The History of Online Comics by T Campbell (Part 8)
The Collective Convective
Keenspot and Modern Tales were Big Pandaâ€™s most influential descendants, at least as of late 2004. But they were far from the only ones. As the number of webcomics continued to grow, the formation of collectives became as easy as the joining of bubbles in a bathtub. And like bubbles, they defied attempts to keep track of them all.
But categories began to emerge: (1) dropdowns, (2) kaffeeklatches, (3) showcase hosts (closed and open), (4) subscription sites, and (5) one pay-per-view store.
These collectives are worth studying, both in success and in failure, for every success shows where webcomics may be heading and where they may not be heading.
Dropdowns challenge the definition of "collective." Turbocool aimed for the least common denominator: it was nothing more than a cross-promotional dropdown list, placed upon each member site and the sites of any theoretical Turbocool supporters.
Turbocool had quality strips like File 49 and Killroy and Tina, but its strips had no incentive to remain members once they established audiences of their own. Also, Turbocool, "the embarrassingly titled webcomics conglomerate," bore the name of a popular air-conditioning unit, which kept it from building up much search engine presence. While the dropdown list still links to the original membership, most members no longer feature it on their sites.
"I donâ€™t think I ever really thought about my break from Turbocool," says Kara Dennison of Conscrew, "and I feel a bit bad about that."
Many other "dropdown" collectives formed, and many disbanded or lost support just as easily, but as of late 2004, they keep forming. There are even portals that collect these dropdowns on one page (collective collectives?). Probably the best are The Webcomic Dropdown Listing and the Keenspace Dropdown Directory. Keenspace is especially fertile ground for collectives to grow, particularly themed collectives like BloodKeen (vampires) and KeenHeroines (strong female characters). However, most non-Keen dropdowns have no such themes. Lacking a clear identity, they seem doomed to Turbocoolâ€™s eventual fate.
If thereâ€™s a success model for such a non-themed, low-commitment group, the Nice probably points the way. You get out of things what you put into them. Beyond the dropdowns, the Nice has forums, a randomized, cross-promotional homepage and higher standards for membership than most "dropdown" collectives. Its homepage announces, "The Nice is a group of cartoonists. We take our art seriously. We provide services to our cartoonists, because we want to see them succeed."
A similarly social, but less socialist, spirit dominates the kaffeeklatches: groups of close friends, bound by affection, respect and common love of cartooning rather than any particular business model or strict cross-promotional interest. Among the examples are AltBrand, Ape-Law, Dayfree Press, Exile Comics, Dumbrella and the now-defunct Collective Inkwell and Rocketbox Comics.
AltBrand boasts forums and once hosted an annual muscular dystrophy fundraiser. This may make it the highest-profile kaffeeklatch. But that isnâ€™t saying much. Bonds of friendship may make webcartoonists happier workers, but they make unreliable brand identities and leave audiences unmoved.
Which has serious implications for showcase hosts, particularly PV Comics.
A "showcase host" is a company that provides hosting for various comics, one central URL for them and some co-branding. Keenspot and Keenspace are showcase hosts (or, arguably, two halves of a single showcase host).
The collaboration of twelve cartoonists, PV began its existence as a scrappy subscription site, but switched tracks to free offerings after nine months. Its work has always had an edgy flavor, leading Eric Burns to call it "the Image Comics of" webcomics. But site founder Logan DeAngelis insists no one deliberately cultivated that flavor. And as they fly into their new business model of free webcomics promoting print comics, DeAngelis maintains that PV is not defined by this business plan any more than it was by the old one.
So what does define PV Comics? "The common denominator between our strips," he says, "is that the twelve of us are friends."
That common denominator may not be enough to set them apart in the gradually mainstreaming webcomics audience.
PV has another thing in common with kaffeeklatches: it has no corporate structure. DeAngelis is proudly "first among equals." That means the real test of PV Comics will come with the changing times. Who can adapt to change better, a loose confederation of equals or a centralized business? PVâ€™s current identity did form by natural coalescence, like Gaia forming from the Void. Perhaps it can do so again when changing times require it. The question of whether it can, and how well, looms over its future.
PV Comics, like Keenspot, is a "closed" showcase host, usually not interested in new strips except to replace old ones. For cartoonists considering "open" hosts like Keenspace, another question looms: pay or free?
The major free open hosts are Keenspace and Drunk Duck. Drunk Duck emerged during Keenspaceâ€™s bad times as a more informal yet better-maintained and coded alternative to Keenspace, with forums, advertiser support and a merchandise store. Despite a memorable icon (which oddly resembles an adult Plucky Duck from Tiny Toon Adventures) Drunk Duck has no more of a brand identity than Keenspaceâ€”virtually anything goes. Their homepage, like Big Pandaâ€™s of old, is more of a shifting meritocracy than a static list of links, due largely to its symbiotic ties with BuzzComix.
