Insta Made Me Read It is a bimonthlyish column covering a selection of those comics which are promoted on the official Webtoon Instagram account! Every time I take a look at two comics which I’ve seen on Instagram to get an impression of what’s a) popular and b) rewarded on Webtoon, a massive modern comics-reading platform usually accessed by their free app.
On the last day of November, WebtoonOfficial hit one million followers. Incredible news for comics readership!
This time, I’m covering Weak Hero and Meow Man. Weak Hero and Meow Man are both originally South Korean comics newly released with English translations on the English-language Webtoon app and site. The former was featured on WebtoonOfficial on October 15th with this delightful and totally atonal multi-title dance video—a very different sort of animated promo to ones I’ve previously described. I can’t fight that moonlight, so I stuck it on my read list. But Weak Hero also had its own solo promo earlier in September, the day after its debut. At time of writing, the dance ad is approaching 70,000 views; the solo ad almost 50,000. Weak Hero debuted on September the tenth, and chapter reader numbers average around 20,000.
Meow Man last featured on WebtoonOfficial in mid-November, in a multi-title “how would you react?” meme-based audience participation upload. It was in another in mid-October, and another mid-September as well as August. It had a solo feature on the ‘gram in August—so you can see it’s well-represented in promo. Chapter reads also hover around a 20,000 standard.
Weak Hero by SEOPASS & Razen
Weak Hero is the first webtoon title I’ve covered to absolutely lack apparent femininity. Previously, everything I’ve written about in this column is an obvious product of the 65% female creator base, either representing or gratifying or, usually, both, the insecurities and wants of the teenaged girls’ demographic. This school-based comic not only features zero female students, but zero girlish perspective—it’s about the volatile nature of alliances, told as a story about the volatile nature of alliances between violent teenaged boys attending rival schools, rival classes, and just generally being rivals. This isn’t to say it’s irrelevant or an unattractive read for a girl or anyone else. You don’t have to be a thing to be attracted to spending time with it. Even if that were the case, girls also experience volatile alliances. This story simply tells its interpersonal stories without romantic glow, cuteness, beauty, or sentimentality, all of which are girl-associated, and without women, the girliest things of all. It’s both unfemme in its aesthetic existence as a product, and its narrative existence as art. It’s about allegiance, not friendship.
There are two protagonists of this story, and both could be described as a “weak hero.” The first, Eugene, who commonly narrates the story in a classic, ennui-laden slice-of-life style, is a nebbish little lad in the common “loser” mould. He’s skinny, small, hunches, wears glasses, has no especial handsomeness or charm or wit. Eugene is attending a school known for its violent internal hierarchy, which every other school in the area also seems to share. He’s plainly the “be killed” half of the “Kill or” equation, and it’s plain to him as much as it is to his bully peers and, through these heavily loaded context cues, the reader. This kid hopes to keep his head down and survive as few beatings as possible before graduation, lamenting his bad luck on the inside.
The second is Grey, who’s just as slight as the other, but textually beautiful enough to be “mistaken for a girl.” The art doesn’t reflect this as much as a reader might expect. Those of us used to shoujo and boys’ love manga, or even fairly mainstreamed bishoujo, or even just the many lovely faces of j-rock, k-pop, etc, would (in my case, at least) expect to see more sparkle, more lift. Weak Hero’s nonfeminine aesthetic location allows for hypermobility in faces, tremendous expression of desperation, rage, disgust, cunning—all the ugly emotions. Unlike Scorching Romance, a girls-demo comic on Webtoon that lets its protagonist be badly behaved and unattractive, there’s no deadpan comedy to excuse and lampshade the ugliness. It’s in earnest, a primary language of masculinity. Mouths are dragged around faces against mach-speed gravity, because that’s how it feels when you’re being Bruce Lee. So, unusually, Grey’s remarkable delicacy is exhibited only in his comparable lack of extrusion.
Grey is also small and physically weaker than the large, strong boys who are roaming everywhere looking for someone to conquer. The social pyramid is spoken of freely and if you’re not winning a fight with someone, you’re nobody and nothing. Both weak heroes find themselves casually and frighteningly victimised, but Grey’s response is not to curl into a ball and wait for the blows to stop landing. Grey’s way is to flip the fuck out and murderalise anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to live in such a base way as adherence to violent hierarchy. This is a boy who will hit you in the face with a brick. He literally hits a peer in the face with a brick. Then he breaks his little finger. Frankly, the narrative arranges its world such that this is a reasonable and ethically sound response, because the kid he bricks was trying to start a fight with Grey which would have seen five larger people whaling on him, just because he tried to walk a certain route home.
There’s a lot to keep in mind whilst reading Weak Hero. Having read only seven chapters (around two and a bit American-style issues) it’s one of those stories with an unclear destination. Grey’s tragic(?) past seems to be being seeded as narratively relevant and character defining, and the potential of his friendship with the other weedy protagonist dangles like a carrot. But Seopass and Razen are content to meander, introducing a million side characters and the basics of their existing rivalries, allies, and grudges. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but it doesn’t matter: the specifics of a character’s past is never the point, only a matte painting designed to foreground the momentum of their current actions. Various randos call and text each other about various other randos who they respect, hate, or hatefully respect, because Grey’s wildman tactics make him a wildcard in what is, effectively, a stats-based system. It’s a very readable, engrossing comic with an exciting perspective on the relationships between men, and plenty of laugh moments and examples of illustrative panache. The craft is great. It’s the webtoon that takes me the longest to read, just because it’s packed so full of by-name referrals to characters I haven’t had time (either through their sustained presence, or through a period of low action within the comic) to metabolise, and every reference to one comes pre-loaded with several references to others. It’s great worldbuilding, even if it makes a harder swallow—an apparently inescapable social order has to be constantly contextualised in order to sustain its dominance.
