Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Mix’d Emotions

Posted by Don MacPherson on November 9th, 2008

The comic-book news/commentary portal website — can it work as a viable business? The recent news that ComicMix.com is scaling back its operations — eliminating all of its columns and rethinking its print-on-demand experiment with its online comics. Speaking as someone who’s worked for two similar failed ventures in the past, I can’t say I’m surprised. The thing is, though, that ComicMix has a strong creative team behind made up of experienced and respected industry insiders. The question arises: if Mike Gold and Robert Greenberger can’t dominate the digital landscape of comics-related media, armed with an array of established industry talent, who can? Is the comics web portal as a viable business model a realistic possibility?

I don’t know what’s next for ComicMix or what plans are in place to invigorate the operation. ComicMix isn’t after an easy venture-capital investment, I assume. That business model had already been proven to be a dead end when the dot-com bubble burst. Believe me, I know.

I empathize with the ComicMix folks right now. I’ve been down this road myself — twice. In 1999, I was hired along with almost 20 others, to staff Psylum, an online media company that developed portal sites specifically dedicated to niche markets of gaming and comics. Randy Lander and I were the creative talent behind Psycomic.com, which launched in October 1999; we were joined shortly thereafter by Joe Doughrity, who also wrote and developed a sister site called Psymanga.com. Psylum boasted other sites as well and was perhaps best known for The Dojo, a web portal dedicated to Magic: the Gathering news and strategy.

Ad for Psycomic (ran in DC publications)Psylum was well-funded by a venture-capital group. Money flowed like crazy. The founders/chiefs of the company moved Randy from Texas and me from Canada to work in Manhattan. After a couple of months, we eventually moved into new office space and occupied the entire floor of a midtown office complex (we had too much office space, really). Everyone got new PCs, new servers, new toys. The company sent me and two Psylum employees on a coast-to-coast promotional tour to college campuses and specialty stores. Psylum dropped tens of thousands of dollars into ads in various DC Comics publications just to promote Psycomic.

It — and by that, I mean the first incarnation of the company and its websites — only lasted a little more than half a year. There were warning signs from the start, not the least of which was that Psylum’s founders seemed to have no coherent business plan. We weren’t selling anything, not products nor advertising. We charged nothing for our content. The only planned revenue stream (other than investment from the venture-capital people) seemed to be a vision that the packaged websites would be desirable to companies with even more money, companies that would want to buy the Psylum brand.

Other problems included a management style that seemed more focused on making sure we were all drunk together Friday after work (on the company’s dime). Oh, and we had an illegal alien working for us who was never OK’d for work in the United States despite repeated promises from the bosses that they had a big-time immigration lawyer (in Florida, not New York, go figure) who was working on the problem. I was that illegal alien, by the way.

I figured we had a year to play in New York. It turned out to be just shy of six months from the day my plane touched down in Newark. I packed up my meagre belongings and headed home to Canada a few days after we were told there were no more paychecks coming, leaving behind a couple of pieces of furniture and the remainder of a one-year lease I couldn’t possibly honor.

A resurrected incarnation of Psycomic returned later in 2000, funded by the Sci-Fi Channel and USA Networks, if memory serves. No one from Psylum called to inform Randy and me of the new source of revenue and that it could now live up to its contracts with us. New writers and an all-star array of columnists — including Kevin Smith and J. Michael Straczynski — provided content for the site. I don’t think it lasted a year either.

There’s a long list of other failed comics portal ventures. Michael Doran and Matt Brady recruited Randy and I in the wake of Psycomic 1.0′s collapse to join them at Fandom.com in the spring of 2000. Fandom.com was the new home of Comics Newsarama, along with a host of other fan sites. My association with Fandom/Comics Newsarama lasted a year. I wasn’t paid as much as I had been at Psylum. However, since I was able to work from my home in Atlantic Canada, the lower cost of living translated to a more comfortable lifestyle. The experience also afforded me my first trip to Comic-Con International San Diego.

Again, there were warning signs it wasn’t going to last. Though Fandom.com seemed to have an actual business plan — it sold comics and other hobby/collectible merchandise on its site — it boasted too large a staff. In the months leading up to the demise of the Fandom.com incarnation of Comics Newsarama, my monthly payment kept coming later and later. Instead of being wired on the first of every month, it would show up on the third, the sixth, the 10th. Fortunately, by the time the walls came crashing down in the spring of 2001, I happened upon the secure reporting gig I still hold today.

