Again and again, the cartoonists who knew and worked with Joey Manley repeat the same words: "He took me seriously." The founder of the Modern Tales family of webcomics collectives and other comics sites, Manley was a relentless believer in nurturing talent, supporting ambitious and challenging art, and rewarding creators for work well done. At the time he entered the webcomics field, this was a nearly unheard-of attitude.
“He was that rare kind of person that comes along in the comic industry,” says Cat Garza, one of the first artists Manley recruited to Modern Tales and one of many for whom that business relationship developed into a permanent friendship. “The kind that publishes newcomers without thought to whether or not the work is lucrative, the kind that puts people together and builds connections.”
Dirk Tiede, another longtime Modern Tales artist, says, “He gave so many young, talented, yet previously unknown creators a chance and a voice in what has always been a difficult and sometimes hostile industry. He put a professional face on webcomics at a time when they were laughed at by the mainstream comics scene. He stood up for us.”
Born in Russellville, Alabama in 1965, Manley knew what it was like to be a struggling young talent. His 1992 debut novel, The Death of Donna-May Dean, about a young gay man coming of age in Alabama, became an instant cult classic of LBGT fiction. Donna-May Dean put the 27-year-old writer on the map, but the pressure to follow it with a second novel overwhelmed Manley. Instead, he moved into a career in the then-new field of web design.
In 2000, Manley moved to San Francisco to work for Streaming Media. He served as the first webmaster for Free Speech TV, an activist organization dedicated to using electronic media to advance progressive social change. The website he oversaw, freespeech.org, garnered a Webby Award and RealNetworks’ Streamers Award. “Joey laid the first brick in the foundation that has now become an essential portal of progressive media on the web,” says Jon Stout, general manager and co-founder of Free Speech TV.
As the California tech boom exploded around him, Manley became interested in the possibilities for artists on the web. To educate himself about webcomics and introduce himself to the online comics community, he started a podcast, Digital Comics Talk, and a review site, Talk About Comics. Manley had drawn comics as a child, but he had no interest in becoming a professional cartoonist. Through his online projects, particularly an inspiring interview with comics theorist Scott McCloud, he realized he could contribute to the comics industry in other ways.
In 2001, Manley began to recruit artists, many of whom he’d met through Digital Comics Talk, for a bigger project: a for-profit, subscription-based webcomics collective. Readers would pay a monthly or annual subscription for access to the archives of the comics on the site. Invoking the spirit of pulp fiction magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, Manley called the site Modern Tales. The subscription model, he hoped, would allow artists to work together to increase visibility and profits for everyone involved, including artists whose work was excellent but not necessarily clickbait.
“When Joey was doing TalkAboutComics, he interviewed me,” recalls Garza, whose site The Magic Inkwell had featured some of the earliest experimental comics on the Web. “He knew my work wasn't the kind to be ridiculously popular or lucrative. That's what he liked about it.”
“Joey saw a letter I wrote to The Comics Journal, followed that to my website, and actually set up an interview with me,” says John Barber, comic writer and current senior editor at IDW. “I mean—that was crazy to me at the time, that somebody would care about what I was doing enough to want to hear my thoughts.”
“Joey Manley always seemed to pop into my life at the right time,” says cartoonist Anthony Furtado. “As an indie comic creator in the ’90s, I was about to toss in the towel when Joey showed me a new landscape and inspired me to create my first webcomic, `Tween.”
The focus on quality over popularity defined Manley’s approach to webcomics. The comics showcased on Modern Tales were ambitious, offbeat, and often visually experimental. The artists in the launch lineup included Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, Jesse Hamm, Gene Luen Yang, James Kochalka, Dorothy Gambrell, and other major emerging talents. Established heavy hitters like Harvey Pekar and Will Eisner contributed later, but Modern Tales was always primarily a showcase for new artists. In online forums, Manley was blunt about his high standards for webcomics and his low opinion of much of the material running online. He often butted heads with cartoonists, critics and fans, but he never relaxed his vision of webcomics as a professional art form.
“When it all began,” says Scott McCloud, “Joey and I wound up on opposite sides of some debates, but our disagreements made us friends, not adversaries.”
Lea Hernandez, who worked on the Modern Tales sites as both a cartoonist and editor, says, “Joey taught me to learn to like when people got upset about things I said and did because it meant I was getting somewhere.”
