Money Matters and the Modern Webcomic
Much as some webcartoonists would like to pretend otherwise, webcomics are not really an industry apart. They are part of the larger online content industry, and any analysis of their business has to take the business of all online content into account.
The Collective Convective
Keenspot and Modern Tales were Big Pandaâ€™s most influential descendants, at least as of late 2004. But they were far from the only ones. As the number of webcomics continued to grow, the formation of collectives became as easy as the joining of bubbles in a bathtub. And like bubbles, they defied attempts to keep track of them all.
But categories began to emerge: (1) dropdowns, (2) kaffeeklatches, (3) showcase hosts (closed and open), (4) subscription sites, and (5) one pay-per-view store.
These collectives are worth studying, both in success and in failure, for every success shows where webcomics may be heading and where they may not be heading.
The Beginnings of a "Modern" Age?
Conventional wisdom held, as late as 2001, that the only sustainable economic models for online comics were ad-based. Either the comic carried advertising in some fashion, or it was itself an advertisement for its own merchandise. Pay-to-read models were mostly based upon speculation and mostly spectacularly unsuccessful. Even Scott McCloud found his position as comics pundit threatened over his endorsement of micropayments.
Conventional wisdom held, as late as 2001, that the only sustainable economic models for online comics were ad-based. Either the comic carried advertising in some fashion, or it was itself an advertisement for its own merchandise. "Pay-to-read" models were mostly based upon speculation and mostly spectacularly unsuccessful. Even Scott McCloud found his position as comics pundit threatened over his endorsement of "micropayments".
Tycho of Penny Arcade was one of several cartoonists who took McCloud to task for it: "This guy's take on human nature is spun from pure fancy. He imagines that other people â€“ in fact, that everyone-- would gladly pay for things if given the chance to do so. That is demonstrably, empirically false-- most especially so on the Internet, and most damningly so where content is concerned." They eventually mended fences, but the point of wisdom had been made.
However, Joey Manley was never much for listening to conventional wisdom.
The Business of Free
The early months of Keenspot were a revelation for all involved. Finally, webcomic hosting by webcomickers! The mood was giddy with optimism.
"It was great," remembers David Willis, as if the memory stuns him all over again. "When I would email the group, I would get a response. I wasn't used to getting a response. Following the response would be an appropriate action if needed to help solve or eradicate the problem reported. They done fixed [my domain name problems], and started sending checks."
Spot And The Panda
"Whatever happened to Bryan McNett?"
It's a question experienced webcartoonists ask each other, now and again. It was a question many of them asked their e-mail inboxes as they pounded their desks in frustration.
In one respect the answer is easy: McNett is now a video game developer. He posted to an abortive, eponymous blog in September 2003.
But to the webcomics community, he is as remote as if he had passed to the Great Beyond. Many of today's webcartoonists don't even know who he is. Those webcartoonists who did business with him consider him a failure. Some who knew him had reason to hate him. And because he has never told his side of the story, it's difficult to balance the picture. Yet in his contribution to webcomics history, McNett may be as important as any of his successors, maybe even as important as any of the Five Horsemen.
Five Horsemen of the New Genesis
In they rode like heralds of the new era. The next fifteen months saw the approach of five sites that would define the webcomics scene for the next three years and remain important parts of it to the present. Call them the Five Horsemen.
The Five Horsemen were each a commercial success... five of the very few such successes online. This made them influential over both the art form of webcomics and its developing commerce. In this chapter, we'll concentrate on their artistic influence; later, we'll pick up the path of webcomics commerce.
Tellingly, each of them began in front of a computer screen.
After the first online comic and the first webcomic, the early pioneers of webcomics included Bill Holbrook, Peter Zale and Charley Parker. Each of these three pioneers faced their own obstacles and found success in their own way. Bill Holbrook was already a syndicated newspaper cartoonist when he launched the webcomic Kevin & Kell, Peter Zale's Helen: Sweetheart of the Internet featured a tech-savvy female at the lead character and Charley Parker's Argon Zark began to take advantage of both digital art tools and the "web" part of webcomics in ways that no online comic had previously.
I was sitting in front of a monitor, 9 to 5, at an Internet company I profoundly hated to pay for art classes I was finding useless. My dreams of print comic books were crumpling to ash, and I saw the Internet as just one more reason they failed. They were stealing eyeballs from the comic book store. Bastards.
And every day-- every day-- I had to listen to my boss, the Jeff Bezos of Savannah, Georgia, feed his clients the same old hype-lines that pumped everyone's expectations for the Internet to the ceiling: "Oh, yeah. We can do that. If you can dream it, we can do it. This is the future."
In part two of his look at the history of webcomics, T Campbell reviews the first comics to appear on the then new world wide web. Doctor Fun by David Farley and NetBoy by Stafford Huyler can both make claims to being the first "webcomic".