Tom Bilyeu had already seen the writing on the wall. Then the pandemic hit and made it even harder to ignore.
The entrepreneur and founder of the Impact Theory publishing line knew back in the spring that his comics would be exiting the monthly print market and going to a digital distribution model in a matter of months. Once COVID-19 took hold and upended the comics industry, Bilyeu simply accelerated his time table. On July 13, individual issues of Impact Theory’s first series, Steve Aoki’s Neon Future, debuted on WebToon’s vertical-scroll platform. The company's other title, Hexagon, from writer Michael Moreci, electronic artist Don Diablo, and penciler Jheremy Raapack, will also be going exclusively digital.
“Thinking about where the next generation is going to be reading comics, and when you look at the scale of what WebToon is doing,” Bilyeu told SYFY WIRE. “It became pretty self-evident we needed to make the change.”
His ongoing frustration with comics’ distribution system, which Bilyeu felt was hopelessly outdated, also motivated him. “We spent a lot of money launching Neon Future to the traditional marketplace. And when I got in and I saw how it was so dysfunctional," he says. "Steve and I had been talking for a long time about [going digital]. We were already committed to it before COVID hit and then it hit. And we knew we were never again going to develop for anything other than the vertical-scroll format.”
In an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE, Bilyeu and Aoki, the global superstar DJ who co-created Neon Future, discussed their embrace of vertical scroll and why they think it’s the future of comics. As longtime fans of traditional comics, both admit it is difficult to abandon print. But they say it became impossible to ignore where the business is trending.
“I mean, when Tom and I started talking about WebToon and the numbers they get, I couldn't believe how many people were checking it out,” Aoki says.
“When you look at the top-performing titles on there and compare to print comics, the numbers are absolutely staggering,” Bilyeu adds.
He has a point. In North America alone, WebToon’s “Best 30” list of titles garnered more than 2.4 billion views combined in 2019, according to numbers from Publishers Weekly. WebToon, which is owned by the South Korean portal Naver, has more than 60 million active monthly readers globally, and more than 10 million monthly users in North America. Those are massive stats that are difficult to ignore, as is the growth potential for the vertical format, which has long been popular in Asia and is clearly making inroads here. Something else that can't be ignored is the fact that while digital comics have been predicted as the "future" for years, they remain a minor portion of the U.S. comics market. According to Comichron, digital comics sales tallied $90 million in sales in 2019, compared to $1.1 billion for traditional comics and graphic novel purchases.
Aoki, whose passion for futurism is well known, predicts the ease of the vertical-scroll platform will eventually make Western comics audiences fully embrace digital. He compares it to how technology transformed music. “It's just like [how] music went from physical to streaming,” he says. “I remember when we used to make CDs. Before that we made vinyl and then iTunes came out and now streaming is just how we listen to music.”
Ever the techno-optimist, Aoki goes on to say that vertical scroll is on the verge of a major breakthrough with Western comics readers. “It feels very fluid for me and I love it. You have to adapt with the technology. The future's all about adaptation and thinking forward,” he says. “And I really believe that, by this time next year, American digital comics readers are going to be going vertical scroll. It’s just going to happen. It’s too powerful.”
The danger of being "out of sight, out of mind" by voluntarily exiting the shelves of comic shops doesn't seem to worry Bilyeu. The benefits of awareness gained on WebToon for Impact Theory, a company he founded to create film and television IP based on comic books, far outweigh the risks. And while the majority of traditional U.S. comics fans have yet to embrace digital comics, be it standard-swipe, left-style digital books or vertical scroll, Bilyeu doesn’t see that as a deterrent. Younger readers, he says, have grown up on reading comics vertically and they are the audience he hopes to reach with Neon Future and other Impact Theory releases. “As a longtime comics fan, the last thing I want is people watching something in portrait mode,” he says. “I want them in landscape, but it's just that the battle was fought. The battle was won. And so we’re really immersing ourselves in this format that has so many viewers.”
Neon Future is a future-set science fiction story that details the conflict between Augmented, a group whose bodies are laced with technology, and the Authentic, humans without tech. Co-created by Aoki, Bilyeu, and comics writer Jim Krueger, the series features sleek, stylish art from pencilers Jeremy Repack and Neil Edwards that jumps off the page of a traditional comic. Aoki says Neon Future’s cyberpunk stylings make it well-suited for vertical scroll consumption. “I think as far as the narrative aspect for our story, it works perfectly,” he notes. “It feels good. It looks really good.”
Bilyeu points out that the shift to the vertical-scroll platform led them to reformat the story, and even create new panels and page layouts to take advantage of the new format. The publisher also notes that WebToon’s younger audience has them reexamining the Neon Future series moving forward. “Now that we've put all of our attention here, we're being true to it from the way that you pace an episode,” he says. “From how you think about the storyline to the types of people that come and read it. [WebToon readers] are much younger. And Neon Future is more of a mature title. So moving forward, what we're going to be doing is... be focused more on a young audience. And if you're true to it, then you've really got a chance of popping with the audience.”
Neon Future isn’t completely done with print, by the way. A print trade paperback collection of Volume 2 and future installments are planned. And there are more stories in the works. Both Aoki and Bilyeu are road warriors who travel constantly. Being stuck at home has led to changes in their personal routines. For Bilyeu, it means waking up at 4 a.m. for daily anime viewings. Perhaps its research, since discussions are underway to adapt Neon Future into an anime series. “That is a goal of ours,” Aoki says about the possible anime project, declining to say anything further because negotiations are ongoing.
And how is Aoki, a guy used to flying around the world for a high-paying DJ gig on a moment’s notice, handling being home all the time? Surprisingly well. He’s settled into an evening workout routine and has been catching up on television, especially Homeland. (The Old Guard is next on his watch list.)
The extra time at home has given him a chance to try things like neurofeedback, a therapeutic method to assess brainwave activity. That seems to have come in handy the past few months. “I go through these creativity spurts," Aoki says. "I'm like, 'Yes, we have so much time in the studio!' And then guess what happens when you have so much time in the studio? You just get burnt out. Before I would be like, OK, I have like two or three days home to get all my deadlines done and hustling. But now, I’m just like every night I'm going down the studio, and sometimes, I don't have any ideas. So I just started experimenting and I doodle with the synthesizer. I started experimenting more and trying out different things, jamming more, just kind of enjoying, like not having to finish a song. And that ultimately allows me to just be creative with everything, not just music.”
Volume 2 of Neon Future is being released with new updates each Monday, and it is available for free on the WebToon app and website.