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Joey Manley Interviewed By You, the Readers

As the Fates would have it, Joey Manley is a Colonel.

He's also the Field Marshal behind the great wall of subscription-service, webcomic-related product known as Modern Tales. Having been creepy-crawling around the webcomics community scene since about mid-2000, he first started up with a webcomics reviews/interviews site called talkaboutcomics.com. Only months later, he decided that the world was ready for a subscription-based webcomics portal, even if some seemed wary of the prospect of paying for something that had "always" been free to date.

But already a few years have passed, and Manley's dream stands tall in the garden of fruition -- not only has Modern Tales endured, but it has grown, branching out to include a host (literally) of sister anthology sites, as well as promote key solo artists, too. Now, with a few new fun gifties to hand out from his bag of webcomics tricks, the Colonel takes a few moments out of his uber-busy day to respond to you, the reader, on all things webcomics, business... and chicken (seriously).

1. During the last six months, Graphic smash has gone live, Graphic Novel Review and swapmeet. What, if any, projects do you have planned for the near (and far) future? Or will you take a break from the innovating for a while in favor of honing the existing projects? -GiantPanda
Believe it or not, "honing the existing projects" is my top priority.

WebcomicsNation is an example of me attempting to have my cake (e.g. work on the existing projects) and eat it too (spinning off new businesses).

By which I mean this: over the two years we've been around, there's been a constant flow of great ideas on how to improve the site, ideas coming in from various people who have a stake in the Modern Tales business -- cartoonists, subscribers, even daily non-paying readers -- ideas for better navigation through the archives of comics; ideas for new business models to supplement our existing subscription model; ideas for ways to serve the needs of more cartoonists; ideas to popularize and publicize Modern Tales specifically and webcomics generally. The original Modern Tales code -- not the HTML stuff you see when you visit the site, but the stuff in the background that actually runs the site, the "engine," -- was and is too rigid and too fragile to handle a lot of that functionality, so most of these great ideas for improving the site have languished, waiting for the time that I could start from scratch, and re-code Modern Tales (and its sister sites) comprehensively.

Now is that time.

I've collected those ideas from all those people, thrown a few of my own into the mix, and have used them as the defining guideline for the next-generation version of our site's backend code.

Meanwhile, I'm building that code to be flexible enough to run anybody's webcomic site, not just Modern Tales. And the generic version of that engine is the base of WebcomicsNation. So WebcomicsNation itself isn't so much a new project as it is an opportunity to take the work that I am doing on Modern Tales anyway, and split it off into a hosting/application business, as well as a major Open Source backend for webcomics. I'm developing this enormous, and powerful codebase � first and foremost, for Modern Tales � but it seems a shame to only let me & the limited number of cartoonists on MT play with it.

So, the answer to the part of your question that relates to WCN is that I am attempting to do both things (innovate new businesses, and hone existing ones) at the exact same time.

The existence of WCN, however, will have this defining effect: there will be very little reason for me to launch any more anthology webcomics sites, or even any solo series sites, after WCN exists. WCN will take care of any cartoonist, or group of cartoonists, who want(s) to use it. There's no need for any more spinoff sites. So if somebody comes to me with a great idea for an anthology site (the way that Lea Hernandez came to me with the idea for girlamatic, or Tom Hart came to me with the idea for serializer), I can tell them, "Hey � cool. Why don't you use WebcomicsNation to launch that? If you want me to host it, the hosting rates are cheap, the engine is already installed, and you can keep all the money � or you can host it yourself somewhere else; here's the code." I hope that this will help increase the rate of new commercial webcomics launches � by getting me, as it were, out of the way.

Which means I can start innovating in other areas.

One is the launch of our line of print books. There's already been a preview image posted in the MT newsletter for one of these -- we have three of them on their way to the printer right now, two anthologies and one single-series compilation. I'm not directly managing that business: Eric Millikin, creator of Fetus-X, is the God of all things Print in the Modern Tales family. Look for a full announcement very shortly. I will say this: we'll only ever be doing booklength collections -- I don't ever expect to get into the comic book pamphlet business.

I also expect to spin Graphic Novel Review off into its own website soon (I already own GraphicNovelReview.com). Again, I won't be managing that one directly. Our newsletter editor, Alexander Danner, will be the editor of Graphic Novel Review. If the website goes well, I fully expect for that thing to turn into a print quarterly or monthly at some point, with librarians, bookstore buyers, and other groups of people who don't tend to buy their graphic novels in comic book stores, as the target audience.

