DC and Marvel have both teamed up with WEBTOON – but which creative partnership will succeed?

Marvel Comics’ first collaboration with WEBTOON – Eternals: The 500 Year War – arrived on WEBTOON’s digital comics platform this week, after debuting on the Marvel Unlimited app earlier this month. This follows rival publisher DC announcing its own creative partnership with WEBTOON back in August 2021 – a partnership which launched the Batman: Wayne Family Adventures title a month later.

Together, Eternals: The 500 Year War and Batman: Wayne Family Adventures make it clear that the “Big Two” of the US comics industry is eager to break into the lucrative web comics market that WEBTOON has largely cornered already. But that’s where the similarities between DC and Marvel’s approaches to web comics end, as the publishers are approaching their respective creative partnerships with WEBTOON very, very differently.

Which begs the question: what’s going to be more successful – the DC or Marvel approach to working with WEBTOON?

How does DC’s creative partnership with WEBTOON work?

With Batman: Wayne Family Adventures, DC isn’t trying to replicate what it’s already doing with print comics, nor is it targeting the readers who buy those comics, either. Instead, DC recruited WEBTOON creators CRC Payne, Maria Li, Rhett Bloom, Lan Ma and Jean Kim to craft stories designed with the platform’s vertical scroll format in mind, and which offer a lighter, continuity-free take on DC’s IP more closely aligned to the tastes and preferred aesthetic of WEBTOON’s existing audience. DC is taking a new approach to a new medium, and – more importantly – courting a new audience.

That audience skews younger, boasts a 50/50 split between male and female readers, and is less interested in traditional superhero fare than DC’s core readership. Batman: Wayne Family Adventures is tailored specifically for this audience; it’s free to read; it has a mobile-native, swipe-friendly layout; and it eschews dark, action-heavy, convoluted storylines in favour of largely standalone “slice of life” comedy strips. The strategy here is simple: give WEBTOON readers an alternate take on DC’s iconic characters similar to what they’d find in the average WEBTOON title, and it could entice them to check out the more mainstream versions of said icons – starting with the DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults book line.

And hey? If that doesn’t pan out, a series like Batman: Wayne Family Adventures still helps DC establish a valuable – and potentially very profitable – foothold on WEBTOON in particular, and the web comics market in general. Sure, WEBTOON readers can swipe through Batman: Wayne Family Adventures without dropping a single dime, but between advertising and “early access”-style user transactions the platform still makes serious money – around the same amount as the entire US comics industry combined, in fact! Batman: Wayne Family Adventures’ total subscriber count now outstrips the sales figures for the regular Batman comic book series, and if DC sees even a fraction of whatever those subscribers spend, that amounts to a tidy payday for the publisher.

So, while DC’s creative partnership with WEBTOON is essentially a calculated risk, early signs indicate that – one way or another – DC’s up-front investment in the platform will pay off further down the line.

What about Marvel’s creative partnership with WEBTOON?

If DC is playing the long game with its WEBTOON partnership, Marvel is very much looking for fast results. That’s why the publisher is focusing its web comics efforts on shoring up its existing fanbase – superhero comic book readers, and followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe big screen franchise – and not those outside it.

This in turn explains why Marvel’s WEBTOON collaboration, Eternals: The 500 Year War, is basically the exact opposite of Batman: Wayne Family Adventures. Yes, Eternals: The 500 Year War boasts an international roster of creative talent and plays to the strengths of the WEBTOON platform’s format, but that’s where the similarities between the two series end.

Eternals: The 500 Year War is a limited series (not on ongoing strip) and while it’s certainly episodic, there’s an overarching, more serious narrative – the century long conflict between the Eternals and the Deviants – that ties all seven of its issues together. What’s more, the series is set within the MCU continuity, tying directly into last year’s Eternals movie. And then there’s Eternals: The 500 Year War’s art style, which is (concessions for the vertical scroll format notwithstanding) virtually indistinguishable from Marvel’s regular print output. In short? This is essentially your typical Marvel comic book – it’s just displayed on a screen, not on paper.

It’s not free, either. Or rather, it wasn’t immediately free – fans who wanted to read Eternals: The 500 Year War when Marvel first released it on 12 January had to have a paid subscription to the Marvel Unlimited app. If you didn’t already have a subscription or weren’t willing to sign-up for one, you had to wait until the series hit WEBTOON on 20 January. Admittedly, this is hardly a long wait, but the fact there was a waiting period at all speaks volumes.

Not only does it point to Marvel expecting a quick return from its WEBTOON investment – by locking in those Marvel Unlimited subscriber dollars, natch – it also hints at the publisher’s longer-term aspirations, too. Clearly, Marvel sees digital comics as the future for the medium, whether that’s digitised and optimised versions of “traditional” comics or online-native web comics. So aside from making a few quick bucks now, the priority of the Eternals: 500 Year War initiative is to transition as many of Marvel’s existing readers across to Marvel Unlimited as possible, as soon as possible. Making the series available to Marvel Unlimited subscribers early was simply a way of further enticing on the fence fans to finally sign-up.

Of course, there’s also the opportunity for this WEBTOON series to convert MCU fans into comics readers (digital being a more friendly format for newbies), as well as whatever revenue it generates from WEBTOON advertising and user purchases, too. But these are more like “nice to haves”, and frankly, Marvel probably considers the average casual MCU fan checking out any kind of tie-in comic a longshot, anyway. The readers currently picking up single issue print comics each week are the real target here – the delayed free release on WEBTOON is simply a fallback option; a way of familiarising web comic averse Marvel fans with the format today, so that they’ll embrace it tomorrow.

Ultimately, what Marvel wants out of its WEBTOON collaboration is a stronger Marvel Unlimited, not a bigger slice of the WEBTOON pie.

Who has the better approach to WEBTOON: DC or Marvel?

So which approach to WEBTOON is better – DC’s or Marvel’s? Both approaches certainly have their merits, however, I’m going to give DC the edge here.

If I’m right about what Marvel is trying to achieve with Eternals: The 500 Year War, then that means the publisher is essentially catering to an ageing, pre-existing audience. And there’s nothing wrong with that; those fans deserve great new comics, as well as the opportunity to experience the best that the web comics format has to offer, too. At the same time, though, this also means that Marvel isn’t appreciably growing its overall readership – if you aren’t a diehard superhero fan already, there’s a slim chance Eternals: The 500 Year War will prompt you to seek out another Marvel story, on Marvel Unlimited or otherwise.

Conversely, DC is actively trying to build a new audience with Batman: Wayne Family Adventures. The publisher isn’t neglecting its existing audience, either; its simply catering to two separate groups of readers simultaneously. The payoff of this approach will take months, even years to arrive. But so long as DC continues to produce a diverse line that caters to both the superhero faithful and those interested in something a bit different, the pay off will be huge. Seriously: I’m talking about this establishing DC as a key player in the web comics space, with dedicated buy-in from a younger generation of readers who will support the publisher years after half the people reading this article right now are gone.

Yet in the end, only time will tell if DC’s grand plan for WEBTOON will work best, or if Marvel will come out on top, instead – so, until then, it’s web comics readers who are the real winners here!

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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