Paying for It: Webcomics Are Still Cheap Thrills
There are plenty of webcomics you can read for free, but a growing number of sites are beginning to charge for some or all of the webcomics they publish. Now that you may have to hand over your hard-earned cash to read your favorite webcomics, it’s important that you know what you’re getting so you can decide where to hand over your hard-earned cash. This article is part one in a series that will review sites where you pay for webcomics. We will tell you the costs of joining such sites. We will take a hard look at what you get behind the “subscription curtain,” including comics and other materials. And we will try to lay out whether or not it’s ultimately worth it.
For part one of this series, I checked out two of the most prominent webcomic sites where you can exchange cash for webcomics: Modern Tales and Keenspot Premium. Modern Tales is practically a straight subscription-only site; non-subscribers are limited to seeing only the latest installment of any particular series – archives are off-limits. In addition, the site also hosts actual subscription-only content, which is reserved solely for the paying customers. Keenspot Premium, however, started off primarily as a means to read Keenspot comics faster and without banner ads. Until very recently, all of the Keenspot comics and their archives were free to browse through. In 2002, however, Keenspot added original comics to Keenspot Premium which were not available to the non-Premium subscribers. So although we are looking at both sites together this month, keep in mind that Modern Tales was started as a subscription site, whereas Keenspot Premium is more of a hybrid between a subscription site and the reward programs used by free webcomics such as Penny Arcade and Diesel Sweeties.
The Cover Charge
Modern Tales charges US$2.95 for a one-month subscription. There are two other subscription sites owned by Modern Tales: Serializer and Girlamatic, both of which give you a discount if you subscribe to more than one site per month. A subscription to a Modern Tales site automatically rolls over month-to-month unless you cancel your account. Keenspot Premium charges a variety of subscription rates depending on how long you wish to commit. For a one-month subscription, Keenspot charges US$4.95. If you are willing to commit to a full-year subscription, it costs you US$44.95, and you get a print Keenspot comic book. By comparison, a one year subscription to Modern Tales will cost you US$29.95.
Both Modern Tales and Keenspot Premium only accept payments through Paypal at this time, so you should have a Paypal account ready to go before signing up with either service. (Keenspot Premium will accept checks through the mail, but who wants to wait that long?) I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to Paypal, but it seemed to be fairly easy to use, once I had a bank account and credit card set up with a Paypal account.
Signing Up for the Service
I decide to sign up with Modern Tales first. I click on the "subscribe" link prominently displayed on the MT home page. Once at the subscription page, I click to pay the monthly fee of US$2.95 per month. But then I either miss something, or getting your password is not part of the initial sign-up process. I don't know about you, but I need instant gratification. Where's my password? So the next step is to email Joey Manley, the very visible publisher of Modern Tales. I fire off the email to Joey at about 9 PM EST, but apparently I fired off that email too soon, because everything comes to my email inbox in one fell swoop. I get the confirmation from Paypal that I have paid, an email from the MT server with the password, and an email from Joey Manley replying to my inquiry. Good. I decide to log in to MT right away. I click on the handy "accounts" page at MT and change my password to something I'll actually be able to remember.
Next on my list is Keenspot Premium. Once you're at the Keenspot Premium homepage, it's relatively easy to fill out a user name, an email address, and then click on a Paypal button to pay the Keenspot Premium subscription fee. Everything goes well for me until the last "continue" click, when I receive a "405 Method Not Allowed" error. The sign-up page indicates that "you will receive an email with a confirmation password after Keenspot staff verifies payment." It's 8:00 PM Pacific Coast Time when I fire off my Paypal payment, so I figure there's a good chance that I will get that email fairly soon tonight. An hour later, and no email is forthcoming. Being tired, I go to bed (I happen to be on East Coast Time, so it's midnight for me).
An email arrives in the morning with password and activation information. I follow the instructions to activate my account, and that works with no problems. Completing the activation process gets me to the Keenspot Premium webpage. It offers a link back to both Keenspot's home page and to Warpkeen, the site for faster surfing of free Keenspot comics. I want to find out if I can change the default password I was given, so I hunt around for how to do that. I head over to Warpkeen to log-in. Unfortunately, I get a message that my username is not valid. Before emailing for help I head over to Keenspot, where I find that the banner ads have been helpfully replaced with a banner that links to my personalized Keenspot Premium homepage. I click-through over there, and it does not appear that one can replace the password with something simpler to remember.
The first thing I discover upon subscribing to Keenspot Premium is a notice stating that Warpkeen, the speeded-up server that allows one to view Keenspot comics more quickly, has been temporarily disabled due to technical problems. No mention anywhere of when the technical problems started or when they will be fixed. I think it's fair to say that this should have been mentioned prominently on the website before I signed up for Keenspot Premium. I'm also still faced with an error when trying to log into any of the Premium-only content from the Warpkeen site, because my username is not being recognized. I fire off an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the error message I've received, and wait. In the meantime, I head over to the Keenspot Premium Forum. No help there, really, and not much current discussion beyond technical issues related to the service.
As far as I can tell, Modern Tales and Keenspot Premium seem to work well with both Internet Explorer and Mozilla. I did not test them with other browsers, though, and I did not see any information on either site indicating support for other browsers. Best to check with either Modern Tales or Keenspot Premium reps if you want to use something other than Internet Explorer and Mozilla.