The really difficult thing for me to learn has been accepting the need for delegating certain tasks to others -- especially business tasks. I have had some bad experiences in the past, trying to launch online businesses with partners, who almost always lost interest, or turned out to be incompetent, or simply disappeared. Modern Tales didn't have any of those problems -- in part because I lucked into an amazing team of collaborators, and in part because there wasn't, and isn't, any ambiguity involved regarding responsibility, or regarding the power of decision-making. If something goes wrong, it's my fault. (If something goes right, it's the cartoonist's fault). This clarity and simplicity comes with a price: it also means that I can't rely on anybody else to solve any problems on the business side of things. I don't want to sound like a whiner � I LOVE MY JOB � but I literally work 12-18 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, and still can't cover every base. I spend 4-5 hours every day answering customer service emails, 3-4 hours every day with cartoonist technical support, plus there's the monthly accounting grind, the writing of checks for cartoonists, the filing of contracts, the this and the that � and none of that even counts the things you guys know me for � the site coding, the public messageboard persona, the dealing with the press, the writing of articles, etc., etc., etc. (To be honest, that last group of things are the things I enjoy doing � the rest is drudgery). I've begun, slowly, to delegate my "powers," such as they are, and the responsibilities that come with them, to other individuals � people I've known long enough to trust. Accounting. Contract negotiations. Coding. And so on. It's a process that is only just beginning. Hopefully, it will be a success, and will free my time up for more Xbox playing (and more business-building). But we'll see. We'll see.

My secret plan is to hand over ModernTales.com to Shaenon K. Garrity at some point, when I'm bored with it. I'm not bored with it yet.

2. Which are your favorite print comics? - MaritzaCampos
Hm. That's a hard one. There are so many. Here are some of my favorites:

Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez
Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud
Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken by Seth

The first comic I ever bought was a Richie Rich "adventure" comic (as opposed to the Richie Rich "gag" comics), and I still have fond memories of it.

3. What made you decide to get into webcomics and what made you decide the time had come for a subscription model for it? - T Campbell
I had been working on the "web entertainment problem" since I was hired to run freespeech.org back in 1996. Look it up on archive.org to see what it was when I was there (it's humorless and shrill now, IMHO). There, and then at MediaBay, and then at streamingmedia.com, my entire career had turned around the one question: what will successful web-native entertainment businesses look like? Modern Tales is one more step along that path, inspired specifically by reading McCloud at about the same time I was being laid off at streamingmedia.com.

Modern Tales � and webcomics generally � will not be my last experiment with entertainment businesses on the web.

4. What about your own attempt at a webcomic? What was the reaction and will you ever do it again? - mequinn
I guess you're talking about This Is Not Me.

That was really just me futzing around with Photoshop. Specifically, I wanted to create something webcomic-like so that I could experiment with posting it, and see where the holes were in the Modern Tales control panel code � how could I make it more functional, where was it actually broken, and so on and so on. That's why I was doing such bizarre things with layout, those five-thousand-pixel-tall by five-thousand-pixel-wide screens, and so on, because I was trying to push the control panel to the very edge of its capabilities. They were only supposed to be for my private testing purposes, at first. Meanwhile, my bizarro sense of humor kicked in, and I just started making little jokes to myself in the "comps" I was using as test items. I decided to post them online just to see what the reaction would be. When I look at them now, two or three of them (the first one, the big one about the gay guy, the huge one about nothing at all, with the little boxes and the little words and the "bear" in it) do me proud. The rest are throwaways. I'll be doing it again from time to time, but it'll be moving over to WCN (as I test that control panel) and off of Modern Tales (where it never belonged in the first place).

I actually got some extremely positive feedback on the TCJ boards. I briefly flirted with the notion that I am a comics genius. But then I realized that I wasn't.

5. When Modern Tales began, there was a monthly update of how many people were actually subscribed; recently the figure has not been mentioned. How many subscribers are there now? At a guess, how many "regular" non-subscribers read the site compared to people who actually pay for the additional services? How many pageviews does an average MT comic receives every day? - Th'_Mole
Around 3400 individual humans are subscribed to one or more of our sites. Around 900 of those people are subscribed to more than one site, so there are around 4300 active subscription accounts.

We have around 15,000 unique visitors to ModernTales.com or one of its sister sites every day. I'm assuming that many of them are repeat readers, but not every one of them.

We don't track "pageviews" � at least, not the way that other people do. We have a thing we call "views," which means "a view of an installment by a paying subscriber," but that's not the same thing as a "pageview" as understood by somebody running an advertising-based site. For example, one web page can generate multiple "views" every time it's looked at (if it has more than one installment on it), or no "views" at all (if it is being looked at by a non-subscriber, or if, like the homepage, it doesn't have an actual installment on it). So there's really no easy way to translate one number to another.

Given that the vast majority of our web pages are available only to paying subscribers, who represent a small fraction of our total audience, I'd say it's a safe bet that if we did track "pageviews," the number would seem scandalously low to someone who is used to looking at the numbers of a free webcomic (in the same way that sales of ice cream for a place that actually charges for the ice cream would seem scandalously low to someone who is used to looking at the numbers of a free ice cream vendor).

6. The chicken-holding avatar you use on TalkAboutComics: what is up with that? It makes me want chicken. Every day. Every day, the chicken. Please Advise. - Wednesday
When I lived in Kentucky the first time, about ten years ago (I just moved back there recently), I had to work as a temporary secretary. There just wasn't much call for Creative Writing Program dropouts in the business world. At one of my assignments, there was a woman who had recently had to re-enter the workforce after being the Executive Secretary of a Kentucky State Senator. She had no idea how to use Word, Excel, any of that. She was scared as hell.

