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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Tales of Modern Tales
By Rich Watson

08/26/02


The burgeoning growth of online comics in recent years has, for the first time, provided the individual artist a means in which to compete with the major publishers. As evidenced by my previous column about Dominic Nunziato's spoil-sports.com, positive word of mouth can spread like wildfire throughout the Internet, and cartoonists worldwide are taking advantage of it.

ModernTales.com brings together some of the finest names in the independent comics industry, along with some fresh new talents, under one website to showcase their talents, with an eye towards making a profit off of it also. For those involved, it has come to mean a viable alternative method of establishing and building an audience for their work.

"I've been wanting to do comics online since 1996 or so, but everything wasn't quite in place," says creator Lea Hernandez. "I did put previews of my print books, CATHEDRAL CHILD, CLOCKWORK ANGELS and RUMBLE GIRLS online, to help sell them to people who weren't sold with an Image house ad and some crafted hype." Her strip, "Near-Life Experience," is a semi-autobiographical one that was the result of her getting some needed downtime following the recent birth of her daughter. "The opportunity was there. I wanted to build my readership, too, and get my online readers to buy print compilations, and my print readers to go online and subscribe for a 'fix' that appears more often than my print work...I think it's great venue, a very exciting and wide-open one."

"I like web comics," adds Tom Hart, whose strip features his longtime character Hutch Owen in a September 11th-inspired story, which he says will eventually be printed by Top Shelf. "I like the distribution, the immediate and cheap distribution. I like not cutting down trees. I'm very excited about the web right now. Basically I always hope to have comics out where people can see them; print, web, television, wherever."

Modern Tales is the brainchild of editor and webmaster Joey Manley. "I spent about six months reading webcomics, learning everything I could about the field, identifying and recruiting the most talented cartoonists, negotiating contracts, etc. I also spent about $9000 in advances to the cartoonists who I contracted. In terms of the technical setup, I'm lucky enough to be able to write database code and such stuff as that." Manley cited advantages to the format from a business perspective, including no print runs, no fighting for shelf space, and an audience more receptive to different genres. "Webcomics, generally, are fabulously popular -- the most popular webcomics (a list which does not yet include Modern Tales, because we actually charge) are far more popular than 90% of print comics. Stuff like that."

Part of the site's success is attributable, says Manley, to the name recognition of cartoonists like Hernandez, Hart, and James Kochalka. "When Shaenon Garrity announced on Narbonic.com that she was moving her archive to Modern Tales, we had thousands of her readers flock to the site (and hundreds of subscriptions). We've also been lucky enough to attract quite a bit of press in the Internet culture/tech world (we've been written up on Wired.com numerous times, and also in WIRED print, for example)."

There are also relatively newer names in the mix. Cayetano Garza does a strip called "Cuentos de la Frontera" that draws upon Mexican folklore and legend to tell a fascinating story of one man's spiritual journey. "There's a rich oral storytelling tradition in the Rio Grande valley of Texas that is being lost as the old generation passes. The smaller folkstories in 'Cuentos' represent the 'reclaiming' of that heritage for the main character, Felix Jaramillo, who will eventually become a faith healer and encounter some of the legends he is studying as a graduate student working on his thesis. I had shied away from doing anything 'Hispanic' for a long time in an effort to be recognized as a cartoonist first, a Hispano second. With 'Cuentos,' I feel more immersed in my cultural heritage and hopefully passing it on to the next generation online, just as it was passed on to me."

By contrast, Indigo Kelleigh started "Circle Weave" as a self-published black-and-white print book before taking it online. "I've redesigned the story to work better in serial installments, and rewritten it into a different genre (where it used to be a space opera a la STAR WARS, now it's a strict 'high-fantasy' story, though the basic direction of the story is roughly the same)... It's a story that's been with me for a long time and I thought it would be a total shame if I was forced to stop working on it because it cost too much to produce. This way I can distribute it for free, minus webhosting costs, and gain a larger audience to boot... [S]ince I'm delivering it digitally, I decided to go ahead and do it in colour. I've always wanted it to be in colour, but the idea of publishing a full-colour comic was just terrifying compared to the merely daunting thought of publishing a black-and-white comic."