I know what the ComicMix people are going through, as I’ve been there myself. I suspect the downturn didn’t take its writers completely by surprise. Like I said, there are always warning signs.

Still, to get back to my original question — is a comics web portal viable as a business? There’s evidence to the contrary, and evidence to support it. It seems as though the model of a site with an extensive staff doesn’t work, but other kinds of sites have survived and even thrived.

Some sites have gone through their difficult times and demise but managed to claw back to a stable scenario. Michael Doran took the Newsarama brand from Usenet to AnotherUniverse.com, a website similar to Fandom.com in that content was used to support online sales of product. AnotherUniverse is gone. Doran and Matt Brady guided the brand under the Fandom.com banner. Gone. In its current incarnation, Newsarama has seen backers come and go. That it’s endured is a testament to Doran’s and Brady’s reputations and persistence, and to the brand they’ve built over 15 years or so. It may seem as though Newsarama now has an extensive writing staff, but if I’m not mistaken, the full-time, salaried staff is limited. It is paying other writers, but the bulk of its contributors aren’t earning their living through the site.

Jonah Weiland may have the biggest success story to tell. He has an array of top, respected columnists on ComicBookResources.com, but in terms of full-time staffers, information on the site points to a limited staff as well. Furthermore, Weiland operates a web hosting service — Boiling Point Internet — and there’s no shortage of business in that field these days. Comic Book Resources started out as a simple collection of comics-related links that Weiland established in his spare time. It’s grown naturally and gradually for years. It didn’t launch as a business; it simply evolved into one.

Today, those professional comics-website endeavors that seem to succeed and sustain themselves are the smaller operations, such as Tom Spurgeon’s ComicsReporter.com, which is essentially a one-man operation. Given the amount of information available on CR on a daily basis, I can only assume the site serves as Spurgeon’s full-time job. The notion that someone is putting together such a product in his spare time is unimaginable.

There are plenty of other portal sites that have remained on the online landscape for a few years — PopImage.com and PopCultureShock.com, just to cite a couple of examples — but they haven’t seemed to grab people’s attention on the same level as Newsarama and CBR. My impression of those sites is that they continue on thanks to the passion of contributors and founders, not thanks to revenue streams.

Of course, even Gareb Shamus’s Wizard Entertainment empire seems vulnerable these days. We’ve been hearing of cutbacks in its magazine and website divisions for a couple of years now, and rumors and speculation about troubles with its convention business have been rampant for years.

After the Fandom.com experience, Randy Lander and I pretty much knew earning our living as content producers for comics websites was at an end. But that didn’t mean we were going to stop writing. In 2001, we relaunched on our own with TheFourthRail.com; we didn’t make any money, nor were we trying to do so. But we had fun, and we ended up reinventing ourselves once again with separate sites: this one, and ComicPants.com, a collaborative blog Randy runs with friends in Austin, Texas.

No matter what happens, I know that ComicMix will survive in some form. Perhaps it will emerge as a viable business now that some cuts have been made. Commercial and creative success would obviously be the more preferable option. Alternatively, it costs next to nothing to run a site as a volunteer endeavor. Hosting costs are minimal these days. And even if the ComicMix.com domain were to disappear (which I sincerely hope it doesn’t), its various voices will no doubt be heard elsewhere online.

17 Responses to “Mix’d Emotions”

  1. Ryan Says:

    I read a lot of comics and visit various comic websites. I’ve never heard of ComicMix.com.

    I think it’ll be awhile before online comics can make money. I admire the pioneers.

    Thefourthrail.com was the best comic review site ever.

  2. Ryan Says:

    Popcultureshock.com was starting to take off as Buzzscope.com. I think the abrupt change scared a lot of people off.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    Thanks for the kind words about The Fourth Rail, Ryan.

    I think some have managed to make money with online comics already. Before Platinum bought it, Wowio.com was apparently generating revenue for a lot of indy creators and small publishers. Some online comic stirps have fared very well for their creators as well.

    As for profitable comics portal sites, there are several, some of which are mentioned in the above essay.

  4. Don MacPherson Says:

    Ryan wrote:
    Popcultureshock.com was starting to take off as Buzzscope.com. I think the abrupt change scared a lot of people off.

    Unfortunately, Buzzscope‘s biggest claim to fame was the controversy that arose over Ronee Bourgeois’s coverage of the Taki Soma/Charles Brownstein debacle. It’s possible that didn’t bolster Buzzscope‘s profile in a positive way.

