One of the things I remember most clearly about the ‘webcomics community’ in the mid-2000s was how passionate everyone was, about… well, everything. Drama was a constant. There was no detail so small that it wasn’t worth an argument. There was no achievement so petty that it didn’t deserve celebration. The most precious coin of the realm was sincerity — you could be an jerk. People were fine with that. Just don’t be a milquetoast or hypocrite.
Well, Joey Manley was no hypocrite. And Joey Manley was no milquetoast. He went toe to toe on the subject of comics with anyone. And sometimes, people called him a jerk. Sometimes loudly. And generally they used language that was less ‘PG’ than ‘jerk.’
But that was okay with Joey, because comics mattered to Joey. Art mattered to Joey. And if that meant he was going to be the one man standing up in the middle of remarkable peer pressure and move in a different direction, well, that’s what it would mean.
Which is where we got Modern Tales from. And Girlamatic, Serializer, Graphic Smash and all the rest of the ‘Manley’ sites (which he always referred to as the ‘Modern Tales family.’)
But I’m getting ahead of my tale. More after the break.
In the early to mid 2000s, the internet was undergoing a vigorous correction. Before that, ad revenues had gone through the roof. If you had a website with the right ad network, you had a sustainable entity. Oh, you didn’t make a lot of money, but you more than paid for bandwidth costs which today would seem shockingly extortionate. I’m not kidding — this was an era where success could bankrupt you. Getting linked by Penny Arcade could lead to a monthly bandwidth bill in the hundreds of dollars. Servers groaned under the strain of providing service.
And most of all, comics — from the four panel traditional ‘newspaper’ style strip through the expansive, oft glorious, sometimes excesses of the Infinite Canvas — were in a strange place online. On the one hand, there was no better advertisement for the World Wide Web of the last years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st than comics — small enough to download over modems in a timely fashion, but rich and vibrant enough to catch the eye of a fickle reader. Appearing in a form most readers were comfortable with, while exuding the freedom from media and editorial control that so many artists were yearning for, comics — web comics — were huge for the web. They were the necessary precursor to flash video, which led to today’s very video-centric online world.
But, as with all revolutionary things, they didn’t pay the rent for quite a long time.
The pravda at the time — a pravda that was been largely borne out, to be fair — was that online content had to be free. Paid content online (other than pornography, which was given an exception to this rule of thumb right from the beginning) simply couldn’t be sustainable. People would just pirate it or never see it in the first place.
And, more than that, paid content — content behind the ‘paywall’ — was suspect. Big Media put their stuff behind paywalls. Artists and non-sellouts put their stuff out for the world, and they trusted that the art would support itself, man.
The problem was, in 2002, it wasn’t supporting itself. In fact, in order to break even, cartoonists had to hope to get into one of the online syndicates that had formed — Big Panda was one of the early examples, and then Keenspot followed and for a while was the biggest name in online comics. These places offered a chance for artists to get paid — at least somewhat — but for cash starved cartoonists they offered a much bigger prize. Free hosting, in a format that wasn’t the ugliness of Geocities, was huge.
But, in those early years, Keenspot wasn’t paying out. They were keeping the lights on, but that was about it.
Joey Manley — this is an essay about Joey Manley, remember — had looked at all of this. He had bank from a dot com job he was smart enough to not count on, so he wasn’t ruined by the dot com bubble bursting. And he saw the free and ad supported models of comics presentation, and he saw they weren’t working.
So, he decided to try something different. He decided to produce a hybrid model website instead — one that combined free with paid, where day to day users could get almost everything on the site for free, but a low monthly subscription meant access to all the archives on the site.
Today, that doesn’t sound that shocking when you write it down like that. Almost every MMO with an active user base is Free to Play, and runs off of almost exactly that model. And some of those make huge amounts of money. Hulu exists on a variation of this model as well — ad supported content for current stuff and specific things, but for a subscription fee you get access to Hulu Plus, broadening where you can watch these programs, the number of programs you have access to, and the depths of their archive.