Modern Tales is an artistic venture, but it's also a business one, meaning money is being made. Manley offers the comics at the site as part of a subscription service: $2.95 a month, or $29.95 for an entire year. "The cartoonists are already getting paid. I spent $9000 in advances when we launched, six months ago. That was to cover a six-month term (at which point, if the advances hadn't been made back, I would eat the difference and start paying royalties on a monthly basis, and if the advances had been made back, I would pay the cartoonists the difference -- and still start paying subsequent royalties on a monthly basis). That six-month term ends August 30, 2002. We are currently profitable to the tune of about $2000/month. The cartoonists get the lion's share of that profit."

Recently, Manley announced the forming of a spin-off site, AdventureStrips.com, to launch in September. This site, edited by FEMME NOIR co-creator Christopher Mills, would be devoted to Sunday newspaper-style adventure serials featuring sci-fi, crime, superhero, pulp fiction, and more. "ModernTales.com, all by itself, has attracted more paying readers than many print comics put out by long-established companies," says Manley in the press release. "So that's nice. But we're also interested in exploring a bit deeper into some of these genres. AdventureStrips.com is our first foray into a single-genre site. We hope that current ModernTales.com subscribers will enjoy it, and also hope to pull in people who would have never subscribed to ModernTales.com." A sneak preview is currently available at http://www.adventurestrips.com/pr.php.

The parties involved all agree that webcomics are an ideal method of expanding one's audience - and that Modern Tales has made great strides towards that goal. "Small press always seemed to be considered by the industry as a whole to be sort of a testing ground - if you were good enough at small press, you might get to move up," says Kelleigh. "The industry still doesn't seem willing to recognize webcomics as an equal, though I hope that sites like Modern Tales will help change some people's minds about that."

"Webcomics represent a new, more vivid and interactive, more immediate and intimate, more pan-cultural and personal means of visual storytelling that we have yet to even scratch the surface of," says Garza. "I'm excited to see what the future holds for this new form of sequential art and even more excited to be a part of it. Modern Tales was something I had been waiting for a long time."


IMAGINATION STATION:

Long-time readers of this column may recall me talking about a short story I was doing for Brian Clopper's follow-up to his all-ages anthology BRAINBOMB. Well, the wait is over - IMAGINATION ROCKET, the new volume of kid-friendly comics from Brian's Behemoth Books, is now available. A quick recap: both books have been created with schools in mind. The stories in these anthologies educate as well as entertain, and Brian supplements the comics with activities and question-and-answer pages that invite the kids to think about what they've read as well.

My contribution to the new book is a four-page strip inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes, one of my favorite writers, and deals with the civil rights movement as seen through one woman's eyes. It's not often I get to do all-ages material, and I'm quite proud of what I've done here. IMAGINATION ROCKET is available now at finer comic shops everywhere, and Brian will also have them for sale at the Small Press Expo next month. Pick up a copy and let me know what you think!


BLAME CANADA:

The following was posted to the Comic Book Resources message board recently, and I thought I'd pass it along here:

"Canada Customs has not allowed the works of Phoebe Glockner, Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, Ariel Schrag, Will Eisner, Diane DiMassa, Milo Manara, Alan Moore, Mike Allred, Dori Seda, the Hernandez Brothers, John Bolton, Ted Mckeever, Phil and Kaja Foglio and Chester Brown, to enter the country. Little Sisters Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver, British Columbia have [sic] had their books and comic shipments routinely confiscated, as have other comic book stores across the country. After deeming two issues of the gay anthology 'Meatmen', obscene and unfit for Canadian readership, Little Sisters has had enough and they're taking Canada Customs to court again (for more information go to www.lsisters.com).

