specific size, there aren’t 22 minute episodes that need commercial breaks. Whatever format and features make sense can be realized. The only limit is your imagination. Tearing away those limitations can be challenging, but those challenges are the most exciting.

And it’s exactly that that drew me to LINE Webtoon. Embracing that creative freedom not only in terms of format, but being at the forefront of creator’s rights, diversity, tech innovations, community building, and empowering new generations of creators.

Kaitlyn Narvaza: I personally enjoy working in digital comics because I’ve already been accustomed to posting my artworks online for over the past six years. The internet is very useful tool for artists trying to get more exposure, feedback, and inspiration.

I believe the greatest strengths of LINE Webtoon as a publisher is its modernity and its support that it provides for its creators.

Beth Behrs: Being available anytime, anywhere on any device. The ease of reading comics in the vertical format. Just scrolling down intuitively with one finger. Community engagement. How exciting it is to publish the comic and then instantly have fans commenting and being able to interact with them as each chapter launches. This is pretty unheard of in comics.

The focus of this Friday’s panel at SXSW is on women in comics. How has LINE Webtoon incorporated greater gender diversity in its comics?

Akel: The diversity has happened organically. Since Junkoo Kim founded Webtoon in 2004, we have never thought of what we’re doing simply as “comics”, we’re entertainment content, so there’s never been a time where we weren’t targeting all potential audiences. We look for fans who are consuming digital entertainment and build from there.

In Korea, where Webtoon started, digital comics are mainstream, and the scale of Webtoon is unparalleled. I think that, coupled with the fact that we’re all-digital, has eliminated both the physical and sociological barriers that have haunted the comics industry in the U.S. and lead to great creators finding us. Then having that content available in the U.S. has further lead to reaching those audiences here.

Narvaza: When browsing through the selection of genres and comics titles LINE Webtoon has to offer, it’s clear that there is a neutrality of gender. From the creators they pick up to the content of each comic series that’s published, everything is discrimination free.

Tom, as the head of content, you see a lot of ideas and help select what will see publication. What does diversity mean to you and how does it help strengthen your line of comics?

Akel: To start with, I don’t see how not having as diverse a creator base and audience as possible would help any content company. In Korea, we use a matrix to analyze where we lack content for various audiences. It’s a very scientific way to do it, but it’s a great way to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. In the U.S. it’s a bit different. There is a human need to be very conscious about how we elevate talent and a responsibility to society to provide a platform for new voices or voices that have been drowned out. We have amazing scale, technology, and a unique ability to instantly give new creators a platform where they’ll have reach and no barriers for the world to see their content. That’s a lot of power and we need to use that power to push the medium forward the right way.

What do you look for when picking out new projects and bringing them to publication?

Akel: Like I said, we’re always looking for new voices, so we try to look for holes in our content offering. There are so many great creators out there with quality work that just haven’t found a home. And there is that very conscious effort to continue to diversify our talent pool which will sometimes dictate how I spend my time in artist alley or looking at online portfolios.

Specifically in regards to the content, I tell creators the same thing every time. Pitch the project that you’re most passionate about, that you’ve been dying to do your entire life and just haven’t had the opportunity. And of course we’re always looking at talent in LINE Webtoon Discover, which is where Kaitlyn broke in. That’s really the easiest way to get work in front of us because we’re checking it every day.

As LINE Webtoon continues to grow and evolve what do you perceive as being the most significant opportunities and challenges?

Akel: The challenges and the opportunities are pretty aligned. We want to publish as many great creators as possible. It can be hard to find great content. It’s time-consuming, and there are so many hours in the day to look at comics, and then equally time-consuming to reach out to creators and work through publishing deals. There are certainly times where we look at something as say, that’s a no-brainer to publish or pass, but a lot times pitches or portfolios fall somewhere in the middle.

And we’re looking to revolutionize comics in the U.S. through LINE Webtoon Discover as we’ve done in Asia, which is no small task. There’s a lot of education for creators in developing content and engaging with fans the way we do it and wrapping people’s heads around the upside. But once we turn that corner we will have forever changed the comics industry in the U.S. In Asia there are thousands of creators publishing through Discover and monetizing their content in ways that aren’t really possible here without a platform like ours. And though our apps are best of breed, I think it’s our approach that provides us that opportunity.

Audiences are spending the majority of their time consuming their entertainment on mobile. By leading for so long with mobile as the focus of our business, we’re uniquely positioned to grow the mobile comics audience. The comic industry in the U.S. is steady, but if we look at the growth rate and reach we’ve built in Asia it’s clear that there’s a lot of catching up to do here. We’ve done that globally by not limiting ourselves to defining comics the way they’ve been traditionally viewed, but by looking at potential audiences and thinking first about what kind of entertainment they’re looking for. Comics are a medium just like video, editorial, or gaming. We don’t develop content for a “comics” audience, we provide fans with engaging entertainment and storytelling.

Kaitlyn and Beth, as creators what appealed to you about LINE Webtoon?

