There’s a long, if not entirely proud, tradition of comics publishers struggling with just how to promote themselves through taglines that attempt to reposition the company for potential new readers. I’m old enough to remember both “DC Comics Aren’t Just For Kids” appearing on a regular basis in the mid-to-late 1980s, not to mention Marvel’s genuinely baffling “Selling Comics, Making Memories” from just a few years ago
*. That wasn’t even Marvel’s first mind-bending attempt to rebrand, of course; there was that point in the 1960s when Stan Lee hit upon the idea of just renaming Marvel Comics as “Marvel Pop-Art Productions,” which remains a high-water mark for treading the fine line between pretension and internalized self-hatred in comics to this day.
All of this comes to mind when considering Webtoon’s recent ad campaign and promotional push. Heidi Macdonald has some pictures of ad placement in New York City subway stations
, but all that you really need to know is that the approach for this particular campaign could best be described as “Self-Conscious Hipster.” Slogans for the campaign include “We basically invented doomscrolling,” “Oops 9PM turned into 3AM again” – because you’ve spent so long scrolling through the comics you’ve lost six hours, get it
? – and, perhaps most dramatically, “Comics are literature’s fun side-hustle.”
There’s a lot to pick apart here, especially in that last one. It’s a slogan that feels overworked, for one thing, and one that feels rooted in a culture clash that the Webtoon audience arguably isn’t interested in, to boot. I don’t mean to be overly glib, but do people still care about whether or not comics are “literature” anymore? Is that still a conversation people are having in an era of streaming shows, binging blocks of entertainment in one sitting, and a cinema culture built on the backs of comics from half a century ago – and if so, why? Haven’t we already established that comics can be literature just fine with the likes of Maus, Watchmen, Fun Home, or any number of celebrated graphic novels lauded by critics from every angle**, but also that comics don’t have to be serious, self-important literature if they don’t want to be?
I could be wrong, of course; I was surprised by the amount of discussion I saw on Twitter about the literature portion of the slogan, with many pointing out (rightfully so) that there’s something particularly demeaning suggesting that comics are literature’s “side-hustle,” with the implication that comics are not only separate from literature, but also something of lesser value. Of course, that particular complaint about “side-hustle” was overshadowed by the number of creators understandably upset that their work was being characterized in that way.
“My 60-hour work week side hustle lol” tweeted one Webtoon creator
. “‘Side hustle’ when we spend unholy amounts of hours conforming to their insane production demands for peanuts,” wrote another
. “Webtoon knows full well how unforgiving their submission deadlines are for all creators. Every comic creator I know devote WAY MORE THAN 40 hours a week to their work, especially when you don’t have a team to help you (which is the case for most of us),” added a third
. “I was so stressed and overworked to the point I became disabled for over a year and couldn’t even lift my arm or open a doorknob without feeling excruciating pain pre-launch,” shared yet another
, “All of it because I love my work, which is definitely #notasidehustle”