But then, we’re in an era where people pay for online content. Netflix is the single largest consumer of bandwidth on the internet, for a service people pay eight bucks a month to access. iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google Play all utilize various microtransaction-based systems that were straight out of Scott McCloud’s visions. Heck, fiverr.com exists for small scale microtransaction work.
At the time, however? Joey Manley may as well have climbed to the roof of his Kentucky home, painted a target on his shirt, and shouted "Come get some!"
But that was okay. He’d done crazy — and brave — things before.
Back in 1992, a then-27 year old Joey Manley had published The Death of Donna-May Dean, a coming-of-age novel about a young Alabama boy who struggles with his sense of sexual identity and finds himself plunged into the very over-the-top world of the early 90’s gay lifestyle. At once poignant and satirical, The Death of Donna-May Dean was a celebrated part of the growing LGBT movement. You have to understand — in the early nineties, it was chic to be ‘anti-homophobic.’ Everyone worth knowing was. We all pointed to our gay friends and announced our proud allegiance with them.
Generally by lisping. Or mincing. Or… well, watch any Robin Williams routine… ever. See, gay people were great! And so much fun to imitate!
The 90’s were the birth of Queer Nation and of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Gay Pride was at once a demand that the ‘gay lifestyle’ be accepted as a legitimate part of cultural identity and at the same time a repudiation that there was just one gay lifestyle, as though the only way to be gay was to put on a uniform and act in one specific fashion. Joey Manley’s novel wasn’t afraid to take on both sides of this equation — at once hammering at the homophobia that surrounded Manley, and yet skewering the self-perpetuating nature of so many of the stereotypes that made up America’s understanding of ‘gay culture.’
Let me remind you — Joey Manley did this from Kentucky, which was not known then for being open and understanding to homosexuals. By the time the 2000s rolled around… well, let’s put it this way. Manley wasn’t exactly intimidated by Scott Kurtz debating him on payment models.
How successful was Manley at this? Well, between this, his entrepreneurial efforts, and his advocacy for free speech, he was nominated for and received a commission as a Kentucky Colonel. I mentioned above that Kentucky wasn’t known for being tolerant. Well, that’s as may be — at the end of the day, the state gave Manley their highest honor, signed off on by the Governor. They were proud of Joey Manley and all that he did.
There was more to the Modern Tales family of websites than payment models, of course. If it was fair to say Keenspot wanted to be the modern version of King Features, then Modern Tales and its associated sites wanted to be Fantagraphics, or Kitchen Sink Press. Manley reached out to independent artists, and people operating in that mode. He sought quality — and to Manley, quality meant artistic merit. He didn’t just seek to publish successful comic strips, he sought to (in Lea Hernandez’s word) curate sequential art. He wanted to find the best of a new generation of artists and give them a home — and make his websites a place where people went to find them. Manley cared about this stuff, passionately, and did everything in his power to make it happen.
How successful was he? Consider the people he’s best known for working with: Lea Hernandez, James Kochalka, Shaenon Garrity, Dorothy Gabrell, Tom Hart, Gene Yang, Roger Langridge, Indigo Kelleigh, Joe Zabel, Ursula Vernon, Sam Henderson, T Campbell, Lisa Jonte, Donna Barr, Howard Cruse, Sylvan Migdal, Harvey Pekar—
Harvey fucking PEKAR.
I’m going to try and avoid listing too many more people, because there are too many to list. I will mention some, though. Some passed through — already names, perhaps, and perhaps not associated with Modern Tales like the names above, but still. People like Scott Kurtz, who was there briefly in the beginning. Or Chris Onstad. or Erika Moen. Or Jon Rosenberg. Or David Morgan-Mar.
Or Eric Burns-White.
