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.
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 â€“ 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 Talesâ€¦
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 aâ€¦ 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 profitableâ€¦ 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 â€“ once anathema online, but rapidly coming back into fashion â€“ 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 â€“ and Modern Tales â€“ have plenty of cheer, but none of Crosby's â€“ Keenspot's â€“ 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 comicsâ€¦ 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 â€“ action comics â€“ 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 â€“ 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 thingsâ€¦ and the big castles they might buildâ€¦ in the next, and probably last, chapter of the History of Online Comics.
T Campbell is a staff contributor for Comixpedia.