Many amazing companies attended Anime Expo 2017 this year. One such company that made huge headway in America this year was Lezhin Comics, a Korean webtoon distribution company.  I had the privilege to sit down with James Kim, president of the American branch, and talk about the company and what makes it so successful.

Charlotte: So for starters, could you please tell us who you are and your role in the company?

Kim: Certainly. My name is James Kim, President of Lezhin Entertainment LLC, the English operations side of Lezhin Comics. It’s our first time exhibiting here a Anime Expo. Lezhin Comics is a digital webtoon service optomized for cel phones available on IOS and Android and also available on the web. They are digital comics, and not in the traditional US comics but the digital webtoon, vertical scroll format. We launched in December 2015 and in a little under two years we did see it grow rapidly and saw a lot of fan requests that we come and exhibit. And we listened.

Right now, we have more than 100 comics translated in English. Some of them however are originally written in English to start with so we have even started to import them back into South Korea as well. So we are growing and are pushing out one to two webtoon titles per week so the library is growing very fast.

Charlotte: I am actually an avid follower of Lezhin for at least a year now. I absolutely love the content you put out.

Kim: Oh wow, thank you!

Charlotte: On top of that you guys have a huge fan base here in America and I guess it would be silly to ask why you decided to distribute here but who essentially made that ultimate decision? I feel that we don’t have that luxury of a webtoon subscription service besides Webtoon themselves.  What I am really getting at is Lezhin distributes a lot of hentai and Boys Love and there’s really nothing here for those genres except maybe Fakku! but even then, the Boys Love and yaoi are very scarce legally.

Kim: I guess it was always looking at where the demand was at even before we started out. There were already a lot of our comics being translated by the fans and it was massive. We were surprised like, ‘Wow! So many of our titles are already out there. So the demand is clearly there, why don’t we just jump in and provide the fans what THEY want. So that was a huge reason why we wanted to push the brand out in English. And as you said, when we first launched, we were very small, only having I think 10 titles but now we have over 100 titles.

Back then, it wasn’t this much focused on Boys Love. Right now it’s about 50% but that was also following the same guiding philosophy: seeing where the demand is, what people clamor towards, what is the niche. And definitely what is the demand that is not being met as you just mentioned. We started toying around with the idea of pushing out one title and saying, “Yeah, this is good”, then two and then three then came Blood Bank, Out of Control and then Killing Stalking.

So that is kind of how it happened. I think that will remain our guiding philosophy. We as a webtoon platform, have almost every genre you can think of with different lengths, different pacing and I think that is one of the unique points of the webtoon. It’s experimental. Also with that philosophy, I think we will continue to experiment and see where those demands go and evolve as a platform.

Images by Jason Justice

Charlotte: There are a lot of different series that are on the Korean site that are not in the American one. Is Lezhin planning on publishing all or the majority into English as well?

Kim: Again this follows the same guiding philosophy. One of the things that we do do is look at the new releases that we put out in Korean and see which ones get an immediate following and  if culturally there is something that can mesh with the US audience the we [SNAP] push that out very quickly. In South Korea we have physically hundreds of series so it will take time to bring out them all but we try to push out as much as we can.

Charlotte: Makes sense and quite awesome you you guys. You certainly love your fans and you are very interactive with them but what we did notice, and this is also a question from a reader, why don’t you have a community or forum on your app itself like Webtoon or Tapas?

Kim: Ah yes. Well, we did this for the creators and I guess every culture has it’s own breed of “internet trolls” and what we did find trhat a lot of our creators had suffered a lot of psychological stress from that type of “culture”. And as much as they have the fans who are always there for them, to support and protect them, it can be painful, too.

Charlotte: Yeah I can imagine. I have seen what people say about certain series and creators.

Kim: And we said, “Yeah, we know that there are the pros of having something and the fans can mingle there, too, but we didn’t want our creators getting hurt at all so it was a very calculated decision to not have something like that. We knew it was something that fans would enjoy less but we ultimately did this for the creators.

So you have realized that we don’t have any ads on the site, right?