At the launch of Modern Tales in 2002, Manley’s stated goal was to bring in a living wage for its artists in five years. He never reached that goal, but for several years the subscription model did solid business and the site expanded rapidly. Modern Tales spawned sister sites: Serializer for alternative comics, Girlamatic for women-friendly comics, Adventure Strips (later replaced by Graphic Smash) for action comics, and AdultWebComics for NC-17 material. Modern Tales Longplay, a section for longform comics, allowed the site to a showcase one-shot graphic novels and novellas. The Modern Tales family grew to include two solo sites, for James Kochalka’s American Elf and Lea Hernandez’s Rumble Girls. Each of these sites had its own editor, but Manley, now working from his home in Kentucky, ran Modern Tales and remained hands-on in every corner of his growing webcomics empire.
“Joey was generous,” says Barber. “He wasn't just not-evil, he was totally generous with his time and his resources. I've known a lot of good people in comics, but nobody like Joey.”
“One of my best San Diego Comic-Con weekends was when I stayed in a cottage with Joey and Joe [Botts, Joey’s partner], because they were fun and funny and took care of me when no one else was and I felt like a princess,” recalls Hernandez. “Joe made breakfast. Joey gave me cab fare so I could get back to the cottage after the Eisners. Joe carried my heels after the Modern Tales Irish pub meet-up.”
In addition to the subscription sites, Manley introduced WebComicsNation, a free hosting platform for webcomics. As free comics supported by ad revenue started to eclipse the increasingly unpopular subscription model, Manley turned Modern Tales into a partly free, then entirely free site. Comics blogger Eric Burns took over as editor in 2006; he was later replaced by longtime Modern Tales cartoonist Shaenon K. Garrity.
In 2007, Manley announced a merger with OnlineComics.net, a site started by Josh Roberts. Together, Manley and Roberts developed ComicSpace, a comics-oriented social media and publishing platform, with funding from angel investors at E-Line Media. Manley moved to New York City to work on the new company. “When it started we were all starry-eyed,” says Diana Cameron McQueen, who worked alongside Manley at ComicSpace and later took over as editor of Girlamatic. “Joey was constantly firing people up about the next greatest thing we could try.”
But ComicSpace never fully took off. Meanwhile, as the webcomics world shifted, the Modern Tales sites declined in readership. In 2012, ModernTales.com shuttered its virtual doors.
Although he continued to work for ComicSpace, Manley moved back to Kentucky and, for the first time in 20 years, focused on his own creative work. He started an online fiction workshop, inviting a close circle of writers—many of whom he’d met through Modern Tales—whose work he admired. “As in comics,” recalls Alexander Danner, a member of the workshop, “his feedback was incisive and insightful, brutally honest, but never discouraging; he showed you your flaws in the same breath that he gave you the confidence to overcome them. I am a better writer because of him.”
To the workshop, Manley brought the early chapters of his second novel, Snake-Boy Loves Sky Prince: A Gay Superhero Teen Romance. The story of a supervillain’s minion who falls in love with the son of a superhero, the daringly structured, evocatively written novel seemed a culmination of all of Manley’s passions over the course of his strange, bumpy, wonderful career.
In October 2013, Manley began to feel sick. He passed away of complications from pneumonia on November 7, in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, surrounded by family and friends. He was 48. He is survived by Joe Botts, his love of 22 years.
“If the difference between an amateur and a professional is being paid for time and effort, then Joey Manley helped make professionals out of dozens of artists and writers early in their careers,” says Jim Zub, another Modern Tales launch artist, now project manager at UDON Entertainment. “Over a decade later, as mega-media corporations still struggle with making digital content ‘work,’ Joey’s simple answers hold true: Give creators a flexible platform, let them create without barriers, and watch their skills flourish.”
“So many of us are friends or have created work together because we had Joey in common,” says Tea Fougner, who worked with Manley at ComicSpace and is now assistant editor at King Features Syndicate. “He was great at figuring out what people were good at and connecting them with people who could help make them better—and great at convincing us that this was something we could do professionally.”
“I feel cheated," says Jenn Manley Lee, former Girlamatic artist and creator of Dicebox. “Of not having Joey's insight or the irreverent joke when we most need it. That there is one less truly decent and generous person in this world. One less true champion of comics in all the forms that they can exist in.”
Manley’s contribution to webcomics—and to comics of the 2000s in general—was immense. The list of cartoonists published by the Modern Tales family is far too long to reproduce here; many went on to successful careers as comic artists, others as editors and instructors encouraging a new generation of talent. Countless friendships grew out of the cooperative professional relationships that ran Manley’s creative juggernaut.
“I can't begin to count the number of other creators I know simply because he was the lynchpin in our relationships,” says Chris Shadoian, another member of the Modern Tales freshman class.
“Joey wanted to build a new economy,” says McCloud. “He wound up building a new community.”