I showed her around the Windows interface, gave her a few tips on using Office applications, and was amused at how grateful she was. A few months later, I received a citation in the mail from then-Governor Brerton Jones, declaring me a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. It seems she still had some clout in High Places. Now, this kind of Colonel � this paper citation for doing something odd and mundane � is exactly the same kind of Colonel that Harlan Sanders was (he, like me, was never actually a colonel in the military � he ran a gas station/chicken joint on Shelbyville Road for most of his life). So, anyway, I told this story to somebody � Eric Millikin, I think � and he came up with that image. And I made it my avatar.

I still haven't figured out exactly what my rights and responsibilities as a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels happen to be. I'm fairly certain that I can declare Martial Law in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but have not yet tried.

7. What's the "brand identity" of Modern Tales the company, ModernTales.com the site, and the various other sister sites? - T Campbell
Modern Tales the company is a hotbed of experimentation relating to comics, specifically webcomics.

ModernTales.com is the leading subscription-based webcomics site. Graphic Smash is its kung-fu fighting little sister. Girlamatic is its half-Japanese, kitten-petting little sister. Serializer is the black-clad, clove-smoking scooter-riding little sister.

8. How successful has Modern Tales been at reaching an audience beyond established comics readers? Thus far, Modern Tales has been pretty low-key with its marketing. What plans to do you have for drawing in new readers? - AlexanderD
Marketing is not how entertainment businesses make money. It's how entertainment businesses lose money. We will continue to be low-key in our efforts, and we will continue to grow slowly. Slowly is how we always planned to grow, and I see no reason to change that plan. In fact, we grew much too quickly our first two months, which caused many problems.

9. Given that there are several free webcomics making significant amounts of money, what would you say are the main benefits of the subscription model? - SleepyJim
Different kinds of comics have different kinds of audiences with different interests and different priorities. Some audiences are served better by one business model, others by another. Obviously, the biggest and most obvious difference between the audiences for different comics is size: some comics are enormously popular. Most are not. I don't happen to believe that a comic has to be enormously popular in order for it to be a viable commercial entity.

For example, Penny Arcade is well-drawn, well-written, phenomenally popular, and able to parlay that popularity into actual money � which is great. I love that comic, and I'm glad it's free. But not every comic worth reading is going to be as popular as that. There are other comics, every bit as good as Penny Arcade, which, for whatever reason, will never reach that kind of an audience size. Maybe they're a little less fun to read � in the sense of "fun" as "entertainment" anyway � a little more complex, a little harder to get into. I'm not saying that they're deliberately obscure, just that they're never going to have millions upon millions of rabid daily readers. Comics like James Kochalka's, Derek Kirk Kim's, Shaenon Garrity's, Jim Zubkavich's, or cat garza's: engaging works that are as professionally produced as a Penny Arcade or a PvP, but are not designed to reach the largest of the large mass audience. Those kinds of comics need a business model that will support them, it seems to me. Since those kinds of comics seem to pull in intensely loyal, devoted readers, the subscription model works very well. Comics with millions, or hundreds of thousands, of daily readers can make money (by charging advertisers a penny or two per banner view), but so can comics that draw in tens of thousands, or even just thousands, of daily readers (by charging readers a dollar or two per month). When you're looking at a penny per reader for a banner view, or a dollar per reader for a subscription, you can be significantly less popular, and still make similar amounts of money, on a subscription model.

Most importantly: the advertising-supported comics don't get hurt by our success, and we don't get hurt by theirs. Everybody does okay. That's the goal.

10. What are the unique qualities of webcomics that really excite you? Do you see an historical antecedent to the webcomics phenomenon? - bryantpaul
For me, it's more about distribution than it is about the formal aesthetic possibilities (though they, too, excite me, they are not why I am in this game). Comics as a form has been in the past, and has the potential to be again in the future, the most popular of popular artforms. Those whose job was to care for the business side of comics (I'm talking here about comic books, but also about newspaper syndicates who distribute comic strips) have botched the job up marvellously � which gives upstarts like us a chance to steal the fire, as it were, and take their business away from them. Which is exactly what I hope we (and by "we" I mean all of us in the webcomics community) do. I'll be shocked if we don't, to be honest.

Historical antecedent: the rise of rock'n'roll � music kids really wanted to listen to � over the bland corporate thing called "music" in the '50s.

Re: Joey Manley Interviewed By You, the Readers

Joey Manley's picture

The Girlamatic cartoonists have asked me to make the following correction.

Girlamatic is not Modern Tales' half-Japanese, kitten-petting little sister.

Girlamatic is Modern Tales' kitten-petting, zombiefied, skyclad, futuristic,
older-guy-befriending, elementary-school-terrorizing little sister.

Thanks.

Joey
www.moderntales.com