The Korea Herald


Steve Aoki, Tom Bilyeu harness webtoon power with 'Neon Future'

By Lim Jang-won

Published : Oct. 7, 2020 - 18:11

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Scene from Scene from "Neon Future" (Impact Theory)

When webtoon “Neon Future” debuted on Naver’s English webtoon platform Canvas on July 13, many noticed one of the character’s resemblance to DJ Steve Aoki and soon discovered that he was one of the authors of the webtoon..

“Neon Future,” co-written by Aoki, Tom Bilyeu and Jim Krueger, is a webtoon -- an online comic read vertically -- set 30 years in the future where advanced technology is illegal. It deals with the conflict between the Augmented, who have chosen to integrate technology into their bodies, and the Authentic, who have not.
Steve Aoki (Impact Theory) Steve Aoki (Impact Theory)

Aoki is a one of the best-known DJs in the world, having collaborated with K-pop groups such as BTS and Monsta X. He also has a series of popular music albums with the same title as his webtoon.

“My music and projects have always integrated my belief in singularity and enthusiasm for AI, advanced tech and future science,” said Aoki in an exclusive email interview with The Korea Herald. Singularity is the hypothetical point where technology becomes uncontrollable and forever changes human society.

“‘Neon Future’ is a concept I created where a world of technology and humanity converge into a utopia. That true belief was the basis for creating the webtoon series which takes place in a future where advanced technology is outlawed by the government.”

Kita Sovee (an anagram of Steve Aoki), one of the characters in “Neon Future,” is modeled after Aoki himself with his signature long, black hair.

“It’s a powerful, humbling feeling to see a character based on your likeness. One thing that was important was not making me the focal character but part of a compelling serialized story as ‘Kita Sovee’,” said Aoki. 
Scene from Scene from "Neon Future" (Impact Theory)

While “Neon Future” started out as a traditional comic book, the opportunities of the webtoon format grabbed Aoki and Bilyeu and prompted them to take on the online transition.

“I think I ran across webtoons when friends would show me some of the amazing artwork from different series. I also remember seeing some news of my friends from BTS launching a webtoon and reading about the popularity of the genre,” said Aoki.

Indeed, the global webtoon market has been growing at a rapid pace.

Naver, which launched a global webtoon platform in 2014 focusing on domestic talent in respective countries, had more than 67 million monthly average users in August, a 2 million user increase from July, according to Naver. It says the platform grossed more than 80 billion won ($69 million) for August. 
Tom Bilyeu (Impact Theory) Tom Bilyeu (Impact Theory)

Bilyeu, CEO of Impact Theory which is a company that creates webtoon content, explained the decision to seek opportunities on the online platform over hard copy comics.

“I’ve said this many times; the current distribution model for print comics is ridiculously antiquated. Even before the pandemic, Impact Theory was preparing to transition fully to webtoon because that’s where the current generation of readers is going,” said Bilyeu. “The phone went to war with physical books, and the phone won. COVID-19 merely accelerated our plans to migrate to a digital-first strategy.”

Converting into the vertical-reading platform, Aoki and Bilyeu thought to create content and artwork befitting the platform rather than just transposing the comics online. The move turned out to be a great success with millions of viewers reading the webtoons daily.

Webtoons have numerous advantages over traditional comics, according to Bilyeu.

“It’s always in your pocket, always with you, right when you want it most. The webtoon format gives instant access to readers whenever and wherever they are. It provides the ability to binge an old series or devour a new series as it comes out,” said Bilyeu.

Another advantage is the reduced friction between marketing efforts and the interaction with the comic, according to Bilyeu. “In print, you use digital marketing to let people know your project exists, but then the reader has to go offline to get it. The friction is massive!” Bilyeu said.

However, as webtoons are still only in their early stages globally, there are hurdles such as the small pool of skilled creators compared to Korea or Japan.

Aoki and Bilyeu shared a vision for the webtoon platform and “Neon Future.”

“Comics had a huge influence on me as a teen and it created my love of sci-fi, future science and advanced tech which is represented throughout all of my projects and music. To think that Kita and ‘Neon Future’ could inspire a reader is really profound and exciting. It’s why I’m so passionate about sharing ‘Neon Future’ with everyone,” said Aoki.

“My vision is to work with the world’s most extraordinary creators to create a library of IP that not only dominates the Webtoon charts, but that can be expanded into anime, film, TV, video games and more. We are just at the tip of the iceberg, our team is already in talks with some influential entertainment-based companies to explore collaborations, partnerships, originals and more,” said Bilyeu.

Although “Neon Future” has not yet been read by many Koreans, as it is published in English, Bilyeu predicts that as more investments are made in webtoons in North America, it won’t be long before the English-language series enjoys the same stature as Korean webtoons.

By Lim Jang-won (