History of Online Comics, Pt. 7: The Beginnings of a “Modern” Age? by T Campbell

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 – 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.

In almost every way, Manley is an unusual figure in the world of webcomics. The founder of FreeSpeech.org. A former novelist. A cigar smoker who lives with his longtime boyfriend in Kentucky. An actual Colonel… from Kentucky. Most importantly, a man who comes off as an enlightened statesman, more mature than the crazy creative types surrounding him – yet still a guy who gets it.

This last trait is a hard-won one, resulting not only from Manley's many years of experience managing online content (begun in 1995), but also from a talk show he put together in 2001: "Digital Comics Talk" (archival version here). Manley pursued this while vice-president of streamingmedia.com; at that time, it was his business to report on online entertainment of all forms.

His transition from journalist to participator was not entirely planned. Streamingmedia.com, like many content sites at the time, was paring its resources to the bone, which meant letting Manley go and depriving him of the equipment he needed to produce the show. The contacts he'd made, however, were sufficient to help him launch a new career.

He lacks the charming self-deprecation of Crosby. Keenspot once sold itself as "Almost as Good as Porn," but the slogans for Manley's sites have no false modesty: "The New Mainstream," "Quality Comics at a Good Price," and the slogan with which he introduced Modern Tales…

"Professional Webcomics."

Manley has many thoughts on the world of webcomics and webcomics publishing, but his core belief, on which he founded Modern Tales in March 2002, is that certain people will gladly pay for content if given the chance to do so. At least, that they will if it's the right content.

"My long-term goal," he's said in interviews, "is that some or all of the MT cartoonists will be able to make a living solely from their webcomics work within five years of Modern Tales' launch."

Witness this copy, which appears in every Modern Tales site when a non-subscriber reaches the archives:

The future of webcomics as a workable living for cartoonists is in your hands!

Most of the money you spend on a… subscription goes directly to the cartoonists. Because they deserve it. Don't you think?

The price is not much, not really, c'mon: $2.95 a month! Okay! Do it! Yes!

For that $2.95, subscribers to Modern Tales had access to over thirty features. As in Keenspot and other collectives, these features' schedules varied from daily to weekly. Some of these strips were by names familiar to comics fans, others already had online audiences upon joining. Manley's connections were paying off.

Perhaps that precedent was the deciding factor. Or perhaps Manley's pitch was better than any that had ever come before. Or perhaps it was the timing, or some combination of the three. At any rate, within two weeks of its launch, Modern Tales was profitable… and had 700 subscribers, where Manley had expected 500 for the year.

The growth has remained strong to the present, strong enough to generate numerous spinoffs with more specialized appeals: serializer.net, for fans of alternative comics; Girlamatic, which features mostly female cartoonists, and Graphic Smash, for action comics. Manley has also given several sites to individual cartoonists with strong track records: AmericanElf.com, JazzAgeComics.com, RumbleGirls.com and Whimville.com.

All of these sites offer small free samples on a regular basis, but none of them would work if not for the belief – once anathema online, but rapidly coming back into fashion – that one gets what one pays for. The number of low-quality webcomics is reaching flood-tide levels, and demand continues to rise for some kind of gatekeeper who can keep readers from wasting their time.

No, Manley – and Modern Tales – have plenty of cheer, but none of Crosby's – Keenspot's – self-deprecation. Everything about MT's sales pitch is dead earnest. When you ask people to pay up front, they have to believe unwaveringly that their money will be well spent.

For similar reasons, Modern Tales has not dipped a single toe into movies, television or comic book stores. Its business is comics, and it remains focused upon comics. It has published some comic books for its members, but strictly on a print-on-demand basis. Its few stall-outs like "The DivaLea Show," an heir to "Digital Comics Talk," have faded into the background without slowing the site's overall momentum much. This approach may not flirt with glamor the way Keenspot's does, but Modern Tales's profitability has been ironclad throughout its history.

ModernTales.com began as a catch-all site, and so it remains at present. Though the site itself may shift to a more specific identity in time, Modern Tales the larger company will probably remain as broadly based as possible. From Manley's release: "we've got manga-styled werewolf/cop dramas butting heads (or, um, maybe some other body part) with Fancy Froglin, medieval fantasy side by side with "straight" autobiography, space-opera-charged science fiction right next door to Borgesian metafiction. And we like it all (as do our thousands of subscribers)."

