Comics are big business. The global comic market was worth $15.5 billion in 2022 according to Allied Market Research, and is expected to be valued at almost $27 billion by 2032. California-based start-up Dashtoon, which is today announcing the successful completion of a $5 million funding round, hopes to play its part in driving that growth.
The founders of Dashtoon, Sanidhya Narain, Lalith Gudipati and Soumyadeep Mukherjee, point out that right now, the comic industry is dominated by content created in Asia – Manga in Japan and, to a lesser extent, Webtoons from Korea. This content has an enthusiastic audience worldwide, but there is plenty of room for more Western comics, argues Narain, who has served as Dashtoon CEO since the launch of the business last year.
“Comic content creation is a huge industry in Japan, so why shouldn’t the same be true in Western markets such as the US?,” he says. “The key is to create communities of creators in this market, but that has proved so difficult.” One challenge, he explains, is that countries such as Japan have developed a culture of comic creation – and the skills required for it – over many decades.
Technology could provide a solution, Dashtoon believes. It has harnessed new tools such as the latest advances in generative artificial intelligence to create a platform on which storytellers can turn their ideas into high-quality comic content. Creators post their narratives on the platform, provide information about their key characters, and map out their story boards. Dashtoon’s technology then turns this into high-quality comic output; the material can be edited but is then ready for publication.
“Any storyteller, regardless of their artistic skills or technical knowledge, can create digital comics, breaking traditional barriers in illustrated content creation,” says Mukherjee, now the company’s CTO. Dashtoon’s view is that creators in the US – and other Western markets – are full of good ideas for stories, but don’t necessarily have the artistic skills to turn those ideas into comics of professional standards.
There is also a time factor – creating a comic story can take 40 to 50 hours of intensive work, Dashtoon reckons. It says its platform can reduce that timescale to five or six hours. Many creators have written stories ready to go, so can simply upload these to the platform and edit the results.
Importantly, Dashtoon also recognises that new creators may struggle to sell their work. Its business is therefore split into two separate units. The Studio part of the value proposition offers the creative engine, but the company also offers Dashtoon Apps, through which comic readers can access their favourite content.
The aim is to give creators an opportunity to both tell their stories and sell their finished work. Creators using Studio pay nothing for the service if they agree to distribute their work exclusively on Dashtoon Apps, but will be charged fees if they also want to sell their comics on other channels. As for readers, they will find that content goes behind a paywall once they have accessed 10 episodes – to read on they will need to subscribe, providing monetisation opportunities for creators and Dashtoon itself.
These are relatively early days, but the concept appears to be capturing the imagination of the US comic community. Dashtoon has so far focused on working with a relatively small group of creators – it has around 50 storytellers posting content daily – but has already seen 25,000 people download the Reader app that they need to consume content.
Investors are also engaging. Dashtoon’s funding comes from Matrix Partners India and Stellar Venture Partners. “Over several decades, content distribution has gone through a phase shift driven by technology, but we have seen little on the front of content creation being disrupted,” says Matrix managing director Aakash Kumar. “In the coming years, the business of content will undergo many transformations and the most important of those is going to be creation getting democratised.”
“Content consumption on mobile phones has grown exponentially in the US, from an average of 45 minutes per day in 2011 to a staggering four hours per day in 2021,” says Naman Lahoty, principal at Stellaris Venture Partners. “We anticipate that web comics will emerge as the next wave of growth.”
As for comic fans, the promise is of more choice and variety in the content they consume. Dashtoon sees opportunities to expand across English-speaking markets, and is also working on a translation tool for writers in other languages. “It’s all about creating more content that people are going to love reading,” adds Narain.