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The History of Online Comics by T Campbell (Part 5)

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.

McNett's Big Panda got its start as a web-hosting service that specialized in online comics, hosting such features as Superosity, pnes, Bruno the Bandit, and -- most importantly at the time -- Sluggy Freelance.

McNett offered hosted cartoonists a simple deal: unlimited hosting and automatic updates of comic strips in exchange for a monthly fee and 50% of ad revenues. A 50% policy and auto-updating remain features of Big Panda's direct descendant, Keenspot. However, Keenspot has proven far more adept than Big Panda at securing advertisers and advertising revenue. More on Keenspot later.

The plan hit a snag when Pete Abrams decided Sluggy could make better money by subtracting a larger fee for hosting than by dividing its ad revenues in two and then subtracting the smaller fee.

But Abrams' move did not cause a stampede. Conventional wisdom held that 1999 was a "name-building, reputation-building" phase for most webcomics, and that too much focus on profitability would be counterproductive. Conventional wisdom was, in this case, pretty much correct: Sluggy was in a different weight class from other Panda strips.

McNett's plan, though, faced the worst of both worlds. The heaviest hitters like Sluggy avoided signing up with Panda because there was no profit in it for them. Smaller comics were still focused on earning revenues in the future, leaving Panda with 50% of very little in the present. There was not enough middle ground in 1999 to pay the rising server bills.

Faced with this, McNett regrouped and turned his inventive mind to coding. As Big Panda the hosting service began to lose steam, Big Panda the webcomics portal passed it by. There had been other link farms for webcomics, but Panda had an advanced "top comics" system which inspired daily visits among readers and competition among cartoonists. It was not an impossible system to manipulate. But neither is any search engine, yet search engines remain useful, and so did Big Panda's portal.

McNett also invited webcomics to list themselves by category, though the categories were almost too strange to provide any information at all: "comedy," "weird," "furry," "weekly," "internet," "daily," "adventure," "animals," "people," "the," "friends," "and," "college," "color," "aliens," "silly," "here," "this," "adult," "bizarre," "satire," "character," "monkeypunch," "nbsp," "angry," "lopow," "alternative," "cats," "fantasy," and "funny." Ontologically, it was no Yahoo. The only real estate that really counted was on the homepage.

Big Panda became a true webcomics hub, with over 770 cartoonists vying for space on its homepage. Though usually the same familiar names came up in the listings again and again, the "underdog" feature gave every strip a small chance at getting to the top of the list.

Each cartoonist was given a chance to describe their strip pithily for that homepage's benefit. Like the traditional Hollywood "pitch," these short phrases were a test of focus. You had two lines to tell people why they should read your strip. It doesn't seem a coincidence that most of the strips with punchy, catchy phrases on Big Panda had long, well-received runs for years afterward:

"WHEN I GROW UP: Is your girl/guy/appliance 'faking it'? Click here to find out!!!" "pnES: It's not so much mad science as it is disappointed."
"IT'S WALKY: Who's the SEMME agent that's a sex machine with all the chicks?"
"ELF LIFE: The #1 comic strip at PlanetCartoonist for 5 months nonstop!"

Of course, it takes all kinds to make a webcomics world. One cartoonist used the taglines to pick fights with other cartoonists, accusing one of incest. This earned him some notoriety, but only among cartoonists, not readers. And even this shows the growing sense of community and togetherness that Big Panda fostered-- suddenly other webcartoonists felt important enough to reference.

For most of 1999 and into 2000, the highest aspiration of an online cartoonist seemed to be to create something "like Big Panda, but better" [paraphrased from Boxjam and Michael Roberts on the ecartoonists mailing list]. But almost as soon as Big Panda became established, the trouble started.

McNett claimed to care deeply about webcomics, so deeply that at one point, when his ad-revenue plans were clearly going nowhere, he offered to pay the server "out of his own pocket." Carson Fire later said, "Somehow this scared me to death... the idea that at a time when I should be making money off of a lot of hard work, I would instead not be making money but at the same time be racking up huge unofficial debts to somebody else that I could never repay, just for the privilege of giving the stuff away for free."

As it happened, Fire didn't have to worry about incurring unofficial debts. The price of Panda's lack of revenue would come due almost immediately.

Both Pandas started acting up, garbling descriptions, mixing up ranking order, and going offline for longer and longer periods. Though the "Y2K Problem" may have played some part in these difficulties, the troubles began before January 1, 2000 and continued long after.

A flurry of e-mails and phone calls to McNett met with silence. Few knew it yet, but shortly after making his generous offer, McNett had turned his thoughts to exit strategy.

Enter Chris Crosby.

Crosby's Superosity had been a Panda fixture for a year, and he was suffering the same communications blackout as everyone else when McNett called him up and offered him control of the company in exchange for a percentage of profits. Crosby agreed immediately and waited for McNett to send the contract. And waited. And waited. For months.

Through no fault of Crosby's own, McNett then offered control of the company to Jon Rosenberg after allegedly agreeing to transfer it to Crosby. Rosenberg refused and urged McNett to go through with the original deal, yet still no contract was mailed. Unconfirmed reports suggest McNett may have been seeking other buyers as well.