Narvaza: I first heard about LINE Webtoon’s Discover when my Uncle suggested I check out this new platform for comic artists. I took a break from drawing comics for a couple of years, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to pick it up again for fun. It was the first time I was sharing my stories with a public audience, so I was surprised when I found out that quite a few people actually enjoyed my creations. After roughly over a month of submitting my works to Discover, I was picked up by the LINE Webtoon team. It was an amazing experience, especially as an amateur comic artist, knowing that I was given the chance to have my works published without having a professional background. I’ve never imagined that my comic drawing hobby would actually become a job; it was like a dream come true. It opened my eyes to the fact that following my passion was possible, as long as I work hard and put my heart into it. From here I hope to continue making stories and doing what I love while encouraging other aspiring creators to follow their dreams as well!

What appealed to me about LINE Webtoon was the fact that I could publish my works and still have my works accessible to everyone and anyone. I feel that it’s beneficial to creators because it allows them to have more exposure and a wider range of audience.

Behrs: I love reading Line Webtoon because it’s so easily accessible. I am VERY busy always and I love being able to read my comics on the subway, in line for coffee, on the set of 2 Broke Girls etc easily from my phone or ipad. And their content is wonderful. The other creators are amazing and I’m very humbled and proud to be a part of this world.

What has the experience been like working with the publisher?

Narvaza: It has been a very enjoyable experience working with LINE Webtoon, especially as a person publishing their work for the first time. It was a lot easier than I expected and I felt that it was a very smooth transition into becoming one of their creators.

Behrs: Wonderful! Tom Akel has been a friend of mine for years. He’s incredibly intelligent and has amazing notes re: Dents. Matt and I are so lucky to be working/learning from him.

Kaitlyn, you’re focusing on a genre (YA romance) that has developed a massive following in prose, but is comparatively underrepresented in American comics. What attracts you to these stories and how do you hope to develop an audience?

Narvaza: Growing up, I’ve always been attracted to Japanese based comics (manga), mainly for the aesthetic and the genres that kindled the hopeless romantic in me. I personally feel that romance is something everyone can hope for, experience, and relate to. So with that, I hope to connect and develop an audience.

You’re one of the first success stories at LINE Webtoon. What do you think the primary factors in the success of your comics have been?

Narvaza: When I put work into my comics, I am very passionate about how I depict my stories and the messages I try to get across. One of the main things I like to focus on in my stories is pouring emotion into the characters I portray in hopes of connecting to my readers. I think the success of my comics generally goes hand in hand with how many people can relate to the stories and feelings.

Beth, you obviously have experience some success in Hollywood. What attracted you to working in comics and telling your own stories in the medium, especially in digital publication?

Behrs: Matt and I grew up together in Marin and Matt was always a huge comic book nerd. I remember stacks of X-Men in his bedroom. Over the past couple of years, I kept asking Matt what he was reading on his iPad and he introduced me to some really incredible graphic novels and I became hooked. Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Saga, Y the Last Man, LadyKiller, etc.  Creatively, for me, it doesn’t feel like a departure from Hollywood, it’s still storytelling. When I’m acting, I’m serving someone else’s narrative but I’ve felt equally as happy and creatively fulfilled being the author of my own. It’s also an opportunity to flex a different creative muscle for me unleash my inner nerd. The digital publication intrigued me, because it will make DENTS so quickly and easily accessible without compromising the art or content.

As you publish your first comics projects, what kind of stories are you most interest in and who do you hope to reach?

Behrs: The catalyst for the setting of our story is in the post-apocalyptic world, is due to global warming. Climate change activism is something that Matt and I are both very passionate about and it was important for us to incorporate socio-political elements into the comic. We explore sexuality, feminism, environmental issues and prejudice through the eyes of our 14-year old heroine, Eleanor (named after Eleanor Roosevelt). We also explore fear and hatred. There is a genocide against the DENTS and a prejudice against them for being different and this is a subject matter that (unfortunately) is so relevant right now. Dents is a supernatural world with some very real human themes. We like to think of it as X-Men meets Hunger Games meets a darker Frozen (our storyline centers around Eleanor going on a journey to find her estranged twin sister).

Moving forward how do you see both your own books and the digital medium changing and growing the audience for comics?

Akel: Regarding our own titles: we’ll be doing our part so long as we continue to offer content for all audiences and we continue to build on our Discover platform, which is where most of the hits in Korea have come from.

Regarding changes in digital media: currently, I think it’s more of a matter of the industry as a whole catching up to digital. But we also need to stay cognizant that technology evolves at an exponential rate. And thinking 3, 5 years ahead, so that when those advancements hit, whether the next thing is VR, holodecks, or comics that are implanted into your brain or as motion tattoos, that we’re prepared to embrace whatever immersive experiences or changes in distribution come our way and where our audiences choose to engage.

Narvaza: As a creator who grew up in Western society, I was fortunate enough to have been influenced by Eastern culture. With this said, I personally feel my works are more universal, therefore people from all sides of the world can pretty much relate to my stories. The fact that my works are being published through digital medium makes it all the more accessible to everyone globally.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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