She has five million subscribers. Her comic about Greek gods is the most popular Webtoon in the world. And now, Rachel Smythe has a book. Casey Lucas talks to the Lore Olympus creator as she steps from one world into the next. 

Rachel Smythe has a rich, warm laugh that absolutely fills my headphones during our interview. Her voice is animated, rising and falling and taking the occasional lingering, dramatic pause. She sounds like a storyteller even on a phone call, full of many small anecdotes. However, it’s her longer story of note that brings us together – the 35 year-old Wellingtonian is the creator of Lore Olympus, one of the most popular comics in the world. “I don’t know how that happened and yet here we are.” She pauses for a moment. “It takes some effort to psychologically accept it. Of course I did a lot of work, but it does often feel like simply being in the right place at the right time.” 

Lore Olympus is a modern-day retelling of the classic myth of the abduction of Persephone. Although really, that’s a gross simplification. It’s a sprawling story about complicated families, the pressures women face when coming of age in a world that wants them to be many contradictory things at once, a comedy about messy gods and goddesses interfering with one another’s lives and, of course, romance. Published on the Webtoon platform, the comic boasts over five million subscribers and has been viewed over 300 million times. It is a bona fide cultural phenomenon, inspiring tens of thousands of fanworks, innumerable cosplays, a television adaptation in the works, and now a book. 

Photograph of a woman with blonde pixie cut, wearing black singlet, at a signing table at a convention.
Rachel Smythe and her book, Lore Olympus (Image: Supplied)

I don’t needle Smythe about all that too hard. I know how New Zealanders are about compliments. “You know how New Zealanders are about compliments,” she says, too. 

The tale of Hades and Persephone is thought to have been created in ancient times to explain why earth has a summer and a winter. Young goddess Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is plucking a narcissus flower when Hades, god of the underworld, appears and kidnaps her to his domain. The abduction causes Persephone’s mother, Demeter, to resign from her role as earth goddess and the crops of the world to wither as a result. There’s a heated debate, a pomegranate, a bit of a domestic between Demeter and Zeus, and eventually the gods arrive at a compromise: Persephone will spend half the year with Hades in the underworld, and half the year in the land of the living, with Demeter. Thus the seasons come to be, and millennia of story.

Much of this is covered in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, although it is “covered” in a way that is sparse on details about what exactly is occurring between Hades and Persephone themselves. That’s what Smythe seized on when brainstorming her tale.

“You have a lot of wiggle room … It’s very mysterious and intriguing in that way.” She puts it succinctly later on: “What are their daily lives?”

A comic book panel in which Persephone is tying on an apron and pitching that she put a Crock-Pot on for tea.
At home with the future queen of the underworld (Image: Rachel Smythe)

When asked what spurred her toward such a contemporary mythological adaptation, she has an evocative answer. “I remember as a kid one of my favourite books was a retelling of the Three Little Pigs, but they lived in a modern city. There’s this bit where they go to the bank to get a loan for their houses and the bank is really big and scary and run by wolves. I think that really hit me hard as a child. I was like … these pigs!” She attributes as further inspiration a family-wide love for the works of Terry Pratchett as well as growing up in “the Baz Luhrmann generation”. 

“Where you watch that retelling of Romeo + Juliet and at that age ‘Oh my god, that is like, sooo profoundly deep’.”

She began self-publishing Lore Olympus on Webtoon in 2017, when the platform was still fairly new. It was selected for syndication on the site six months later. “I was very lucky to stumble upon this new form of self-publishing and fill a void.” Money? Smythe’s not saying, but according to the BBC, Webtoon’s top creator made more than $12 million last year, with its paid creators pulling in roughly $270,000, on average, in 2020.

The Webtoon format is a variation on the standard webcomic. Involving long vertical panels and options for endless scrolling, rather than a traditional page structure, it seems almost tailor-made for Smythe’s art. Young goddess Persephone is often depicted as a small, defiantly pink figure in sprawling panels of another colour, showcasing her vulnerability and her uncertain place in the pantheon. Then as she descends into the underworld, the comic itself “descends,” requiring readers to scroll and scroll and scroll, the environment around Persephone growing bluer, darker, and more alienating. It’s use of the medium to striking effect.  

Page from a comic book, showing a magnificent staircase (blue) with a young woman (pink) descending. The words: Persephone, you've really outdone yourself this time are in pink on a black panel.
Persephone descends to the Underworld (Image: Rachel Smythe)

“It’s about the reveal,” Smythe says. “With traditional comic book storytelling and Webtoons both, the story is in the layout. You scroll and scroll, wondering what’s going to happen, then surprise!” I can hear her grin through the phone. “With the long Webtoon panels, you can ramp it up a bit more because you’re less restricted.”