To understand BuzzComix, one has to understand the "top comics lists" in whose footsteps it follows. At one time, vote-driven popularity contests like Planet Cartoonistâ€™s top 100 site lists drove a respectable share of webcomics traffic. Cartoonists like Maritza Campos announced their #1 status with pride. As the Web expanded, though, top 100 lists became less and less relevant: the true "top 100" of webcomics no longer needed them much. Buzzcomix has managed to buck this trend through its bond with Drunk Duck and high-profile strips like Girly.
Still, despite Drunk Duckâ€™s quality of service and unbeatable price tag, for sheer high profile Comics Sherpa has become the site to beat. For 100 dollars a year, Sherpa offers hosting, a chance to compete for rankings a la BuzzComix (but only with other Sherpa cartoonists) plus exposure on Universal Press Syndicate's uComics.com site. Theoretically, this places them one step closer to syndication in printed
newspapers-and it definitely entitles. At this writing, four strips have made the transition to uComics.com, and one, very recently, made the transition to print: Suzie View by Tauhid Bondia and Erik McCurdy.
Note, though: among the three other strips is .blue, a series of computer graphics exercises that wouldnâ€™t play well in black-and-white newsprint. Nor does that seem to be the goal for creator Julein Tromeur.
"I had fun doing 30 of them, and I moved on. A few months later I showed them on a forum and had good feedback, so I decided to start again, and I'm having fun every time I'm doing one."
So not all Sherpa users entertain print ambitions. But for most, thatâ€™s the big draw, and Universal plays to that. "Why are we going to all this trouble?" asks their site copy, which then answers, "We're confident that the next Larson, Trudeau or Watterson is out there, waiting to be discovered!" Their history does back them up to some degree: they were the syndicate to take the plunge with Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet.
Comics Sherpaâ€™s only real competition on the horizon is WebcomicsNation. Touted as the Next Big Thing for Modern Tales, WebcomicsNation promises "a comprehensive suite of server-side software tools to help any small press print cartoonist or webcomics creator build and manage his/her online business." It has yet to launch at this writing.
Universal Press has also entered the same competitive space as Modern Tales with its own subscription site, MyComicsPage. All the newspaper syndicates established some sort of beachhead in online comics eventually, but Universal Press stormed right into them, setting up not only a basic "latest two weeks" site for its most popular features (uComics.com), but MyComicsPage, a fully searchable site for the dedicated comic-strip fan. Recently, King Features followed suit with DailyINK, a subscription site featuring their own print-syndicated work.
This has begun to make waves in the online community. How many it will make depends on how close the audiences for newspaper strips and webcomics grow.
Amy Lago, editor of the Washington Post Writersâ€™ Group syndicate, expresses her doubts about that. "The Web audience isnâ€™t always a sign of print success," she says. In fact, WPWGâ€™s biggest recent launchâ€”Berkeley Breathedâ€™s Opusâ€”has actually avoided placing its strips online. Still, Universal Pressâ€™s acquisition rate has been rapid. Perfect indicator or not, the relation between print and online strips appears here to stay.
Two other subscription sites deserve mention. Both have earned their success by appealing to specific and populous sections of the webcomics audience. For their fees, Wirepop offers manga-influenced comics, while Slipshine has pornographic comics (note: this link is not work-safe). Both manga and pornography are well-loved and well-hated in different corners of the webcomics community, but the sites provide high-caliber material in quantity on a regular basis, and their subscribers reward this.
No such high-profile, themed sites exist in the "showcase host" model. Itâ€™s too soon yet to say for sure if that reflects the natural state of webcomics, or if subscription sites have merely been trendy for the last two years. As other webcomics genres come to prominenceâ€”autobiography, superhero, videogameâ€”they will probably attract their own branded collectives, and prove the issue more decisively.
Finally, the pay-per-view store Zero One Comics pursues an avenue unlike that of any other collectiveâ€¦ though individual cartoonists are beginning to pick it up. Itâ€™s an a la carte site where people simply pay for the comics they want, at prices far lower than what a comic-book shop can offer (but per-transaction profits equal to or higher than those of the comic-book business). Jenni and Barry Gregory have been doing Abbyâ€™s Menagerie, one of the most prominent and best-drawn early webcomics, for years. The tried virtually every other business model before settling on this one, which has also attracted webcomics movers and shakers Steve Conley and Steven Withrow. But this traditional "bricks and mortar" approach was virtually unworkable online for such small commitments until a new technology emerged, a technology validating years-old predictions from one of webcomicsâ€™ founding fathers.
Micropayments had arrived.
Collectives remain important to the business of webcomics. Larger companies have a proportionately greater ability to sell ads, sell subscriptions and create and sell merchandise than most smaller, individual players.
But in the ensuing year, micropayments would be one of two factors concentrating some of the business of webcomics back into the hands of the relatively little guys. We will explore these factors in Chapter 9.
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.