She Created the World’s Most Popular Comic—Now She’s Taking a Break

Books Features Rachel Smythe
She Created the World’s Most Popular Comic—Now She’s Taking a Break

Rachel Smythe is the creator of Lore Olympus, one of the most popular comics in the world. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not on WEBTOON. With more than 85 million monthly active users, it is the most-read digital comics platform in the world. Lore Olympus, which is a retelling of “The Abduction of Persephone” chapter from Greek mythology, is WEBTOON’s most popular story. Since its launch in 2018, Smythe’s tale of Persephone and Hades’ messy, modern romance (as well as the other social exploits of the gods and goddesses) has racked up over 1.3 billion views on the app, and has also been published in graphic novel form across four (and counting) volumes.

The most successful stories on WEBTOON tend to be the ones that publish frequent, regular chapters. Because of this, Smythe has taken only occasional breaks since Lore Olympus launched five years ago, publishing a new episode most weeks of the year for eager readers. Last month, the 37-year-old New Zealand artist announced via Twitter that the comic would be going on a hiatus of “up to four months.” Though the comic goes on regular hiatus, this represents its longest pause yet. A few weeks after the announcement, I sat down with Smythe for Paste Magazine to talk about her decision to take a well-earned break, which can be so hard to do in our hustle-oriented culture.

“So, I work all the time,” Smythe tells Paste Magazine, on a Saturday morning at San Diego Comic Con. “I won’t lie. I know people would love for me to say, like, ‘Oh, I work five hours a day, and then I garden.’ But it’s just not like that. I work everyday, in some shape or form.” It also doesn’t escape my notice that, while Smythe may technically be on break, I am talking to her at San Diego Comic Con, where she is engaging with a different kind of work. In a strange year at SDCC due to the ongoing Hollywood strikes, Smythe is one of the busiest creators at the Con. She is on four panels and has four signings scheduled with fans. “This does count as a break,” she says of Comic Con, but assures me her previous week was much chiller. “Last week, when I went on hiatus, I just lay down and I read so many books. And I just didn’t do a hell of a lot.” 

Since the start of Lore Olympus, Smythe has been driven by a commitment to her art and, perhaps, by an anxiety-flavored desperation that anyone trying to do creative work under modern capitalism can relate to. “It’s very hard to break into the industry, and even harder, coming from a tiny, small country,” says Smythe of Lore Olympus’ start. “I was turning 30 and, you know, when you reach the [ages] with a zero after, you have a moment where you pause and you think, ‘Am I doing the things that I want to be doing? Is this what I imagined for myself?’” 

After Smythe graduated from university, she was burnt out. She was also graduating into a recession, and resigned herself to an extended period of working in retail while she tried to do her art on the side. “I think you kind of have to learn how to balance doing work and still working on your craft,” says Smythe of that period. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘Look, you’re always gonna be tired, so you just got to do the work. Or it’s just not gonna happen.’”

The realization coincided with Smythe’s discovery of WEBTOON, which was on a steady international rise since its initial launch in 2014. Webtoons developed in Korea as a mobile-friendly format that makes use of a screen’s infinite, vertical scroll. “I’d always been quite interested in web comics,” says Smythe, who was drawn to the format, as well as the quick-load time. “I was like, ‘There’s all these comics that seem to come out every week? How are these people doing it?’ You know when your mind is blown, and you’re just deeply curious as to how it all works? So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just give it a go.’”

Smythe’s “giving it a go” has resulted in a comic that is not only incredibly popular with WEBTOON readers but a story that also has garnered industry recognition. When I interview Smythe, it is the morning after Lore Olympus won the Eisner Award for “Best Webcomic” for the second consecutive year. When I ask her about the experience, she is mostly excited to talk about the other artists she was able to meet at the Comic-Con-based event, rather than her own glory. 