Meow Man by Olso, translated edition from Dami Lee
Meow Man is also different to every previously-featured comic in this column. Not because it’s afeminine—it’s not, it’s about a gently-struggling girl getting a magic boyfriend who annoys her. In that sense, Meow Man is identical to Fluffy Boyfriend. But it’s a different comic by way of approach to the format: Meow Man’s chapters are made up of several sub-chapters, and each of those is a three- or four-panel rimshot strip. If you’re a fan of 4-koma or newspaper strips, you’ll be very comfortable here. Unlike many webtoon comics there are no clever scrolling flourishes or extended panels. Meow Man’s manipulation of the format is entirely within the strength of its comic timing, that’s naturally accentuated by a manual scroll (the print equivalent is the drama of a page turn).
Thirteen episodes in, the story is straightforward as indicated: a rumpled college student wakes up and finds a humanoid cat creature staring at her. He says he can grant her wishes; she wishes for a boyfriend and he’s like “lol, here I am!” He claims to be Claude, the prince of the cat people, and in need of her sanctuary. She’s overwhelmed so she rolls with it. From there the premise expands to include other cat people living incognito amongst humans, how having a live-in hottie affects her navigation of her secret crush, and how Claude’s appearance at her university knocks all that on again. Claude spends most of his time in human society wearing a dress and being mistaken for a beautiful girl, which he objects to. The crush gets a crush on Claude, but Claude hates him because he is the object of Claude’s “girlfriend’s” crush. It’s a robust farce of miscommunication, and all delivered in stinger-length momentary episodes. Very fun, very cute, very light as long as you have no anxiety provoked by comedic misgendering. Like Cursed Princess Club’s gayless, danger-free gay panic moments, nothing in this comic connects to real othering. It doesn’t invoke transphobia, it just skips along like transphobia would never happen.
The only other caveat I’d give is related to the crush, Nathan. His skin is darker than the majority of the characters’, which makes a panel where the protagonist’s perception of him is contrasted with Claude’s perception even unhappier than it could be. Protag’s vision matches the regular illustration of this character, where his nose is thin and his lips aren’t detailed. Claude’s scribbly version fully outlines mouth and nose, making the joke “Claude thinks he’s ugly” imply a wide nose and prominent lips are unquestionably undesirable. Like Claude’s dress, it doesn’t read like purposeful hurtfulness, just the cruel result of unexamined input that some readers might find necessary to avoid.
For those who are unbothered, Meow Man is an easy, easy read. The mini-bites are easy to monster, and the translation by Korean-American Dami Lee (who is also the cartoonist behind As Per Usual, and is credited at the start of every chapter which is great—if you’re a translator, please do this! We want to know you are a part of the process) is smooth and naturalistic, with very good portioning of dialogue between bubbles, as well as bubble placement (which could be either original cartoonist Olso or Dami). Speech bubbles sweat as well as the characters speaking them, which is a great touch.
Bonus area: republish your creator-owned print comic on Webtoon
Recently comics piracy has been right up there in the discourse, with the two sides basically being: creators want to get paid for their work, and readers don’t want to pay to read as many comics as a day can hold. Here’s my imperfect suggestion for a bridge between these parties: if you own your comic that’s already in print—if you’re allowed to reprint or share wherever you like—reformat your pages for Webtoon and publish it there via their “Canvas” creator tier.
Webtoon cartoonists come in two flavours: those who make “Originals” and those who make for “Canvas.” Originals are licensed to Webtoon, and their creators receive a flat rate per chapter. Bonus payments are based on view numbers, as well as the ability to purchase early access to new chapters, and Webtoon does heavily promote its originals—hence the existence of this column. The top Originals earners are making, I am informed, $10,000 per month.
Canvas creators don’t receive a flat payment and may not make any money at all. However, based on their view numbers, they can see revenue, with the most successful monthly payouts, I’m told, currently at around $2000. As Webtoon does not market Canvas titles in the same way that it does Originals, your previously-existing product is ahead of the curve, because people already know about it, and you have a network of fans who can spread the word about this newly accessible, ad-revenue gathering publication of your project. The beauty of Webtoon is that it’s completely free to read and incredibly easy to access, as well as having a huge library to reinforce continual reading—when someone starts noodling about, eventually, they’ll get to your comic. It has all the reader-friendly aspects of pirate sites, but it is not a pirate site. You can earn money from your craft there.
Canvas comics don’t belong to Webtoon, they remain the property of the creator(s), and there’s nothing to prohibit material that’s previously been published elsewhere being rehosted on Webtoon. Many Canvas creators also host their comics on Tapas, or Smack Jeeves, or any other webcomic hub. In plain terms: if you have an [publisher redacted] book and you want to repub it in fifty-panel chunks on Webtoon Canvas, the only things that could stop you would be the reformatting necessary to take the title from page-layout to vertical-scroll or some detail of your contract with [publisher redacted]. If there’s no detail in that contract to prohibit you taking your book to a new platform, which you should already be aware of, then the only problem is the cost of your (or your artist’s) time to move your panels into scroll form. If you’ll allow me to repeat myself—
Imagine if you had a trade out and a webtoon version updating weekly so that people who like it can immediately buy a hard copy and, if not, get reminded they like it and haven't bought it yet weekly
— Clownhunter (@illusClaire) December 3, 2019
If you have a lot of page-wide horizontal panels in your book, adjusting it to read vertically on a smartphone might be tricky—but I’ll be making suggestions about how to get around that in future columns. If you have any specific questions, please ask them in the comments or tweet me and I’ll try to get them answered.