I first met Jiwon Kim when she was an intern at Fantagraphics in the editorial department, a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA in Cartooning in 2019. From there, Kim moved to Seoul, South Korea, and quickly earned a position at an enormously successful webcomic app. [We will not be naming the company or titles offered by the company in the body of the interview based on the interviewee’s request.]
Kim is also a fantastic autobiographical cartoonist in her own right — focusing on her role in the cogs of capitalism and the toll it takes on mental health — and a future contributor to the print Comics Journal #309. We caught up over a video call and our conversation opened my eyes to a world of comics that I was previously blind to and one that many are banking on and bankrolling to be the future of the medium and industry. We discussed the inner workings of a Korean webcomic content farm, the popularity of yaoi, and her future (or lack thereof) with the giant entertainment company.
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JIWON KIM: Let’s not name the company I work for.
RJ CASEY: OK, what should we call them then?
The porn company? [Laughter.]
I mean, what’s the official term for this kind of company? What category does it fit under?
It would fall under entertainment.
Yeah, that’s a big umbrella. “Content”.
Yes, “The Content Company”.
Well, your official title is Content Manager. You’ve been doing that for the last two years.
Two years and three months.
You got this job a few months after your Fantagraphics internship?
How did that come about?
Comics are a big thing in Korea and it’s a booming industry here. Basically, everyone reads comics in Korea. If you take the subway or any sort of public transportation, people are always scrolling through their phones looking at comics. I thought maybe I could take advantage of my background and degree and apply to this webcomic platform. It seemed like the closest thing that I could do to what I’m interested in. Originally I applied for a marketing position and then they needed someone in the content department so I made that transition internally. So I’m here now.
How much content are you responsible for on the US platform?
All of it. It’s just me.
How does that work? Is the US platform equal in size to the Korean platform? What’s the division there?
The US side of things is much smaller. The company wanted to expand to English-language comics, but it’s not as big as the Korean side of the platform, obviously. We are a small team, whereas the Korean team there’s probably more than 100 people. For the operations side, it’s a team of four people, but then there’s the design team and the translation team.
Other than the comics being in English, is there a difference from the US platform and the Korean platform?
All the content that I bring in has already been published in Korean first. I have to judge the titles’ performances on the Korean side and then bring that content over. We have a different demographic and a different audience, so considering all these different factors, I have to see what would work best for our audience and make money on our platform.
What are the differences in demographics?
I would say that on the Korean side of things, it’s split maybe 60/40 on women to male readers. In the US, it’s 90% women readers. Most of the stuff we do is geared toward women.
If you see something performing well on the Korean side of the company, how long until you have it on the US side? What’s the turnaround?
It depends. I have to do a lot of work with the production team and have to adjust everyone’s schedule. They have their own timelines and resources are only available at certain times. Usually I would say there will be three months from when a title gets prepared from when it launches. If we speed that up, maybe we could hit a month and a half. It’s the communication that takes the most amount of time, but the technical aspects of it can be sped through.
What’s the office like where you work?
It’s very casual and bright. It feels start-up-y. We have a lot of foreigners working in our company and a lot of people spend time overseas, so it’s not like a traditional Korean office.
Which would look like what?
Mostly men in their 40s and 50s. Business formal. Here, we just wear hoodies and flip-flops. We speak English in our office, which I’m assuming isn’t normal. I remember one of the new guys who was hired was reading one of our explicit comics and was trying to hide it with his laptop screen. Then like three days later I could see him reading the same sexual content on his huge monitor.
It only took him three days to become comfortable and numb to it.
It took me two days. [Laughter.] I know a lot of people feel really embarrassed when they join but after a while, no one really cares. But it’s nothing like that beautiful work by the Italian artist…
Crepax! Yeah, it’s nothing like that. Those comics are art.
I’m not familiar with any of the artists you work with. Are there any artists who are pushing it like that?
No. There are platforms that have those types of creators, but we don’t because it doesn’t sell.
On the app that your employer runs, they claim they have over 8,000 titles available.
I don’t think that’s true! [Laughs.]
You think less?
Way less. No way! [Laughter.] Does it really say that?
Yeah, I did a little scrolling on the website. What do you think the real number may be?
Like 700? 800? 900? [Laughs.]
Maybe they’re counting all the chapters available.
You mentioned that there were significantly less titles in English. How many do you think?
The US side has around 700 titles. The Korean side has a ton, but 8,000 seems like a ridiculous number.
That just seems like so many comics being made. Are there 8,000 people drawing comics in the world? [Laughter.]