That may be the greatest challenge Modern Tales faces in the years ahead. Its subscribers tend to love comics… not just the comics that they read, but comics in the abstract. Although this trait reflects the entire webcomics audience to some degree, it's especially important to the business model of Modern Tales' sites, which rely largely upon a taste for variety. The history of mainstream entertainment, such as variety shows and movie genres, suggests that this taste is an elitist one.

Odder still, attempts to create a Modern Tales-like site geared toward a more specific audience have generally fallen flat.

Here history becomes autobiography. In 2002, Manley recruited me for the Modern Tales spinoff AdventureStrips.com (archival version here): the only unsuccessful major Modern Tales spinoff to date. In 2003, he drafted me to edit Graphic Smash. Editor Chris Mills engineered AdventureStrips.com to resurrect the classic adventure strips of the 1930s and 1940s. It was a goal I greatly admired, and the site seemed a sure thing.

But it failed. And I was left the daunting task of taking a similar theme – action comics – and making it commercially viable.

I have to conclude that my critical decision was the choice not to pursue an exclusive agenda. Such a plan would exclude too many strips that have gone on to become mainstays. But more, it would have dampened readers' initial curiosity: the most frequent worries that readers voiced, before Graphic Smash began, was that I would use my position to create thirty clones of my own work.

From this conclusion, we can further conclude that the webcomics audience is still elitist at present – not as elitist as superhero fandom, perhaps, but more so than the motion picture audience.

The trend, however, is toward mainstreaming. More and more people are getting faster connections, reading from work and home. The people who grew up with the Internet of the 1990s are beginning to have children who can type. Webcomics have none of the distribution problems of their printed cousins, nor are they yet marginalized by broadband video downloads. Currently, their audience numbers have nowhere to go but up.

When they go up, who will profit? Modern Tales is well-adapted to the audience as it is, but can the business continue to grow with the webcomics field?

The initial signs are promising. Not only are the spinoff sites increasingly specialized, but Modern Tales has continued to roll out new features that increase its accessibility: a "Swapmeet" merchandise section (paralleling Keenspot's Keenswag, but with a higher stake for cartoonists) and RSS feeds and a "syndication" feature. Manley is happiest as an innovator, and frequently asks questions on his blog and elsewhere ("Do Webcomics Have A Mainstream Already?") that seem designed to take him to the next big thing. Maybe several next big things.

But there is a "next big thing" for Modern Tales that stands to change the whole webcomics landscape. And that landscape is already bringing some big things of its own, from other directions, with no help from Keenspot or Modern Tales. We'll discuss those big things… and the big castles they might build… in the next, and probably last, chapter of the History of Online Comics.

T Campbell is a staff contributor for Comixpedia.

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  1. I can’t believed you “outed” me, T — about my cigar smoking, that is. It’s so shameful, so mid-nineties yuppie! I hang my head in shame.



  2. Well, if we would have logged in, then we would have seen his homepage, and that would have been a shameless plug. Very humble of him.

  3. Trying to say it in a non-trollish way, unlike the previous post, this article certainly reads more like a company press release than a ‘history of webcomicing’ article.

    There was no mention of other comics who deal with ‘content for pay’ on a different business model. (Goats for one has a subscription AND free based model.)

    But then, maybe that’s coming up. I mean, I think keenspot got a whole section, and I guess MT deserves a whole section too… just… it seemed kinda partial.

  4. This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written, and I will be putting out a revised edition of the full history after it’s done. One revision I know I’ll make is to clarify what separates successful subscription sites from the early failures, and I’d like to use sites outside the MT family as examples. I’ve got a couple already, but if anybody has suggestions, now’s an excellent time to make them.

    I want this to be unbiased: with both Keenspot and Modern Tales, I took pains to present the greatest challenge that each faced and the brighter hopes for each one’s future. Next time out, we’ll be spending more time with the smaller, more independent players who’ve cropped up after the Five Horsemen, and check in with what Scott McCloud’s been up to lately.

    At the same time, I want to be HONEST, and at some point my views on the world have to determine any history I’d write. It’s a difficult balancing act, but I’ll be keeping this reaction in mind in future editions.

  5. You really, really have to keep in mind it’s a series of articles… which is when you’ll realize the MT did this before Goats, so chronilogically, he’ll get to Goats next or later.

    You can’t fault T for not including something he’s already done or is getting to. You CAN fault him for a tone that is rather insider-y and partial to MT. If you really want to. *I* don’t. But then, I’m partial. MOO HA HA HA!

  6. It was me.

    Really, it was me.

