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Form Is Function by John Barber

Licensing: not just for Microsoft anymore?

Last September, Yahoo Japan announced plans to launch an online manga rental system, whereby readers could buy 80-day licenses to read volumes of manga like Astro Boy or Cyborg 009. The licenses would be 360 to 400 yen, which is about three or four dollars (or was when I was in Tokyo last summer, anyway).

It’s certainly one of the biggest commercial webcomics ventures you’ll find: big, big comics in a country that loves it some comics.

We’ve got a few subscription-based webcomics companies in the US—the ModernTales family and PV Comics, for instance. And they’re profitable. Well, PV Comics is pretty new, and to be honest, I have no idea if they’re profitable. But I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say I know ModernTales is, because it’s built so it only can be profitable. It’s built on a small outlay of money in the beginning, no venture capital whatsoever, and money is only distributed if money is earned. Which it is.

Now, this is unlike the boom of high budget no-plan-to-turn-a-profit sites of the late nineties and early two-thousands. For instance, a friend of mine worked for the company doing the site design for StanLee.net. They were spending an absurd amount of money on something nobody involved with the project didn’t hate.

Then you had CoolBeansWorld (was there really a day when somebody somewhere thought something called "CoolBeansWorld" could take off?), and still hanging in there is Crossgen’s site, which like the company itself has always done, is probably pretending to be more successful than it actually is. I can’t comment on the quality of these sites, because like most people I never gave CoolBeansWorld a second thought and, as for Crossgen, I thought “Hm, I wonder what’s this all about?”, saw 14 seconds of one of the comics, said “Oh, that’s what it’s all about”, and closed the site and poured myself a drink to help me forget.

These were top-down companies, ones that had massive overhead and massive need for massive profits (relative to ModernTales’ and PV Comics’ needs, anyway).

So what about manga on Yahoo? And what will happen when TokyoPop or Viz launch webcomics? Because mark my words, they will. Will these prove to be more big-budget corporate webcomics failures?

Maybe, maybe not; there's a really significant difference between a manga site, Japanese or American, and CoolBeansWorld and Crossgen's thing. Both of those were targeting the existing direct-market-comic-book-fans who are, as a group, ridiculously well-served by the direct market.

TokyoPop has never targeted those fans. They’ve aimed at fans outside the direct market, and they’ve hit them. ModernTales and PV Comics have, largely, been aimed at the webcomics community, a growing and vibrant collection of fan/creators, but hardly the only audience for webcomics. A deal like the Japanese one with Yahoo would reach outside the core audiences of the direct market and the webcomics community. It would find itself more attractive to, say, fans of the cartoons or games that are related to the manga.

Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages to the Japanese Yahoo system, from the point of view of their target audience, a regular consumer of manga. What is he or she going to think about comics online?

Advantage: distribution. Assuming Yahoo is a popular site in Japan, distribution is an advantage. But that's not a huge deal because, at least in Tokyo, you can't walk 50 feet without finding somewhere that sells manga. But then again, not all of Japan is Tokyo.

Disadvantage: you can't read a webcomic on the train. Now, I’m sick to death of the reading-webcomics-on-the-toilet argument; if there was anything I could do to make it more difficult to read my comics on the toilet, I would do it. Anything. But the train’s a big deal, because subway station newsstands are the most common place to run into comics in Tokyo, and a hell of a lot of people read comics on the train, there. In Tokyo. But again, not all of Japan is Tokyo.

Advantage: You probably can, or will soon be able to, read the comic on a PDA or maybe even a cell phone. Disadvantage: This only works if you save the comic to the device, because subways aren't wired, even in Tokyo (I think). Advantage: you literally cannot buy a cell phone in Japan that doesn't have a camera, and thus a decent graphics display and decent memory. Disadvantage: I'm sure they're better than they are in the States, but the displays would have to be miserable for reading comics.

Advantage: Price. The online rentals are about a third of the price of a single reprint volume, comparable in price to a weekly or monthly manga.

Advantage: Color. The whole comic could be in color, or at least any pages that were originally in color stay that way (which they don’t always do in reprint volumes).

Advantage/disadvantage: Image quality. Weekly/monthly manga are really cheap in part because they're printed amazingly badly. I mean astoundingly badly. Much worse than they’d look onscreen. Blacks are spotty grays, different pages are different colors for no good reason. This isn't the case with the reprint books, though, they're nice. So content-to-content (web rental-to-reprint book) image quality is a disadvantage for web rental; price-to-price (web rental-to-weekly magazine) the image quality advantage goes to the web rentals.

But, disadvantage again, fine letratoning will likely look horrible on-screen. This isn’t a huge disadvantage with digital toning, but most manga uses mechanical tone (or at least photoshopping that looks like mechanical tones). That could look real bad on-screen.

Advantage: page size. Advantage versus American-format comics, anyway. Stick an issue of Ultimate Spider-Man online as an image file, make it fit onscreen, and try to read the lettering. Now try that with a page of Get Backers. Legible.

Disadvantage(?): 2-page spreads. Practically every manga for the past 30 years consists of 2-page spreads. Well, not literally, but enough that it's an issue. Chopping those up will render them unreadable. But a 2-page manga spread is roughly screen-shaped. So this could well be turned to an advantage.

Advantage: disposability. Because most manga is, let's be honest, fairly disposable. I mean, you can't easily have a 30 volume series that doesn't have redundant parts. But this works for the advantage of the Yahoo thing. Let’s say I buy a volume of Astro Boy on paper and read it, and enjoy it. 81 days later, I think I'd like to read Astro Boy again. Maybe I go and buy another volume, maybe I read the one I have and save myself some money. Because, man do I love Astro Boy, but most of the stories are variations on the same theme.

However, online, my subscription to one volume has expired—so of course I get the next one, and I don't feel ripped off. Even if the stories are variations on the same theme, they're different enough for my 400 yen. And how often am I, realistically, going to reread all 30-whatever volumes of Astro Boy?

What I'm getting at with all this is that there’re lessons to be learned by taking a hard, dispassionate look at how other people are doing things. Is licensing a comic to a big company the best way to go for most webcartoonists? No, of course not, but looking at how big business is handling itself might shed some light on how the independent webcomics creator can grow his or her audience.

Because it’s a big web out there, and we shouldn’t limit our audience to just ourselves.

John Barber, creator of Vicious Souvenirs at ModernTales and Mr. Conflict-of-Interest himself, is about seven seconds away from smashing his mouse, the worst mouse ever attached to a computer. So, yeah, that’s the sound you’re hearing.

Illustration by R*K*Milholland!

Re: Form Is Function by John Barber

Neil Cohn's picture

Interesting article John. I definitely sympathize with looking to other marketing models for insight.

Just to help back you up on Facts-o-Japan: Yes, people read manga on trains all over the country, and manga are readily available just about everywhere, even in the countryside. However, Japan is not nearly as internet crazed as the US (since cell phones take care of email and a lot of essential web inquiries)... though it might be readily changing. That could help tie some of the things you talk about together though. Since all cell phones in Japan have fairly decent internet access, that could, as you imply, bring webcomics to cell phones fairly easily.

Good luck with that computer mouse!

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - http://www.emaki.net

Re: Form Is Function by John Barber

The subway is wired in Stockholm.

Re: Form Is Function by John Barber

Good article, but it needs a stronger conclusion to tie everything together.