I know they launch a lot more titles than us and do it more frequently.
And your job is to bring titles originally published in Korean to English readers. What are you looking for when you do that?
Since we do a lot of “boys’ love” content, first of all I’m looking for that genre. Then I’m looking for good art and good storytelling. Fast storytelling is a major plus — I’d like to see everything happening within the first three episodes. The main plot points should be there in the first two or three episodes because we don’t have a subscription model. We’ll put one-to-three episodes up for free and if the reader wants to read the rest of the story, they’ll have to pay.
They pay individually by chapter after that.
With their “coins”.
Yes, “coins”. [Laughs.] We have our own currency. It’s 30 coins per chapter, usually.
What does that 30 coins mean in actual monetary value?
I’m not sure since the dollar has changed so much recently. It would be [does some math at her desk] closer to 60 cents per chapter.
Is the title considered successful if there isn’t a lot of dropoff between readers of the free chapters and the paid chapters?
Yes, that’s basically what I’m looking for most of the time. I have to consider user behavior. I monitor the purchase rate between the free chapters and the first paid chapter. It’s also hard to judge on or near the launch date though because we usually launch a new title with six episodes. The drop-off rate will be between 60–70%.
From the free chapters to the paid chapters?
Yes. Then I’ll try to see how it carries through over the course of maybe three months. If I have people still visiting to purchase a chapter every week, then we would try to do additional promotions to boost that title.
What’s a promotion look like?
It depends, but we would possibly put up 10 episodes for free. Or we would have a sale, which means that we’d discount the prices from 30 coins to 10 coins for the first 10 chapters, for example. Sometimes we offer bundles of chapters at a set price or the entire title from the start to finish at a set price rather than pay chapter by chapter. Get the entire story for $30 rather than $70 — that kind of thing.
When you were at art school, did you ever think you’d have to know all this stuff?
No! [Laughter.] I still don’t know a lot of it. I’m still learning. I’m only two years into the job and think, “What the hell am I doing?” It’s a job that requires a lot of knowledge and you have to work with numbers a lot. There’s a weird balance between comics and analyzing them in a business-minded sort of way. I’ve never been a number-savvy person, so it’s something that I’m trying to work on.
You see the stats in the Korean platform before you bring titles to the US, but have you brought in any hits?
Ummmm… no, not really. [Laughs.] Not me personally. The people who worked before I joined brought in a lot of hits and those titles are still ongoing. We rely on those titles a lot.
How many chapters are there in these stories?
They go on for three or four years.
Does that mean something like 50 chapters?
Way beyond 50. One of our bestselling comics ended in episode 82, then they added 10 more side-story episodes. The average is probably 100 chapters for a long-running title.
And how many pages per chapter?
We count by panels. There would be anywhere between 70 to 80 panels per chapter.
Wow. There are so many comics being made.
It’s a really rigorous job. I feel like I’m doing the bare minimum by just bringing them in. The creators are the ones sacrificing their health. A lot of the comics getting produced in Korea right now are more studio-based. It feels like there’s an old DC/Marvel bullpen style now where there’s an inker, a scriptwriter, a colorist, a background artist. There are also independent creators who reject that method, but they hire artist assistants too.
I was going to ask about all these artists making comics for your company. Who are they?
They are just independent creators in Korea.
Have there been any titles where you thought were going to take off and become a hit, but did not?
Yeah, yeah. A bunch of them. But I can't name them here. That happens all the time. I also source a lot of content from the Japanese team. You know that whole pubic hair censoring stuff?
It’s like completely whited out.
Yeah, and sometimes I would get content where it wasn’t censored out. It’s part of my job — well, actually it isn’t part of my job — but a lot of times we don’t have the resources or they don't have the resources to censor things out so I would just find myself censoring penises and whiting them out. It sucks because I’m one of the only people who knows how to use Photoshop in this department, so I have to do it.
Does that happen a lot?
It does. More than it should. [Laughs.]
Is every title yaoi?
I’d say 90% of them are yaoi?
What's the other 10%?
Girl-on-girl comics that are geared toward men.
I read the first chapter of the title you sent me.
How was that for you?
It was interesting. The murder caught me off-guard. [Laughter.]
What were you expecting?
I don’t know. There was a lot of heavy breathing and eye contact between the guys and I know that’s a part of the whole thing. But I wasn’t expecting a sword slicing someone up.
I mean, these are rated-R titles and they get really spicy.
Maybe I’m just naive and I am by no way privy to the full spectrum of yaoi, but the titles I have read — I guess they’ve all been much older — haven’t been rated-R or full-on porn at all.
