Pop Goes the Manga: WirePop’s George Panella interviewed by Xaviar Xerexes

George Panella is busy.

Between creating ToykoHigh (on Modern Tales) and other webcomics, Panella somehow managed to launch WirePop, a subscription website dedicated to publishing manga-style webcomics. Panella has actually been quite active in webcomics for some time now with his Razor Studio website, where he offered the RazorNav automation script and started the RazorComics link exchange for webcomics.

We caught up with Panella to talk about WirePop, ToykoHigh and what else he's juggling in 2004.

What motivated you to start WirePop, a subscription site featuring Manga webcomics?

Many years ago, back when I started my own little webcomic, I felt there was a lot of untapped potential in the webcomic community. At the time, I wasn't sure how to help it grow. Eventually I thought the best thing would be to recreate what had worked so well in print, to form some kind of digital publishing company. Keeping my head in the know I saw a little forum post about someone starting a webcomic subscription site.

This eventually led to Modern Tales. Modern Tales got my gears grinding, but it wasn't until I actually started making a comic myself for Modern Tales that I saw the potential for a site like this. Not long after, I started making plans for my own subscription site. Taking what I learned and trying to improve on it, WirePop premiered after three months of development.

How much did you learn from pre-existing webcomic sites such as Keenspot and Modern Tales? What did you take from their business models? From their website design?
Modern Tales has obviously been the biggest influence. Even still, there were many things I didn't agree with and did differently. One major similarity is how the site's income is divided among the creators, but instead of using points we use percents.

When it came to the design and coding of the site, I used my experience as a web developer to create a professional look and navigation. How the readers navigated the site was very important to me, as I felt many other sites out there were too confusing and hard to get around. Despite my preparation, the site has changed a lot once we received feedback from the readers and the artists. I feel WirePop is paving its own path now.

What do you mean by percents versus points? How do creators on WirePop share in revenues? Also what has changed in response to reader feedback?
The difference is really in how it's calculated. We both have a base amount, referral and hits-based system. [O]n Modern Tales each part [uses] points (i.e., 100 points for a referral) and we use percents (i.e., 20% of the subscription for a referral). Right now most of the changes to WirePop have been navigational. Like auto-login, click on comic page to advance, moving some page elements around, adding a fan-art section, a comic update schedule to the homepage and we have a whole list of other updates and additions we are adding to the site still.

Why manga? Did you have a specific personal interest in the style or did you make a business decision that this would be a good place for WirePop to focus?This was one of the major things I wanted to do different from all the other sites. Where the others try to have a little bit of everything, I wanted something focused. I wanted a site where you would read 5 or 10 comics instead of maybe just 1 or 2. I realized this would lower the amount of readership potential, but I felt we would still win out in the end.

To do manga in particular was both a personal and business decision. I, for one, have been a big fan of the manga/anime pop culture for many years. When I started WirePop, it just made sense really and wasn't even in question. For one thing, we would be the only English manga subscription site on the Internet. The other reason is the amount of popularity that manga and anime have received over last few years.

Your bio on WirePop mentions your "background of 9 years in professional Internet design and development." What is your background here?
I actually always wanted to be a 3D Animator, but until that came to pass (which it hasn't yet) I got into web development. It was something I started doing back in 1994. Since then I've worked for major companies on pretty big projects. Among those are Nike, AAA, Bank of America, Universal, Visa, and even Stuttering John of Howard Stern.

During this time I had to learn to wear many hats, from my main job as a designer all the way to high-end coding. This was one thing I was confident I could bring to the webcomic community and WirePop.

Where did your interest in comics come from?
I really don't remember "when" I got into comics. But I do remember around age 11 that I was heavy into collecting them. I used to go to flea markets and buy them by the box full or whatever I could afford. At the same time, like many others, I always wished I could be a comic book artist. I would try to draw my favorite characters all the time.

As the years went on I slowly stopped collecting and eventually found out about manga. Something about the art and storytelling really sparked my creativity again. I eventually started a webcomic called Rei's Angel which didn't live very long. Later I created Xamra and restarted it several times. Xamra is now my comic on WirePop. It's about a girl that is enslaved by a demon. It's meant to be somewhat of a romantic comedy. I also make TokyoHigh, which you will find on Modern Tales.

How did you come up with the storyline for ToykoHigh? It seems to be a blend of high school drama and the alien on earth science fiction idea. Is there a lengthy story plotted out? Will it run in its entirety on Modern Tales? Do you have any other projects in the works besides Xamra and ToykoHigh?
Well when Joey approached me to do a comic for Modern Tales I didn't have anything "sitting on the shelf" so I spent a couple weeks coming up with a story that I could have a little fun with. Since I was going to do a manga-styled comic, I thought I should go with the standard fair of high school kids since this is a really important time in Japanese student's life.

But I obviously needed something different to throw in the mix. Eventually I thought that throwing a girl raised in space sent to earth for exploration. Then throw in the fact that she grew up reading romance novels and you have some opportunities for a funny little comic.