What You Get Behind the Subscription Curtain
If you like webcomics, it would be hard to dislike Modern Tales. The site currently publishes 37 regularly-updating series (a few update daily, most update weekly and some seem to update less frequently then weekly) and has 14 completed series in the archives. Comics run all over the gamut in style, format and genre. You may not like everything MT has to offer, but it is very likely you'll enjoy at least some of it. As a huge bonus, subscribers also get access to Modern Tales Longplay, home of longer one-shot webcomics, which has already accumulated an impressive variety of artists and stories on the site. All of the comics have easy back, next, first and last navigation buttons for the archives (very similar to the system used by Keenspot for all of its comics).
As for non-comics, Modern Tales subscribers also get access to the sketchbooks of 14 artists from the site, including Cat Garza and Donna Barr. There are also a few journals of assorted materials, including the odd and eclectic I Have No Superfluous Leisure by Dorothy Gambrell, who also creates The New Adventures of Death for Modern Tales.
Keenspot Premium is a very different animal than Modern Tales. Keenspot publishes over 40 comics available to readers for free, and hosts 8 completed series in the archives. Keenspot is primarily in the business of publishing webcomics for free, relying at least in part on an advertising-supported business model. In contrast, Modern Tales does not carry banner ads on the site. With the collapse of the advertising market for websites (the typical rate for a banner advertisement in 2003 is significantly less than it was in 2000), Keenspot has added several additional services and products that require payment from the purchaser, Premium being only one of those efforts. Keenspot has also launched a comic book line, published books collecting Keenspot comics and begun selling merchandise through an online store named Keenswag.
Despite my previous error messages at Warpkeen, it looks like I can access Premium comics through links at individual Keenspot comics, as well as from the Keenspot home page. There is a weekly fantasy adventure serial called Melpomeme by Jamie Robertson and Cliff Hollingsworth. There is also Manifestations, a spin-off of Thomas Dye's Newshounds. I also find Bluebird of the Apocolypse by Mike Leffel. GPF offers a secret history of the Gamester character, and a peek at Jeff Darlington's sketchbook. Schlock Mercenary shows a larger, more detailed version of the daily comic, and includes sketches from creator Howard Tayler. The Pentasmal archives (Aaron Farber's finished series) are only available to Keenspot Premium subscribers. In addition, at Warpkeen there are links for "bonus stuff," "after hours," and "news" which I still cannot log-in to. Other than that, it appears that may do it for the Premium-exclusive content.
Finding all of this material (other than Melpomeme and Manifestations, which are linked to on the Keenspot home page) was somewhat frustrating, as I had to go through the homepage of every Keenspot webcomic to see what was available. A major feature seemingly missing from Keenspot Premium is a complete list of Premium content presented somewhere on the Premium site. Keenspot Premium would do well to follow up on announced efforts to create a more informative, centralized home page for Premium. One that provides access to all of the Premium features and content from one location would be a good start.
A complete list of Premium content somewhere on the “free” part of Keenspot would also be very helpful to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. For example, before subscribing to Keenspot Premium, it would be informative to see in one place what you will be getting for your subscription payment. Really, it's surprising that Keenspot doesn't do a better job of advertising what is available behind the Premium curtain.
Should You Pay For These Webcomics?
Modern Tales is a fairly straight-forward call -- for US$2.95 per month you receive access to an amazing amount of fairly regularly updated webcomics, easily justifying the subscription price. Simply comparing it to other entertainment media puts the low price tag in even better perspective: a cable bill runs approximately US$30.00 to US$40.00 per month, an online gaming account runs approximately US$10.00 per month, and a standard TIVO account runs US$12.00 per month. It's impossible to even compare a MT subscription with obtaining a similar amount of comics in a print format, as the cost for the printed books would be astronomical by comparison. If you like webcomics, heck, even if you don't like webcomics that much, this is a good deal for your money.
Whether to put down the money for Keenspot Premium is a tougher call. Viewed strictly as a means to obtain more webcomics and bonus content not otherwise available, it does not seem nearly worth the minimum US$5.00 monthly charge. The sparse number of Keenspot webtoonists participating, combined with the inconsistent nature of their contributions, is frustrating if you have expectations of obtaining access to the sketchbooks of your favorite Keenspot artists, of viewing a better, larger version of the free webcomics published by Keenspot, or even simply reading additional webcomics not already available for free.
It is also unclear as to whether Keenspot has any additional plans to expand the Keenspot Premium content in the near future. The other features of Keenspot Premium are harder to evaluate. Browsing the regular Keenspot comics without banner advertising does nothing for me, but banner advertisements do annoy some people, and eliminating those ads may be worth more to you. Warpkeen offers faster access to all Keenspot comics and the ability to receive multiple Keenspot webcomics in one daily email to your inbox. Again, these features may or may not be worth a lot to you.
Alternatively, you may be inclined to view Premium content primarily as a reward for providing some compensation to Keenspot, for the free webcomics they publish. If that is the case you will probably take a different view of the content offered in return for your subscription payment. As a "thank you" for donating money to Keenspot for their continued publication of free webcomics, it's not a bad package, especially compared to reward programs at other high-profile webcomics.
Xaviar Xerexes is the Publisher and Executive Editor for News.