  5. Hervé St-Louis Says:

    Finding a suitable business model is not something that is a challenge that affects only comic-book portals. This affects most news and contents websites. I never see the failure of a few portals (comic-book related or not) nor the failure of a few comic-book publishers as a sign that the niche they occupy is not lucrative. It’s more important to look at the big picture rather than specific examples.

    Everything that has to do with online contents is in a constant state of flux and the sustainable business models that will eventually appear down the road will eventually allow ventures such as the sites you mentioned and those you forgot ;) like, Broken Frontier, Journalista, The Beat, Comics Worth Reading, and the of course The Comic Book Bin to thrive. Youtube, Facebook, UGO and Myspace are still not profitable. Should we infer that all web operations aren’t? And what about other web ventures, closely related to the comic book portal industry, like IGN and Gametrailer?

    To be fair to ComixMix, they started their operation in a crowded space and tried to make quick inroads, without the benefits of time but only the weight of the reputations of the people involved with the venture. The actual staff that is listed on their website has more to do with the comic-book industry than web publishing. These are two different industries. Success and experience in one industry doesn’t warrant success in the other.

    This is a continuing story and many like me haven’t said their last words or done their last move, just yet. The coming recession will be another challenge, but will continue to help effect a market correction, if needed.

  6. Don MacPherson Says:

    Herve wrote:
    Everything that has to do with online contents is in a constant state of flux and the sustainable business models that will eventually appear down the road will eventually allow ventures such as the sites you mentioned and those you forgot ;) like, Broken Frontier, Journalista, The Beat, Comics Worth Reading, and the of course The Comic Book Bin to thrive.

    That didn’t take long. :)

    Obviously, I didn’t forget those sites, and there are dozens of others I could have mentioned. I cited a few examples, is all. Let’s not turn this comments thread into a “don’t forget my site or these other sites!” free-for-all.

    That aside, you make some good points, Herve. You’re right suggest that ComicMix faced the challenge that they entered the game a bit late. Online, it tends to be those who launch first who thrive or last (Newsarama and CBR are examples).

    However, you also seem to argue that profitability for online content/portal ventures is unattainable, and I wouldn’t agree. It’s a matter of keeping overhead down and maintaining realistic goals in terms of potential revenue. Again, Comics Reporter is a good example of such a scenario.

  7. Chris Arrant Says:

    This is a great little piece, but one I was begging for more. I believe Newsarama has only one full-time writer, but I think Jen at Pulse does that full-time and Dirk Deppey does TCJ Online full-time.

    I think there’s room out there for new comic news/commentary sites than can be profitable, but I think it would be best done using the single-blogger Gawker-style approach as a start-up before expanding — in a way, that’s what PWCW’s The Beat and MTV’s The Splash Page use. And I’ll do it, for a modest fee of course. heh.

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    Chris wrote:
    This is a great little piece, but one I was begging for more.

    Oh, I could have written volumes more, believe me. But the piece was already over 1,500 words, which is probably three times the length of what most people’s attention span can tolerate. :)

  9. Michael Says:

    Your description of the way things ran at Psylum reads like an autopsy of the dot-com boom in microcosm: A lot of money and effort spent to look like a thriving, successful business (and to live that lifestyle), very little spent to actually be one.

  10. David Uzumeri Says:

    The problem with ComicMix was that every article I read there sounded like an old dude telling kids to get off his lawn. I’ve got nothing but respect for the creatives there, but a lot of their commentary seemed out of touch and at odds with most of their potential audience.

  11. Isaac Says:

    Don, could you do a follow up on this story? I really enjoyed this article. You said you had more to write. Well, just do a part two.

    It was interesting reading all the names of previous ventures and how they didn’t pan out because of a failed business model.

    What’s presently baffling a bit to me is why the comics industry doesn’t have a leading blog along the lines of the two big video game blogs (Kotaku and Joystiq).

    I would personally love some mergers to take place between some of the news/reviews/commentary sites. Maybe just a staff of three or five total to run a site. I really enjoy what Jonah and Matt have done with their two leading comic news sites. I believe there is room for a site though that can not only match, but exceed them AND be profitable.

    I agree with David about the the commentary from ComicMix. They did unfortunately seem out of touch with what people are actually “buying” for comics now a days.