Charlotte: I’ve noticed but never questioned it.

Kim: Right, and we are getting inquiries all the time to advertise but we really want to help the readers hone in on the experience on reading JUST the webtoon without ads. It’s all about the experience.

Charlotte: That’s really nice.

Charlotte: Back on the subject of Tapas and Webtoon, Lezhin seems to to more popular, at least to me. What sets you apart from other webtoon or comic book apps and subscription services?

Kim: Well one thing you said is we place emphasis on the readers and we try to listen to them and try to bring out more titles and genres that they want. We have Killing Stalking. Some of it is more mature but we still try to maintain the variety as well to increase that reach.

Charlotte: So, this is kind of the elephant in the room question: how are you handling the illegal translations online?

Kim: Well actually I get this question A LOT. So actually we are working with legal partners to try and minimize the damage to our brand. We are taking actions but I guess we ask ourselves internally, “Would it ever be possible to eliminate this type of culture altogether? ” We don’t think so.  I think it is here to stay in one form or another but we believe that if we are top notch and continue to provide the fans what they want, and quickly, and try to show them that this is the real deal. We also have found that on social media that types of readers who act as our brand defenders and say things like, “Hey guys please support the creators” and the like. We find that dual action to be proactive.

Charlotte: You guys are very adamant on supporting your creators and making sure that their work gets out there. How does one actually publish on Lezhin?

Kim: Well there are a few ways. We receive submissions 24/7  365 days a year. But, apart from that we run the World Comic Event which is a contest on Lezhin Comics.

Charlotte: Yeah I’ve seen that prize money!

Kim: [LAUGHS] The Grand Prize money is $100,000 and that money is used to publish locally in the United States, South Korea and Japan. And we do that annually so you will see another one comic up towards the end of the year. Anyone can enter regardless of nationality, occupation, experience in the industry, genre, style. Anything goes as long as it is in scroll format. Just submit two episodes and we’ll review it. That’s been a huge way in publishing content. Our featured title, Killing Stalking was last year’s Grand Prize winner.

Charlotte: What would you say is the ratio on where these submissions come from?

Kim: So buy and large, a huge portion comes from South Korea but we are seeing the global amount of entries increasing. So we hope to be pleasantly surprised by the number of US entries.

Charlotte: Everything is amazing so far. I have one last question: Does Lezhin Comics have any plans to publish physical copies of these comics?

Kim: I can’t say anything concretely, but we are looking into various opportunities. That’s all I can say.

Charlotte: Hmmm. Okay. Well that sounds awesome.

Kim: Also what I can say is that if there are any companies who are interested in co-publishing opportunities, we are also interested.

Charlotte: Well the company escapes me right now but I do know that there is an Italian company who is publishing a physical copy of Killing Stalking

Kim: It’s J-POP. It comes out next year. They did a marvelous job. We are really pumped and thrilled.

Charlotte: Koogi is certainly popular. I mean, even as we do this interview, she is signing so many posters for a line of fans that wraps around the hall. I did have ONE LAST question about what your most popular title is but… I think we can hazard a guess of what that title might be. Could it be Killing Stalking or Blood Bank considering these two huge fan bases are ALL OVER the internet.

Kim: Oh yeah, definitely. They are our key titles and that is why we invited the creators here for four days of signings. So yeah I would have to say Killing Stalking is our most popular title right now.

Charlotte: So to wrap up, how is it at your first Anime Expo? Your booth has not been empty this whole weekend.

Kim: We are exhilarated and frankly we are quite surprised and we are thrilled to be here. As soon as the floor opened on Day 1, there was a rush towards the booth and we cannot thank the fans enough for their support. And to add, we will be here next year with more surprises, double booth space and triple the content.

Charlotte: Nice! Maybe you guys can opt for a booth up front with Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Kim: Uh, well we will be getting a bigger booth but nothing like that just yet. [LAUGHS]

Charlotte: Well that is about all I have. Thank you very much for talking with me today and I hope you have an amazing Expo!

Kim: Thank you for joining us today.