In desperation, Crosby asked the Big Panda mailing list for suggestions and soon linked up with Darren "Gav" Bleuel. Bleuel's technical proficiency, Crosby's idealistic charm and their shared vision gave them everything they needed to meet the goal of "like Big Panda but better"... meet it and exceed it. Bleuel's partner Nate Stone and Chris Crosby's mother Teri joined in. They contacted the other members of the mailing list, most of whom had little loyalty left for Big Panda after the long outages and communications freeze. And a new collective began to snowball.

"I'm to blame for the name 'Keenspot,'" said Chris Crosby in a later interview.

His plans set, Chris informed McNett that he and Bleuel were leaving within two months.

McNett countered that Chris, at least, would be leaving within four days, after which Big Panda would no longer recognize "superosity.com."

"We didn't even have our server online yet," said Chris later, "and it takes three days alone just for Internic to [move a] domain from one server address to another. Bryan knew this, obviously. He was just being a jerk."

Bleuel seemed to respond to a chance to prove his own technical proficiency in the wake of the Panda's own tech troubles, and superosity.com made the transition without a second of downtime.

But McNett wasn't done. He promptly sent out a message to the Big Panda mailing list:

"Two months after we gave server passwords to DARREN 'GAV' BLEUEL and CHRIS CROSBY, they announced that they would form a new company to compete with Big Panda. After a look through our logs, we found that unauthorized copies of Big Panda software were made by DARREN'S account. If these guys offer to automate your comic with Big Panda software, kindly refuse; copyright law is as important to us programmers as it is to you cartoonists."

Bleuel quickly countered:

"Contrary to what Bryan has been spamming people with, we DID NOT steal any of his scripts. We want there to be no question that Keenspot Comics is completely independently created, and you can poll my doctor about my recent carpal tunnel syndrome as proof that I programmed everything myself in the past week or so. Bryan's accusation came from the fact that there was a time he had led me to believe that Chris owned Big Panda and that I would be taking care of the technical side of things. At that time, the scripts were breaking down and Bryan wasn't fixing them. So I started to download some scripts I could find on his site to fix them. I never found his auto-update script and his logs should show that. When I found out that Bryan actually had no intention of giving up control of Big Panda, I deleted all the scripts I had downloaded. None of these scripts were much use, anyway. Most of them had the word 'spam' in the title, but I don't have to tell all of you that."

By this point, McNett had lost so much of his former cachet that nothing he could say or do slowed Keenspot's development by much. Ultimately, all Big Panda-hosted comics would join Keenspot's hosting and comic-strip network. The Panda hosting service collapsed. Big Panda continued as a portal until at least July 11, 2001, though it largely ran on automatic and was virtually closed to new strips by mid-2000. Finally, Josh Roberts purchased the domain name, and today it redirects to Roberts' OnlineComics.net.

Big Panda served as a valuable prototype, and gave the webcomics community the focus that made Keenspot possible. Its flaws and failings pushed Keenspot's founders to go further. In the long run, they would prove the business model could be profitable and provide hosting for over 1,000 comics.

And while Keenspot's hosting wouldn't be free of crashes, Bleuel went in determined that no one would confuse him with his predecessor. He would always make its operation his #1 priority, and would, whenever possible, be on hand to answer the questions that McNett had ignored. In a twisted way, that's McNett's legacy, too.

And what of Keenspot's legacy?

We'll discuss that in Chapter 6.

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.

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Re: History of Online Comics part 5, by T Campbell

I doubt I'll ever find out who made this statement or where I can confirm it. If the author reads these words, I'd love for him to get in touch. My e-mail is tc(at)tcampbell.net.

Re: History of Online Comics part 5, by T Campbell

I remembered that Keenspot arose from unpleasant experiences with a previous host, but I didn't know it was like this.
From the way this article is written, it almost sounds like a retelling of the fall of some actual nation. I guess that editorial on NPR was right, perhaps there are such things as cybernations.

Re: History of Online Comics part 5, by T Campbell

That was really interesting! I've always wondered about Keenspots orgins, and am surprised that I never heard of Big Panda, despite getting into webcomics in 1999. But then, it took me awhile to expand beyond Sluggy...

Re: History of Online Comics part 5, by T Campbell

Fascinating. I never realised OnlineComics.net was owned the by same person who bought Big Panda. I always did wonder what happened to it.

Re: History of Online Comics part 5, by T Campbell

There are a few details to add relating to the company as a whole.

Big Panda was a company that Bryan was merely one partner (of which I was another although I had little direct contact with the comics hosting) in that was around for years before the comics hosting started and that the comics hosting was a negligible portion of the company. That company closed down during late 1999 due to a partner leaving (who also happened to be the sysadmin of the group) giving little reason to work collectively, but company finances had less to do with that than wanting to work on something more interesting.

When the company broke up, Bryan got the web comics portion of the company; as I no longer had direct access, I could not say whether it was his desire to work in games (which long predated even the actual beginning of Big Panda), general uncertainty about what he was going to do next, or money issues specifically with the hosting that prompted his exit.