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One of Those Things

In 2001, a guy named Joey Manley was doing something nebulous for a doomed tech startup with more venture capital than it could responsibly spend, which was a common job in the Bay Area at the time.  It’s become a common job again, but Joey’s safe in Kentucky, away from the khaki-clad millionaires who rode BMWs and razor scooters then and ride BMWs and fixies now.  Joey was and is a Kentucky colonel, the real deal, which is not the tenth most interesting thing about him but might be in the top thirty.  In 2001, he had a good chunk of money and the common sense to know that he wouldn’t have a good chunk of money forever, not the way this startup was going.

In 2001, I was working at a manga publisher and drawing a daily webcomic, just like I am in 2013.  Same publisher, different comic.  I’m beginning to think I don’t change much.  Joey changes.  Before the tech startup, long before, he was a promising young novelist, something of a wunderkind in the world of semi-autobiographical coming-of-age LGBT fiction.  But if you’re a wunderkind, and also the kind of person who worries a lot, you’re liable to get so overwhelmed by imagined expectations that instead of writing more novels you drop out, disappear, and surface elsewhere, far away, where they’ll never find you.  So there was Joey in Silicon Valley.

This is a column about Modern Tales.  That means I ought to talk about money.

My comic, back in 2001, was getting enough hits to start costing me $200 a month in bandwidth overages, but not enough that I could make more than loose change by selling banner ads.  Some webcartoonists were just starting to figure out how to monetize their work, but I wasn’t one of them.  I’m still not good at making money happen.  “I never like to sell anything,” said Harvey Kurtzman, the wunderkind turned magazine editor, in an interview late in life.  “I was never a salesman.”  Kurtzman was my guy.

Joey had a plan for making money.  By 2001 he’d begun talking to cartoonists, sometimes over email, sometimes in person.  He’d made contact with an eclectic group of webcartoonists in Chicago and was wooing small-press creators in the Bay Area, taking them out to dinner and talking Internet.  His plan: a subscription-based webcomics site.  Maybe 30 artists, ongoing serials, a monthly or annual fee to read the archives, with the profits split between the artists based on number of hits.  In the spirit of old pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, it would be called Modern Tales.

Meanwhile, Joey was educating himself about webcomics.  He set up a podcast, Digital Comics Talk, and a comics review site, Talk About Comics (which continued for many years in various forms, eventually morphed into Graphic Novel Review, and finally passed away peacefully in its sleep).  He hung out on message boards.  In a corner of the online world that was, back then, small enough that you could be Known pretty easily, he was starting to be Known.

I don’t know how Joey found my comic Narbonic, probably through the Bay Area indie crowd, but at some point it made it to the bottom of his list and he emailed me.  He recruited me all sneaky-like.  I know, because I kept the email.

Joey, the talkaboutcomics.com guy here.

I’ve got an agenda with this email. Actually, I’ve got three agendas.

1. I’m wondering if you’d like to be interviewed for a future episode of Digital Comics Talk.

2. I’m wondering if you’d like to write a column for the site (the first column, by Iain Hamp, launched this week — I’d like to have more).

3. I’m launching a commercial webcomics business in a few months. Our mutual friend Derek Kirk will be one of the creators involved. I’m wondering if you’d like to be involved, as well. Gene Yang, Jesse Hamm, David Gaddis, and a number of others have also signed on for the launch.

So there they are, my three agendas. They’re not connected (I’ll still want to interview you even if you say “no” to everything else).

Lemme know!

I said yes to everything, though I can’t remember if I ever wrote that column.  But lord, that lineup of talent.  In the end Derek Kirk Kim, neé Derek Kirk, didn’t join Modern Tales, and David Gaddis, who had amazed the Internet with his luminous scroll comic “Piercing,” dropped off the face of the earth.  But Jesse Hamm, who was working on a Snow White riff called Bitten Apple, signed up, and so did Gene Luen Yang, a high-school teacher with a minicomic about the Monkey King.  All of them ended up becoming my friends at some point.  Some of them still are.