    No, I’m not trying to make you guys check my comic. 😀

  7. What I’m missing from this piece is a mention of the other subscription sites that uses a similar method as MT (but were at least inspired by it). I mean that manga site whos name I can’t remember, pvcomics (although with an altered bussiness model from MT), maybe even Slipshine, although I don’t know if its origin can be traced from the MT bussiness model.

  8. Again, if you look at the entire series to date, you will see that it is tracking the history in a chronological fashion.

    Essentially, Cambpell is only up to about 2001-2002 right now. WirePop appeared in early 2003, PV Comics in late 2003, etc. etc. etc.

    Like it or not, MT was the first subscription model webcomics site in history, and as such, deserves the mention and ‘radioplay’ that it earned by sticking its neck out when there were no precedents, and when many thought it would fail outright as a project (“what? PAY for something I can see for FREE??”). Yes, there are more of its ilk nowadays, but they all only started AFTER they saw the MT model succeed.

    A lot has happened in the last few years, and I think that Campbell is doing well to take the time to focus on significant milestones.

    He says there may be only one more chapter left, but personally, I think there may be at least two or three. We’ll just have to see what he brings to my editor’s table next. ^_^

  9. A few points of information: coolbeansworld.com was the first webcomics subscription site. But they failed miserably, despite a very large budget and people like Chris Claremont and even Clive Barker writing for them. I think I may have been their only paying subscriber. I expect T didn’t consider them to be significant enough to cover, given that so few people (even the editor of Comixpedia!) didn’t know they existed.

    CrossGen’s comicsontheweb.com actually launched the same week Modern Tales did, by the way. I’m not sure if they qualify as “webcomics” or not. It bugged the crap out of me at the time, but seems to have had no impact within the webcomics world. Allegedly, though, they have more paying subscribers than we do. One wonders what one believes, coming out of CrossGen, these days, though.

    I was also under the impression that slipshine launched about the same time we did, but I’m not sure (I didn’t myself hear about them until much later).


  10. are you talking about http://www.eigomanga.com? Back in 2000, if I recall correctly, they already had a webcomic subscription thing with their own original manga-inspired comics. Their site was the first one I ever heard of to offer subscription online comics, even though they didn’t refer to them as online comics and they weren’t trying to target people who read online comics. They’re still around, somehow. I don’t know how well they do, but it might be worth asking them their experience of the net since they seem to have been doing the subscription thing since 2000, unless I’m mistaken.

  11. Yah, I believe that it was hard. Like I said in a few other comments, it just appeared that this was going to be it for your coverage of pay-sites. Keep writing, you crazy stallion!

  12. Actually, in my high school (in Russellville, Alabama), you could take Agriculture instead of “real” Science — this was back in the early eighties. Agriculture was (reportedly) an easy ‘A’, so I signed up for it. Everybody in the class had to pick a Field Project, that would count in the end as an exam. I stupidly chose to raise chickens, and sell them for meat.

    They are filthy, filthy creatures, when penned in, and I didn’t know better than to pen them in.

    You have seen toejam?

    That’s what they poop.

    That’s what they — I should say — constantly poop. Poop is to chicken as clowns are to teensy tiny clown car.

    It builds up in a solid layer of nasty until you scrape it away with a shovel. I don’t mean “shovel” it away. I mean “scrape,” because it sticks to the ground, and won’t come away without several good passes.

    My dad had to do the slaughtering — I was too tenderhearted, despite my disgust for the damn things. He took off their heads with our woodsplitting axe (no, I am not making this up — I also had to split wood as a child). Have you ever heard the “myth” that when a chicken’s head is cut off, the rest of its body doesn’t actually behave as though it is dead right away? Flaps around and stuff? This is not a myth. One of those headless, blood-spurting atrocities actually chased my little brother (eight years old at the time, scared out of his wits) across the back yard. I’m fairly sure it didn’t know it was chasing him. But my brother didn’t know that it wasn’t.

    It was my job to choose each chicken from the pen and take it to my dad. I felt the weight of this responsibility, and apologized to each chicken when I caught it. By the time we got to the last one (there were 10 of them), I had completely lost all my courage, and convinced my dad to let us keep it as a pet.

    But then the dog broke into the pen and killed it overnight. I guess the presence of ten chickens had been too intimidating for him, but one was, you know, another story.

    I wasn’t able to sell most of them — I did sell a few. But I will say this: the ones we kept? They made good eating. Good, good, eating.