What do you mean?
I’m thinking of like Moto Hagio and other Year 24 creators that I’ve read — stuff like Heart of Thomas. I guess that might be just considered shōjo and not yaoi though. My question is in regards to yaoi bordering on or being full-on porn — is that a recent development or something that’s been created for a long time?
It’s been going on for a long time. Doesn’t Fantagraphics publish some yaoi titles? It’s like two buff dad dudes.
Oh, you mean Massive?
Yeah, isn’t that rated-R?
Sure, way past rated-R. But that’s aimed towards men for sure.
I think it’s been going on for a long time, but more recently in Korea it’s becoming more mainstream. There are a lot of boys’ love TV shows getting adapted.
But the comics are way more explicit than the TV shows.
Yeah. I think with the TV shows, they try to adapt the comics that are a little bit more on the PG side. Do you know about Webtoon and Tapas?
A little. I’m familiar.
They are a couple of the main webcomic platforms in North America. A Webtoon title called Heartstopper was recently adapted into a Netflix show. It does seem like yaoi is integrating itself into mainstream media.
Are these the types of comics you enjoy reading in your free time?
No. No! [Laughter.] Not at all. I do remember on my first day of work, my co-worker made me read this comic and it was a sexually explicit boys’ love story. I was just scrolling through and thinking, “Who the hell reads this?” [Laughs.] It turns out it was one of the best-selling comics on our platform. It’s been a learning experience since then.
A learning experience in what way? Do you feel like you appreciate this genre more than when you did before you took this job?
Definitely. The comics I work with are very, very beautifully made. It’s a lot of rigorous work to make them on the part of artists and we’ve noticed that less people read black-and-white comics, so all of these creators are now having to color everything with really detailed backgrounds. It’s crazy how they have to pump this out every week. I do really appreciate the craft, but in the webcomics industry in Korea, everyone is kind of creating what the market dictates. There’s not a lot of balance between creators who are doing their own thing and creators who are just trying to find their place in the industry to make money. Everyone’s just doing boys’ love comics because that’s what the current trend is in the Korean webcomics industry. That’s what it seems like to me.
So when artists are creating a longer story and it doesn’t meet a set of certain numbers for you, do they just bail on that project?
I don’t think they bail because I do think they feel attached to their comics. You know, it’s their creation so it’s hard not to. I do think the platforms bail on them if they’re not meeting certain numbers. “This obviously isn’t performing. Can we end this at episode 20?”
Do you have to be the bearer of that decision?
No, I don’t, thankfully. The Korean side of the platform deals with that mostly.
You mentioned that boys' love is a trend overall, but are there smaller trends within the genre that you've noticed?
The current trends I’ve been noticing in the boys’ love context here are that people are really into love/hate relationships. That’s a big one. Office drama. Ancient Korean times —
Like a period piece?
Yeah, period pieces. The one I sent you, that’s a period piece. That did so well that I think everyone was trying to jump on that bandwagon.
Yeah, yeah. The one you sent me is a popular one?
Yes, it’s very popular. Our company is basically reliant on it.
I know. In the Japanese division and platform, I think a great deal of their sales comes from that title alone.
This is outside the realm of traditional American publishing, but it’s probably getting more readers than the majority of books being sold.
Yes, that’s right.
How do you account for that? I guess things are so compartmentalized now that this title can be brand new to me — never even crossed my path whatsoever… It shouldn’t be, but that’s wild to me.
Without dipping too specifically into the actual numbers, I can say this title probably sells more than what most publishers sell in terms of manga and graphic novels.
For an artist of a best-selling title, what are they making from your platform?
Making as in money?
I don’t know if I can give you specifics.
How about a ballpark number for an absolute best-seller?
Somewhere around [interviewee has asked to remove this number from interview] per month.
Holy shit! Is that just from your US side, or is it total over all the Korean, Japanese and US platforms?
That’s from all three. But that’s the very top and not many people achieve that.
Is that based on royalties or a revenue-share when someone buys a chapter?
We have a system where we take 60% and the creator gets 40%. That includes all the fees and taxes from places like the Apple Store and Google Play.
So that’s a 40% royalty on each chapter sold?
Yeah. But that's after Google and Apple take their cut and then the company takes some money for marketing and promoting launches. I would say a lot of the creators don’t make nearly as much as the number mentioned before for an absolute best-seller.
Do any traditional physical book publishers ever contact your company and inquire?
