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.
"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."
But a handful of entrepreneurs that year were electing to ignore conventional wisdom. Among them was Joey Manley.
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. Most importantly, a man who comes off as an enlightened statesman, more mature than the crazy creative types surrounding himâ€”-yet still a guy who gets it.
This last trait is a hard-won one, resulting not only from Manleyâ€™s many years of experience managing online content (begun in 1995), but from a talk show he put together, "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 entertainments 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 heâ€™d made, however, were sufficient to help him launch a new career.
He lacks the charming self-depreciation of Crosby. Keenspot once sold itself as "Almost as Good as Porn," but the slogans for Manleyâ€™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 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 itâ€™s the right content.
"My long-term goal," heâ€™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 featuresâ€™ schedules varied from daily to weekly. Some of these strips were by names familiar to comics fans, others already had online audiences upon joining. Manleyâ€™s connections were paying off.
But Modern Tales wasnâ€™t the first pay-for-comics site on the Webâ€¦ nor was it the first to use that big-name talent. That title falls to CoolBeansWorld, which launched in 2000 and featured Clive Barker and Chris Claremont. Within a few months of Modern Talesâ€™ launch, comic-book publisher Crossgen, funded by millionaire Marc Alessi, also entered this space with
Perhaps it was the particular names Manley securedâ€”more indie-types and webcomics creators, who had bigger appeal to the Web market than some of their mainstream counterpartsâ€”and, it has to be said, generally expected less money. Despite the brevity of his tenure, PVP creator Scott Kurtz was a huge draw in Modern Talesâ€™s early days.
Or perhaps CoolBeansWorld was simply too early, and ComicsOnTheWebâ€™s interface too confusing and too dependent on Flash. Although an impressive technological achievement, ComicsOnTheWebâ€™s code tended to disrupt the reading experience. And although we have no hard expense reports, even a casual glance at the going rate for Flash programming suggests it was far more expensive than it was worth to look cool and read clunkily. Marvelâ€™s current incarnation of "Dotcomics" exhibits the same pennywise pound-foolishness.
Or perhaps it was that pitch.
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 spin-offs with more specialized appeals: serializer.net, for fans of alternative comics; Girlamatic, which featured 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 Crosbyâ€™s–and Keenspotâ€™s–self-depreciation. Everything about MTâ€™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 siteâ€™s overall momentum much. This approach may not flirt with glamour the way Keenspotâ€™s does, but Modern Talesâ€™ 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 Manleyâ€™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, itâ€™s especially important to the business model of Modern Talesâ€™ 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.
From this and from Modern Talesâ€™ current success, 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 spin-off sites increasingly specialized, but Modern Tales has continued to roll out new features that increase its accessibility: a "Swapmeet" merchandise section (paralleling Keenspotâ€™s Keenswag, but with a higher stake for cartoonists) and RSS feeds and a "syndication" feature. The networkâ€™s recent dabbling in online advertisingâ€”-and the release of online magazine Graphic Novel Review, aimed at the casual readerâ€”continue this trend. 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.
Yet the webcomics scene of 2003 and 2004 owes as much to small things: a crop of collectives in Keenspot and Modern Talesâ€™ shadows, the growth of a critical community, and the actions of a few self-determined individualsâ€¦ including some of the Five Horsemen, riding their careers into new territory. Weâ€™ll discuss these each in succeeding chapters.
T Campbell is a regular contributor to Comixpedia. He is the editor of the Graphic Smash anthology webcomic subscription site and the writer of the long-running webcomic Fans! and other work.