Other friends I made from the initial MT lineup: Dirk Tiede.  Lark Pien.  Jason Shiga.  Lea Hernandez, Lea Hernandez, Lea Hernandez.  Wonderful Chuck Whelon.  Joe Zabel.  John Barber.  Jim Zubkavich.  Chris Shadoian.  Cat Garza.  Tom Hart, who had been one of my high-school comicking heroes.  And others.  And more friends, later, as artists came and went on Modern Tales.  And oh, I was in awe of them all.

This is a column about Modern Tales, so there’s no point in talking about money.

The money was never good.  When MT launched, Joey had the modest goal of making it possible, within five years, for a cartoonist to make a living from the site.  We came tantalizingly close sometimes, but we never reached that goal.  And I came closer than anyone, because Narbonic was the most successful comic on MT, largely because it was a daily strip and dailies had a big advantage in accumulating hits.  Narbonic wasn’t costing me money, and sometimes it was making me money, and that was pretty good most of the time.  In the plushest years, Joey sometimes helpfully pointed out that I could live off my MT earnings if I’d move to Kentucky.

I had the most successful comic on MT proper, but, as Joey expanded his small and meticulously-curated empire to other sites, I didn’t have the most successful comic in the MT universe.  To the best of my knowledge, that was James Kochalka’s diary strip American Elf, which ran on its own site and just ended, after fourteen years of daily updates, in December 2012.  I subscribed to American Elf throughout its Modern Tales run because I couldn’t stand to miss a day.

By the mid-2000s, Modern Tales included two single-comic sites, American Elf and Lea Hernandez’s Rumble Girls, plus a set of themed anthology sites: Girlamatic for girly comics, Serializer for alternative comics, Adventure Strips, later replaced by Graphic Smash, for action comics, and Adult Webcomics for porn.  It was something of an in-joke that I was a lucky charm for Joey’s sites: I never had a comic on Adventure Strips or Adult Webcomics, but I wrote and/or drew comics for all the other collectives, and they were the ones that lasted.  For a while, anyway.

I was lucky.  For Serializer, I got to collaborate with my hero Tom Hart on a strip called Trunktown.  For Graphic Smash, I wrote Smithson (originally titled More Fun), a rambling graphic novel drawn by the wonderful Brian Moore, another friend I made through Modern Tales.  And my comic on Girlamatic, Li’l Mell, was transparently an excuse for me to work with some of my favorite artists.  Girlamatic was the chummiest of the MT sites, full of crossovers and chatter.  I loved being on Girlamatic.  I still love Li’l Mell.

But I’m speeding ahead to the present.  Let me loop back around to 2001, because I ought to talk about Comic-Con.

In 2001, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I drove down to the San Diego Comic-Con for the first time.  It was by far the best time I’ve ever had at San Diego, although last year I spent most of the weekend at a bar six blocks from the convention, and that was almost as good.  In the summer of 2001, Modern Tales was a few months away from launch, and the freshman class met up at Comic-Con.  There’s a photo of us, taken by the wonderful Jim Zubkavich (then serializing the early chapters of his online graphic novel The Makeshift Miracle), on the steps of the convention center.  Not everyone is in it, but enough people are: Jim and Derek and Cat and Jesse and Chuck and Lea and Dirk and Joey Manley in a James Kochalka shirt, the one with Fancy Froglin saying, “I am wearing tiny pants to hide my genitals!”  It’s a happy photo.  Later we went to Old Town for Mexican food, with Cat Garza, whom we worshipped for his trippy interactive webcomics, holding court over enormous margaritas.

There’s no way to say this in a way that doesn’t sound trite, but it felt like the beginning of something.  It wasn’t just Modern Tales.  Keenspot, already established as the big name in webcomics sites, had members out in full force at that Comic-Con.  A little group called Pants Press, consisting of a half-dozen Disney-loving teenage girls and one grown man, met in person for the first time after finding each other online, and the Pants Press girls wove in and out of the Comic-Con crowds in a blur of watercolors and cosplay fabric.  Every member of that group is now a major talent in comics or animation or both.  That summer, it was certain for the first time that webcomics were going to be a thing.  A good thing.  What we were doing was smart and beautiful and funny and raunchy and tragic and cool, and color was free and courage didn’t cost much, and there was no reason we couldn’t take over the world.

