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The Slogans Before They Stream Invective

Comics, FYI
The Slogans Before They Stream Invective
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #46 • View online
You’d hope that side hustles paid better, if nothing else.

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”
The uproar against the slogan went far beyond the Webtoon creator community, and ran through the wider comics community. Perhaps my favorite response came from Jimmy Palmiotti, who was enjoyably to the point when he tweeted, “Wait, this isn’t a joke? Are you kidding? Side hustle?” 
It was clear that things had truly gone south when Webtoon released a statement apologizing for the ad. “We live and breathe comics every day. They aren’t a side hustle, a second choice, or an afterthought,” the apology reads in part, somewhat boldly considering the slogan that got people upset. The statement continues, “Creators are the foundation of Webtoon. We are as passionate about your stories as you are, and fully appreciate the time and effort put into your comics,” before promising to update the ads and “review all feedback.”
It’s almost impossible not to view the Webtoon statement cynically, especially in light of the fact that the ad copy – which Webtoon described as having “missed the mark” – had to have gone through multiple passes requiring approval before making it into the public arena; surely, if the company did, in fact, feel as passionately about the creators’ work as the creators themselves, there would have been enough pushback to the slogan to require a rewrite? I am, I admit, very curious to see what the updated slogans are going to be, and how they’ll take into account this particularly bad round of publicity.
For me, there were two more slogans that felt more telling than the side hustle commentary. Also appearing in subways across NYC is the slogan, “Your favorite streaming platforms love us,” while the website for Webtoon until yesterday bore the slogan, “We’re the story before it streams.” Both lines feel as if Webtoon is accidentally telling on itself, and saying the quiet part out loud.
Webtoon has never made any secret about adaptations into other media being part of its larger business plans, and it’s been doing so in the U.S. market since 2016, with a number of animated versions of Webtoon titles showing up on Crunchyroll and, increasingly, Netflix in recent years. While I get the idea of trying to position Webtoon as the source for the next big thing – “hey, fans, get on board before everyone else!” and all that – there’s something off-puttingly blunt in those two slogans as they are, with the suggestion that Webtoon is merely a middle point on the way to the eventual adaptation; when combined with the “side-hustle” comment, it’s feels as if it’s underscoring how incidental and disposable the company perceives its primary output, and the work that goes into it, despite what the new statement might argue otherwise.
Like I said, I’m looking forward to seeing the revised ads, and seeing what in particular gets reworked and reworded. This was clearly a reasonably big ad buy on behalf of Webtoon, so it’s unlikely that the campaign will be abandoned entirely, but this second round is going to be scrutinized more heavily than ever as a result of this particular misstep, making it all the more important for everyone involved to get right. We’ll see soon enough if they did.
I reached out to Webtoon for comment for this story, but got no response. 
* Four years isn’t a particularly long time, but apparently it’s long enough for me to have forgotten whether or not “Selling Comics, Making Memories” was actually intended as a promotional tagline, or if it just ended up being assumed as such after being used in a PowerPoint presentation at some convention or another. I feel almost certain that there was some pushback from the publisher along the lines of the latter at the time, but that might have been after-the-fact face-saving in response to the reaction to the line. 
** Writing that line, it struck me that the examples often held up to “prove” the value of comics as a medium as serious literature are very… limited in their scope and intent, perhaps…? This is, of course, entirely based on my own personal taste and I don’t mean to devalue Spiegelman, Moore and Gibbons, Bechdel, et al, but I’d argue that if we want to prove that comics are as good as the best prose, we should be looking at things like Eddie Campbell’s Alec, or Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, or Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow… for that matter, most everything that Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics or Avery Hill have put out in the last few years. That might just be me, though.
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Graeme McMillan

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