I get the feeling Smythe rarely if ever takes the opportunity to flaunt the fact that her story has more than six million subscribers and an animated TV adaptation in development with the Jim Henson Company. When I ask if she still has to explain what she does to others in her life, she says most of her friends get it. “I think it’s more, like, when I go to a dinner party or something with my partner’s friends,” she explains. “I say, ‘I make comics.’ And they don’t quite understand, and ask me to write their children’s book.” Sometimes, especially in casual conversation, Smythe says she avoids mentioning comics altogether. “Not necessarily with friends, but when I’m at a cafe or something, getting a coffee,” says Smythe. “Because sometimes you’ll meet hostility from men who find out that you have a creative job. I’ll just say I’m a contractor and I do graphic design, or something.” 

People tend to be suspicious of creative work that pays the bills, often without understanding the immense amount of labor that goes into it. In 2021, when speaking to the BBC, Smythe estimated that she works 60-70 hours per week on the comic as part of its normal production.

At the time of this writing, Lore Olympus is in its third season and has run for 250 episodes, almost without a break. Between Seasons 1 and 2, Lore Olympus went on hiatus for about six weeks. “After I did it, I realized that I probably should have had a longer break,” says Smythe, outlining the work that goes into preparing the episodes: “So, an episode takes [about] a week to make, and you’ve got to have a buffer [in case you need to take an unexpected break]. But you also have to have like four episodes when the season comes back. So there’s like four episodes, and then maybe four episodes for a buffer? Where’s the break?” She took this experience into account when planning for the current hiatus.

In order to make a weekly release of Lore Olympus more sustainable, Smythe has brought on assistants to help her with the creation process—a decision she says she struggled with at first. 

“In the beginning, I was really apprehensive about having assistants, because you kind of feel like, ‘Oh, well, this isn’t my work anymore,’” she says. “But that’s ridiculous. Because even Renaissance painters had help doing their paintings.” Eventually, it became apparent that assistants were necessary to maintain the release schedule without completely burning out or seeing diminishing quality. “I think I got to a point where I was like, ‘This is going really well. And if I want to do better, and make better work, and actually keep this going, then I need to bring other people in’,” says Smythe. 

Currently, Smythe has eight women workers supporting various aspects of the Lore Olympus creation process. “It’s a very hard job for one person to do. So I’ll sketch everything and write everything and then I’ll pass it on to my assistants, and they’ll help with the line work and blocking out the colors. Most of the time, I’ll color it in and do the background. Sometimes, I’ll get help, though. If it’s been a really busy week.”

In addition to three main art assistants, Smythe has a copyeditor who goes over all of the text in Lore Olympus to ensure Smythe is expressing her thoughts clearly. “I’m dyslexic, so it really helps to have someone like, be like, ‘I don’t think this means what you think it means,’” she says, recounting a time when she meant to say “polyamorous,” but wrote “polygamous” instead. “I think that was the moment where I was like, ‘I really need to get a solid copy editor.’” Additionally, Smythe has an editor at WEBTOON, Bre Boswell, who gives bigger picture feedback. “She’ll tell me if something doesn’t make sense in terms of the characters, or if it doesn’t read well,” explains Smythe. Finally, an assistant goes through to make suggested text changes. 

While Smythe was initially hesitant to bring on a support staff, now she says it is a huge source of pride. “I think about my own struggles trying to get into the industry and, for me, it’s such a treat to be able to do this for other people,” says Smythe. “They’re all very talented.” For Smythe, success is measured not just in her ability to pay her own bills with her art, but also to support other women artists. “I know there’s like a famous saying, ‘If you’ve got a good table, invite more people to the table.’” 

In our “hustle culture,” aka modern capitalism, it’s not easy to take a break. Even when someone finds commercial and creative success, we’re encouraged to aim for more, to not stop until reaching some indefinable point of ultimate success. Even for someone like Smythe, who has found financial and creative security in the form of Lore Olympus, rest can be hard to come by. If Smythe takes the full four months, Lore Olympus is set to come back on November 19th, the comic’s longest break yet. A different kind of success.

Kayti Burt is a culture critic with bylines at TIME, MTV News, Refinery29, and Den of Geek. For more pop culture analysis, including K-culture context, you can follow her @kaytiburt and visit her website.

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