We did recently release something with a North American publisher. I think it’s going to be sold in October or November. It will be on Amazon and in bookstores that carry rated-R material. I think they came to us and asked us what the numbers were. They were like, “Holy cow! They’re selling more than any actual book.” But this was a brand-new thing for us too, so we’ll see if those numbers transfer over to print publications.
Let’s shift to talk about your personal work. Does anyone in your office know that you're a cartoonist as well?
Yeah, they do. Everyone knows.
OK, it’s not something you’ve kept hidden.
I think I was trying to keep it hidden when my manager was still here. Now that he’s gone, everyone shares the same sentiment. I’m just sharing it with the world.
Yeah, gone for good. Thank god. I think he was a good person with good intentions who really liked comics, but in business, he was just not the manager for that.
How often are you drawing? Is it hard to stay motivated coming home from an office job?
I was like that in the beginning, but I realized I needed to make time for the things I love. I can’t just expect myself to be in a good state and have the energy to work on comics, so I started saying like, “From 7 to 9 at night I will work on my comics.” I purposely had to make time for it. I’ve tried to become more disciplined in my craft and it’s working. I do want to make a whole series about what it means to have a career and work in porn. Porn webcomics, specifically.
How has this job affected your cartooning?
I had a period where I just really resented what I was doing. [Laughs.] Not the job itself — not my responsibilities — but the concept of work and turning something that I really liked into a job. It’s a lot of money grubbing. [Laughs.] I have a very corporate job that’s made me only consider money when looking at comics. Like, “How much is this title selling? How much is that artist making?” Having these responsibilities made me question what I was doing for the longest time. I started using my own comics as an outlet to express my frustration and express what work actually means — what sustainable work actually means. I don’t think I'd be making these types of comics if it weren’t for my job. It’s my source of inspiration in a lot of ways.
Is that outlet working for you?
I think it is. Ever since I started making and posting comics about my job and my frustrated daily thoughts, I’ve had zero desire to make and post anything else.
In one of your recent comics, you wrote, “I remember my morality and standards can wait.”
Is that in terms of the content you read and manage all day? Is that something that weighs on you?
It’s just basically titillation. Heavy, heavy titillation. A lot of it I find morally wrong. But after my Fantagraphics internship, I came back to Korea and I was doing some translation stuff on the side to make some extra cash until I got a full-time job. Porn is such a big industry in Korea and I was translating mostly porn. I remember thinking that line — “my morality and standards can wait.” Then I got a full-time job looking at the same exact material. [Laughs.]
It’s not porn if it has a cute name like boys’ love.
Yeah, it's boys’ love. [Laughter.]
Where do you see yourself in the future with this current position?
I don’t see myself growing in this position actually. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to last. It’s not a very promising career because I do think A.I. could easily take over my position. They could code everything that I’m doing. I could easily be replaced, but I don’t think I’ll be here very long regardless. I don’t think it’s something I want to learn and grow from. I’m the only one doing this job so there’s no one I can actually learn from. It’s such a new industry and everyone’s trying to figure out how to judge a performance of a comic with numbers.
Do the people doing any of the analyses have any sort of artistic background other than yourself?
I think most of them have an appreciation for comics, but no, none of them have artistic backgrounds. I think there are people here who studied design, but in my team, I’m the only one who has a background in the arts and comics.
Does your art degree and knowledge of comics make it harder or easier for you to judge the titles? I guess that's all based on statistics.
It’s hard. Sometimes I will come across a comic that I personally really like, but it would never sell. No one would read it. Then I have to say, “No.” There would be no point in publishing it. I think I still have a talent for judging whether something has good storytelling or not, but a lot of times I absolutely have to consider what the market wants and not what I want personally.
Why do you think this scrolling webcomic platform is so popular in Korea and Japan, but doesn’t seem as popular in America?
I do think it’s a very niche thing in America. I think there’s still somewhat of a perception that comics-reading people are nerds that you don’t want to associate with, let alone those that read boys’ love comics. [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s something that would ever enter the mainstream in America, at least anytime soon. I don’t think America has a lot of comics-reading people in general to begin with and no one really reads comics on their phones. In Korea everyone is reading comics, even people who aren’t that interested in the medium are still reading comics on their phone. We call it “digital snack culture”. Like bite-sized reading.
That’s what your company calls it?
It’s a term that’s used all over Korea. I do think print is dying and it’s a matter of time before digital comics become the main way people read comics. But I don’t think that’s anytime soon in America.
In your position, you could be the catalyst for that change.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] I’ll have left before that happens. Don’t put that pressure on me.