    I don’t remember if I got an ‘A’ or not.


  13. Actually, now that you mention it, I remeber eigomanga and they did try to contact people with online comics to link to them (including me) figuring our readers would be interested in what they had to offer. Of course, I could never figure out exactly what they were trying to sell back then, except they liked manga. Chalk it up to bad design and promotion.

  14. It’s okay man. Freud himself said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  15. My mom killed chickens on a regular basis when she was a kid. Thus I was always scared to get her mad at me when I was young (note : am still young). No threat of spankings or punishment works so well as knowing your parent has strangled and chopped off the heads of chickens.

    Oddly enough, she was scared of cows as a kid, and they love me. All I have to do is start talking and they gather round as if they’re really interested in what I have to say. An egomaniac’s dream audience: cows.

  16. Heh. Nice call on CoolBeansWorld, Joey — I had completely forgotten about that, it was so long ago.

    The comicsontheweb.com site, I never saw as really counting, go figure, for a number of reasons. As for Slipshine, if I remmber correctly, it first came out as Orgymania around the time of the MT launch, but was more a beta thing than the real deal at the time. Slipshine itself in its current incarnation came out later.

    Could be wrong about that last one, tho. I’d need to ask Lesnick.

    Overall, however, the point still stands: MT was the first successful webcomics subscription hub/service. No one else was able to make it succeed at that point. This, to me, is significant.

    Another thing we could have touched on in the article (or in a future article, perhaps) would be the e-comic packages — where people were able to play to recieve/download a full and complete e-comic. The idea floated around in 2001 an 2002, but never really seemed to be successful anywhere. I can’t even remember offhand who the players were in that particular endeavour (and I’m too lazy to research it at the moment, bad me)…

  17. On the ebook/comics thing, there was unboundcomics.com (which still exists, though it was absorbed into the horribly named ebookopolis.com or something like that, according to Barber — I haven’t looked at it myself). Also jambooks, who were good guys with their hearts in the right place. There was a Korean print publisher who launched one — ComicsOne? Does that sound right? I think theirs may still be in existence somehow (I think I saw some of their ebooks for sale on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or something recently).


  18. yeah they asked me too… it’s probably the only reason why I remember them at all. It seemed like they had a flash intro for each comic, and if you subscribed you had access to issues. And they were into merchandising their “properties”. Either way, they’re still around and still very quiet and it’s still hard to figure out what they’re really doing 100% haha~

  19. Have you ever heard the “myth” that when a chicken’s head is cut off, the rest of its body doesn’t actually behave as though it is dead right away?

    Mike the Headless Chicken, the greatest chicken Carnie side show act ever. The back story is that the farmer’s wife enjoyed eating the neck, so he cut as close to the head as possible. After letting it’s headless body run around the farmer notice that the chicken started to peck it headless body to ground like it was eating. Feeling sorry for the poor bird he began feeding it liquid with a liquid dropper. He then took it on the road with the local sideshow circuit for the next five years.

    God bless them Carnies

  20. Mike actually only lived 18 months without his head (only! Ha!). He eventually choked to death. Despite being both headless and dead, however, he is currently running for President of the United States.


  21. “Joey Manley was never much for listening to conventional wisdom”

    And that’s why we all love and respect the Colonel.

    -William G

  22. This is the history of webcomics? Bwhahahahahah– laughable. Can’t wait to see what chapter 8 is, a plug for Webcomics Nation??? The future of webcomics? Laughable.

  23. (This is scrubbo, too lazy to log in)

    Well, I was more taking issue that it sounded like MT was the only example of Pay fer Content type stuff going on… and a little insidery-ness of the article. (Which is almost impossible to avoid given T’s position.) I wasn’t bashing it as a BAD article, more wondering if/when coverage of the other pfc comics were going to get a little brightness shining on them. 🙂

  24. Yes, see, this was the problem. It appeared that this was going to be T’s coverage of pay for content and he’d move on in the next article to other aspects of the webcomicing world. If he covers more, then it’s not incomplete, although logically, I’d think mentioning the other paysites and their relative success/failure would be appropriate so as not to make readers have to search the archives for the OTHER pay-comics history pieces.

    (lazy not logged in scrubbo again)

  25. It should be pointed out that, unlike Colonel Sanders’ joint, Manley has never treated chickens inhmanely.

  26. Yeah, I had the opportunity to see a headless chicken running around once too. It was one of the most freaky things I’ve seen in my entire life.

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