"Canada Customs is putting businesses under with their actions and punishing people for reading, purchasing, and selling in comic form, what is readily available at your corner store. We need you to help us stop them, by using the best voice you can, your comic voice. We need artists and writers who have something to say about censorship. If you don't have an artist but you have a great story, email me. If you want to draw but can't think of anything to say, please, email me. I will be your artist/writer/love connection.

"All contributions must be no more than 6 pages long. Pin-ups and reprints accepted. The page dimensions are 7 by 10 [inches] outside, 6 by 9 [inches] inside. Your contribution must come with a 4-line bio. The comic is in black and white, grey tones are accepted. It will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is a companion book to 'What's Wrong? Explicit Graphic Interpretations Against Censorship' (for more information go to www.arsenalpulp.com). All proceeds from this book are going towards Little Sisters upcoming trial.

"THE DEADLINE IS SEPTEMBER FIFTHTEENTH. SEPTEMBER 15. MID-SEPTEMBER. THE 15TH DAY OF THE MONTH OF SEPTEMBER.

"And now...the content. The aim of this book is to make sure everyone one on the planet is aware of Canada Customs' actions. To that end this book has to appeal to all ages, all walks of life. 80-year-old ladies can't be offended and 8 year old kids have to be able to enjoy it. The story also has to deal with censorship in some shape or form. Please be aware that we have 154 pages to fill. Some stories won't be accepted due to space constraints. All original art and copies to be scanned can be no bigger than 5.75 by 9 inches. If you are sending it digitally it has to be over 300dpi and it can be in any format. If you are sending something digitally, send it to blaine@arsenalpulp.com. If you snail mail it, send it to:

R. Fisher
1-2205 W6th
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6K 1V7

"For more information about this project contact me at betafishblue@usa.net."


OFF THE RACK:

What I've bought lately: Rich Koslowski's THREE FINGERS (Top Shelf) just might be the book of the year. At turns both hilarious and shocking, this documentary-style secret history of Hollywood cartoons is beyond anything I would have expected from the creator of "The 3 Geeks." A monumental achievement in both story and art. Whatever you do, don't miss this one… Grant Morrison's maxi-series THE FILTH (DC/Vertigo) is so twistedly funny. I didn't think I'd find it so, but it is. I wouldn't call it the best work he's ever done at this point, but it's fun to see what he'll come up with next…

I tried POINT BLANK (Wildstorm/Eye of the Storm) even though I know next to nothing about the Wildstorm universe, because Ed Brubaker wrote it. It's okay so far, but nothing that really grabs me the way his CATWOMAN did when I first read it… THE PRO (Image) is yet another example of Garth Ennis at his best. What should be an utterly goofy story premise - a super-powered hooker - becomes not only an uproariously funny story but one with a powerful message about what truly defines heroism. And while I thought he perhaps came down a bit too hard on superheroes in general, in the end he makes it all work… STRANGERS IN PARADISE (Abstract) has taken a complete u-turn story-wise. After finally making some genuine progress last year, this year it's like we're back to the same old same old - and it's getting frustrating to watch these characters remain in holding patterns after so very long… Y: THE LAST MAN (DC/Vertigo) continues to impress. Very dramatic and tense.


SEE YOU IN BETHESDA:

So the Small Press Expo is September 6-8 in Bethesda, MD. I'll be there, along with my travelling buddy Reid, to see the sights and talk to people. As I said earlier, Brian Clopper will be there with IMAGINATION ROCKET, in which my short story is in. I've also done a couple of pin-ups for Pam Bliss' HOPELESSLY LOST collections. This is the self-publishing how-to column she does for SequentialTart.com and if you wanna self-publish, well, there are few people that can match Pam when it comes to advice. I'll also have a few copies of my graphic novel RAT with me for sale; if you wanna buy a copy, you better grab a hold of me when you see me. In all likelihood, my base of operations will be the table of my buddy Terry Flippo, who does a terrific book called AXEL AND ALEX that you should all check out. And I'll also have photocopied pages from the new graphic novel I'm working on.

It should be a fabulous show - hope to see you there!


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