Did we?

Once I drew a Narbonic strip with punchline about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Joey emailed me to say it was his second-favorite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man cartoon.  That, in a nutshell, is why I always got along with Joey Manley.

Joey once said that his dream was to become the Forrest J. Ackerman of webcomics.  He also said that my destiny was to be the Gertrude Stein of webcomics.  I was annoyed at the time because I wanted to be Picasso, but Joey was probably right.  I’m a Gertrude Stein.  He’s more than just a Forrest J. Ackerman, though.  He’s a Harvey Kurtzman.

Now Modern Tales is shuttering its virtual doors, after a run of ten years and change.  I suppose I always knew that one of these days I’d be writing its obituary; websites don’t last forever, after all.  (But did I know that in 2001?)  In this, the second dot-com boom, webcomics collectives are out.  Instead of joining together, we’re decentralizing, diffusing into social media and multiple platforms, turning from collectivist to libertarian.  Webcomics don’t even need websites anymore.

I took Narbonic off Modern Tales in 2006, during the final weeks of the strip, for many reasons.  Joey apologized for not being able to fix the technical problems MT was having at the time.  I wrote back, “Joey, I’m not angry anymore,” because he hates that song.

Joey, you never needed to apologize.  Not to me.

The members of the Modern Tales freshman class are seniors now.  Jim Zubkavich teaches art.  Tom Hart runs an art school.  John Barber was an editor at Marvel, is now an editor at IDW.  Jason Shiga has won a million awards and is working on a graphic novel longer than Habibi.  Gene Yang is a bestselling graphic novelist with a National Book Award nomination under his belt.  Jesse Hamm is working at Periscope Studios in Portland and never finished that damn Snow White comic.  He was like ten pages from the end!

I stopped drawing webcomics for a whole year.  That didn’t last.  In 2013, I’m doing what I did in 2001, more or less.  If Modern Tales hadn’t been there when I needed it, I wouldn’t be making comics today.  Someday I’ll draw the greatest James Joyce cartoon.  And Joey Manley is in Kentucky, writing novels again.


8 Responses to One of Those Things

  1. Erika Moen says:

    Oh Shaenon, thank you for writing this. I’m a little bit at a loss for words, but I’m full of good memories and nostalgia and remembering what it all felt like. You captured it really well.

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  3. Tonight, having learned of Joey Manley’s unfortunate and untimely passing, rereading this essay was exactly what I needed. Thank you for writing it, Shaenon.

  4. Lisa Jonte says:

    Thank you, Shaenon.

  5. Samuel Bjorndahl says:

    Thank you for writing this, being from Australia we have a very small comic culture and community. In the early noughties it was hard to find anything outside the usual marvel dc superhero genre, that was until I stumbled across Modern Tales and finally found the kind of comics that really spoke to me this was gateway to finding more independents online such as Vera Brosgol (Return to Sender) and Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference), It also makes me very happy to know these talented artists are established and haven’t fallen into obscurity. Thanks Joey and Modern Tales

  6. Ed Gedeon says:

    I wish I could have been part of that crowd. Still, I’m glad I got to know Joey just a bit, and thankful that he helped me get started.

  7. Greg Frame says:

    A very nice piece – a tribute, as it is now. A matter of detail, I suppose, but your intro is incorrect. We weren’t a VC-funded start-up, and Joey wasn’t doing something nebulous. We were focused as hell, and we achieved some great things together. In the end we were victims of a bubble burst to which we did not contribute. Our company was started with kitchen-table money by a visionary guy who is our friend, and made to succeed through the efforts of amazing, smart, driven people like Joey and several others. We raised no VC capital, but were purchased by a larger entity, which later fell in the crash of 2000/2001. Most of us (a group of about 30 people) are still tight. We follow each other through life, we’re friends, we love each other. The reason is that the experience we had together was meaningful, difficult, beautiful. Love you Joey.

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