I don’t want to overstate my own part in all this. For the record, I did edit Modern Tales for a brief period of time — transitioning between Manley’s own editorial tenure and Shaenon Garrity’s time. I will say this — Manley was easy to work with, but absolutely focused on the material. We butted heads now and again, but Manley was always great at dropping the argument after it was finished, and moving on to the next thing.
Modern Tales wasn’t the sum of my association with Manley, though. In and around this, my own initial webcomic — Gossamer Commons, produced with Greg Holkan, Peter Venebles and Wednesday Burns-White — was hosted on one of Manley’s sites originally, by Manley’s own offer. I later got a founder’s account on Webcomics Nation, and that’s where I put other comics bits, like The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark. I thanked Manley for all of this, of course, but I can’t ever feel like I thanked him enough. It was… generous. The effortless generosity of a man who was honestly generous — who wasn’t trying to get something from you. He just wanted to help. To be there for you.
The Modern Tales sites — and Comicspace, which I didn’t even get into in this — didn’t last, sadly. They had a great run — eleven years is an eternity on the web — and while they were here they had tremendous impact. Narbonic — perhaps the best four panel comic strip produced in the twenty-first century to date — was a Modern Tales strip. American Born Chinese, Gene Yang’s National Book Award finalist, was a Modern Tales strip. Fans by Campbell, Waltrip and a host of others began life as a Graphicsmash strip—
Oh, hell. Let me just list some of these things to get them over with: Fancy Froglin, Memesis (Sylvan Migdal’s beautiful and epic webcomic about the afterlife), Cat and Girl, Arcana Jayne, Smithson, Trunktown, Athena Voltaire, Chasing Rainbows, Bite Me, The Magic Whistle, Fetus-X, the astoundingly amazing Digger—
Screw it. There are too many. Too many strips that were amazing, produced by too many artists who are fantastic. I still mourn the loss of the Modern Tales family of strips—
Well, except Girlamatic, since even after it was shuttered it was too awesome to stay in stasis, and came back under the awesome D.C. McQueen. And American Elf, which was always a site of its own. (Rumble Girls, by the oft-aforementioned Lea Hernandez, was also a site of its own, though it went down some time ago, regrettably). And of course, WebcomicsNation continues on — this was Manley’s somewhat bare-bones site where people could inexpensively host comics through a house-rolled CMS. And Talkaboutcomics — Manley’s forums where you could… um… talk about comics also keeps rolling on….
I guess what I’m saying is Joey Manley was freaking huge for comics on the web.
If you read and like online comics, you’ll feel some of Joey Manley’s influence. It may be direct, if you’re a fan of, say, Skin Horse. Or it may be indirect. But Manley — and all his passion, his drive, his love of comics, his orneriness, and his downright cussedness — was there at the headwaters, and what he did helped shape the course of the entire river.
And, of course, I’m writing all this because….
This is hard to type.
A couple of weeks ago, Joey Manley got sick. A flu. You know how it is. But it didn’t get better. And eventually he went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
And, surrounded by family, friends, and his partner of twenty plus years, Joey Manley succumbed to that pneumonia on November 7th, 2013. He was 48 years old.
How do you write about a life like Joey Manley’s? I haven’t even touched on freespeech.org — an online television station that’s also on several cable companies’ lineups and on Dish Network and DirecTV, for whom Joey was the first Director back in ‘96. (Did I mention it boasts as being the first website that ever used User Generated Media back in the day? Because it does and I believe them.) I haven’t talked about E-Line media, where Joey was President of their Comics division. I haven’t talked about Joey’s visionary work with online video and media at the turn of the century. I haven’t talked about—
I haven’t talked about nearly enough. But I’ve also said too much.
I miss you Joey. We didn’t speak much these last couple of years, but you were always there, and always supportive, and I was always grateful, and I always will be.
My thoughts are with Manley’s family, and with Joe Botts, Manley’s partner of 22 years and the love of his life. And with all the people for whom this loss is truly shocking, because Joey Manley was so much to so many people.