Elsewhere on the call, we muse for a while about how the burnt-out comic professional is a well-known stereotype, but one aspect of the work that few people understand is just what a toll it takes on the body. “I don’t think people know how physical it is,” she says. “Even before you get to the level of doing it as a full time job. Like I’d drawn before, but until you’ve done it, there’s no way to know just how physical it is … It’s not just a case of developing one single muscular buff arm, but more like the job involves so many things that are just not good for you. Hours sitting down, hunched over a screen, moving your arm in little repetitive motions for hours on end. Human bodies and even human minds – that’s not what they were meant to do! But the work’s gotta get done.”

The good news is as the comic skyrocketed in popularity, she’s been able to spread the workload around. The icon of the virtuoso solo creator in comics is endemic, but Smythe has been open and grateful about now being able to work with a team. 

“With visibility you get access to more resources, which has in turn given me the opportunity to grow my business a bit more and contract some work out to other people, especially tasks like proofreading because my grasp of the English language – though it is my only language – is very slim.” Smythe laughs. She also has help with inking, flatting, and shading. “Obviously this is huge because the work that goes into making an update that goes up every single week is huge. For a couple years I did do it all on my own, but as time went by … well, you do run out of steam.”

Smythe has been open on social media about the toll that the update schedule and the comic’s explosive success took on her work habits. 

“Get help when you can,” she stresses. “Because if you don’t, you will burn out, and there’s no comics for anyone when that happens!” 

A beautiful full-page comic panel, two small insets, showing a goddess in a glasshouse, roses twining up the walls. Is this normal? she's asking herself.
Lore Olympus deals adeptly with toxic relationships and sexual trauma. Here, Persephone is being coerced into sex (Images: Rachel Smythe)

Aside from its creative usage of the Webtoon format, its relatable contemporary setting, and Smythe’s expressive art in general, one aspect of Lore Olympus that is often praised is the attention to detail in regards to the characters’ outfits. That’s intentional, says Smythe.

“When you use fashion in your comic, in your movie, what have you, that is a language. It’s another language you can use to inform your audience what is going on, whether they know it yet or not. In the beginning of the comic, you’ll see Persephone wear a lot of whites. And as we move into the second season, you’ll see her wearing a lot of greens, which represents her developing sense of what she wants and her own identity. Originally with the whites I kind of wanted Hades and Persephone to look like a bride and groom all the time so that you’d look at them and go, ‘Are they going to get married at any moment?!’ Fashion is a great tool you can use to really hit your themes.”

Does she have any favourites? “I try to go for classical looks. I’ve been working on this project for five years now, and in fashion a lot can change in five years. I try to pick styles that are future-proofed.” Past eras of fashion are a constant source of inspiration. “There are so many iconic looks. So many things that make you say ‘I love the shape, it’s timeless’. And then there’s other stuff that’s, well, it’s flattering but it’s from 2017 and people are not eager to see that again. Those trends are done! There is definitely some stuff [in Lore] that has aged like milk but overall I try to aim for classical looks that people will still love.”

When I ask if Smythe has a background in fashion illustration or graphic design, she drops an unexpected revelation. “I used to do figure skating!” she says. “And of course you have to design all your own outfits. I’d say ‘This is what I want to wear, Mum!’ and she’d sew it for me. My mum and my sister both sew but I cannot.” Any favourite outfits from those days? “My very first competition, I had a routine to a song from Cats. My outfit was very simple. I had a black leotard with black tights and a tail. I don’t know what my mum stuffed that tail with but it was very aerodynamic! It was not just some floppy tail! It had some buoyancy! And I had a little cat collar, too. And later on I had a Moulin Rouge one that I really liked, based on the costume that Satine wears when she’s sitting on the trapeze.”

Comic showing a young woman being gifted a ridiculously boufy, cropped white coat by the prince of the underworld.
Persephone scores a free coat (Image: Rachel Smythe)

All that attention to detail has paid off for Smythe – in addition to the adulation Lore Olympus has received worldwide in its online form, the comic has now been given the print treatment by Del Rey, a Penguin Random House imprint. It is exactly as colourful, lush, and vibrant as the web edition. There are some creative layout tricks within to preserve the feel and look of the original and I think both fans of the original and new readers alike will find plenty to appreciate.

When asked how it feels to have a physical book out in the world, Smythe is philosophical. “Webtoon is a new industry in the grand scheme of things, so it can be hard to explain to other people what is involved in my career or my various achievements. Having a physical book is a much more tangible marker of my success, which most people can easily understand. I don’t think one method of publication is superior to the other; however, I believe there is still a way to go with how an audience values digital media vs tangible.”

There is another adaptation in the works, too: Webtoon and The Jim Henson Company have announced a partnership to develop an animated Lore Olympus series aimed at the ravenous young adult market. 

As for Smythe, what could possibly come next? I ask her if she has an end in mind for Lore Olympus, and a coy “yes” is all she’ll give me. It’s been a marathon, and I ask her if she plans to take a rest once the comic wraps up, or if she’s keen to swing straight into the next project.

“Oh no,” she says immediately. “Absolutely not. There will be a break.” 

Lore Olympus: Volume One, by Rachel Smythe (Del Rey, $37) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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