Actually TokyoHigh wasn't meant to run too long it will be a year old in April and that is when it will end. Right after that I plan to start working on a 3D animation project, which I've just started concepting.

What exactly did you like or dislike with your experience as a creator on Modern Tales? Anything specific you were intent on changing for WirePop?
I've been very grateful to be a part of Modern Tales. I've gained a lot of respect for Joey and what he has been doing. All the other creators and the community there have been great to work with. When I started WirePop, the biggest thing I wanted to do different then Modern Tales was mostly in the navigation and overall design and layout. We also have a lot of standards set so that the reader always knows what to expect no matter what comic he/she reads.

How long has WirePop has been "live"? How is WirePop doing in its first year? Has it met your expectations? Can you provide any information on your subscriber numbers? How about visitors (subscribers and non-subscribers combined)?WirePop is actually only six months old. I think it has done great so far for many reasons. We are always getting new subscribers, despite having done no major advertising. This means WirePop's popularity is almost all word-of-mouth. Those that have subscribed must feel it's worth telling others, and I think that speaks volumes about the site.

Our subscriber numbers are currently in the sub-500 range. It has been a very steady growth. We are using this time to work out kinks and perfect the site and the system. Only recently have we finally met our goal of about 20 comics. In the next few months we are planning to start getting a few paid ads on various sites. I'd rather have a slow, consistent growth, than explode and not be able to handle it. So far I think it's working out great.

You mentioned 20 comics – I counted 17 on the website. Will there be three more starting shortly? What are your goals for WirePop for the end of 2004? Do you have subscriber targets you are aiming for? Any other goals you are seeking to achieve this year?
We recently closed submissions since we have more then we need right now. We currently have two comics in process of launching soon, Baker by Night" by Tracy Williams, and World of Our Own by Aimo. We also have two submissions we are reviewing for the last spot. Right now our goals for the next year is to add our list of features, do a site redesign, and start advertising online and at conventions.

We hope to break the 1000 mark for subscribers this year, which I think is more then realistic at our current pace. We are treading in new waters for online manga and a lot of eyes are watching us to see what happens and I don't think we will disappoint. My only other personal goal is to work on growing my entertainment company, RazorStudio, as a whole – including the 3D animation project, Xamra and WirePop.

You mention on WirePop your desire to see it expand beyond the publication of only webcomics to put out print comics, as well. How are plans in this area progressing? Is this intended to put WirePop webcomics into print or will it be projects specifically for print? Any ideas on the format for the print versions yet?
Yes, besides my web development background, I worked in print as well. The plan is to create an anthology style comic then eventually break off into individual titles. Right now, the plan would be to work with the current artists on WirePop. Printed comics are a little ways off, however, since it all depends on the growth of the site. We are looking into doing a print sampler right now as a way to advertise at conventions etc. If this takes off well, who knows where it will lead.

You also run the site The Comic Wire. What kind of a community exists at this site right now? How active is it? Also do you still have plans to launch a web hosting business for webcomics (this is mentioned on the WirePop site)? Do you see that as a potential competitor to the Webcomic Nation project that Joey Manley (Modern Tales) is working on launching this year?
The Comic Wire is simply an online forum central to all my sites, including WirePop. It has a fairly active community, mostly in the WirePop section. I do have some plans to expand this site into a more interactive community for comics and animation. I actually had the idea for a webcomic-hosting site when I learned about Keenspace. The biggest thing holding that back really is time and other projects.

Where it will stand against Webcomic Nation, I'm not really sure. I don't know that much about that project, but I'm sure there would be enough difference for comic fans to favor one over the other. As I'm sure Joey would agree, competition is good and necessary for the growth of webcomics as a whole.

What's your role with RazorComics? How does the RazorComics site and community fit together with WirePop (or is there no relationship at all)? What's the mission of RazorComics?
RazorComics was started a year or so before WirePop. It is simply a link exchange program where a banner link box is placed on each member's site. There really is no connection between WirePop and RazorComics other than the few artists in WirePop that came from RazorComics. RazorComics will eventually be pulled into the new community site I mentioned before.

What do you think about the future of the comics medium and industry? Are online comics likely to be a dominant part of the mix anytime soon? How soon (if at all) do you think the heavyweights of traditional print comics books will get serious about online publication? Does WirePop have a place in that future and what is it?
An answer to this could take a book. I actually think that webcomics will remain a small niche for a long time. Since most of the younger generations are growing up on video games, they will expect more active entertainment than what webcomics provide.

I think print comics and webcomics will be for those who place more importance on story than entertainment. But I also see a lot of potential for us (independent comic creators) to grow into other areas, such as independent animations. As for the bigger print companies trying their hand at online publishing, I think once they discover the minimal monetary return they would shy away from it.

I like to think that WirePop will remain the premier publisher of online Manga for a long time to come. We have high quality titles, a lot of experience, and a lot of drive.

Xaviar Xerexes is the Publisher and Executive Editor for News.

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