    Ever since Heidi moved from The Pulse to Publishers Weekly, The Pulse has really lost a lot of its audience. Jennifer does a great job running that I believe by herself, but she’s hampered by a website that’s designed for the web in 1998, not 2008. At least Newsarama updated themselves.

  12. Don MacPherson Says:

    Isaac wrote:
    Don, could you do a follow up on this story? I really enjoyed this article. You said you had more to write. Well, just do a part two.

    Thanks for the kind words, Isaac. However, just because I *couid* write volumes more doesn’t mean I want to do so. :) There are so many sites and so much history to cover, and I think if I were to elaborate more, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the supposition-to-fact ratio for a second part.

    I would personally love some mergers to take place between some of the news/reviews/commentary sites. Maybe just a staff of three or five total to run a site.

    That’s sort of what happened with the Fandom.com incarnation of Comics Newsarama. But only sort of.

  13. Isaac Says:

    I guess I wanted to comment again stating about comic news sites. I guess the biggest problem with the comic news websites is defining their market. Has their ever been a publication/website that’s been focused on comic creators? Basically a trade publication for the comics industry. ICv2 is a trade publication for comic retailers, and that a bit of a stretch as well as it doesn’t offer many stories on how to make your comic shop be more successful. It just covers what a store can sell.

    I’d love to see more writing on the business angle of comics. Specifically, rating the distribution models that are out there(downloading comics by pdf, or otherwise). How to deal to embrace or run away from digital rights management(drm) with your comic. Getting exposure for your title. How to effectively promote yourself at an event?

    Is there any type of study that shows how big the actual comic news reading market is?

  14. Chris Arrant Says:

    This is a reply to Isaac’s comment about The Pulse. While it is true that Heidi was a big part of The Pulse, Jen has done a commendable job there as pretty much a one-woman job. They recently did do a new site design — you should check it out!

  15. Isaac Says:

    Hi Chris. Yes, the front page is an IMMENSE improvement over the old design. The problem is is that when you click on the full article, you go right back to the old message board layout. Sigh. I imagine the costs of transferring all the data over and not wanting to lose the past is why they didn’t go with the full technology transfer over. Newsarama was on the same message board old software and look, and they were able to move off of it. Jennifer’s content on the pulse is not the issue I have with it. It’s the presentation.

  16. Hervé St-Louis Says:

    Hi Don. I wasn’t saying that comic book websites could not be profitable — not at all. I invoked You Tube and co. to show that even large entities can have problems, so one can expect the same from small guys too. I wouldn’t swear by the single writer/owner model. Any model can work. It just needs to be well planned and financed.

    Isaac, there are tons of articles focused on creators all over the place. You just need to dig for them. Just remember that a site dedicated to creators alone, will by default reach a smaller audience — although that might be a vocal and very supportive audience.

    About articles helping writers, I’ve personally written many on promotion, marketing and publicity, distribution and many of things you mentioned at The Bin. There is also an articles series on the business plan, that goes farther than anything available (it’s used by other people in other industries too, although being comic book-related). Again, you have to look for this stuff, but it’s all there.

  17. Glenn Hauman Says:

    Don, you make a lot of great points that I hope I have the spare time to respond to in some detail, but as mentioned, it’s a bit hectic here.

    However, in the “reports of our death are slightly exaggerated” department, we just launched a new story today on ComicMix.

    It’s an espionage story unlike any other, based in historical facts that are almost impossible to believe– why did Ian Fleming recruit Aleister Crowley for the war effort, anyway?

    The Pilgrim is written by Mark Ryan, who has one of the most varied careers you will ever encounter in your life: as an actor, going from originating the roles of Magaldi in Evita and Nasir in Robin of Sherwood to playing Bumblebee in Transformers and appearing with Eric Idle at Carnegie Hall while wearing a green dress; as a fight director, he taught Keira Knightley, Stellan Skarsgard and Clive Owen how to swordfight; as a writer, he’s written Green Arrow for DC Comics and The Greenwood Tarot for Harper Collins– and those are the jobs we can tell you about. When he says "If I told you, I’d have to kill you", believe that he would and that he can.

    Mark was inspired to write The Pilgrim upon learning about the use of psychics and occultists during World War II by Allied forces to influence the minds and strategies of the Nazi leadership, which helped save Britain from invasion. “The Pilgrim intertwines historical characters with modern paranormal capabilities used in intelligence-gathering operations to infiltrate hostile governments,” said Mark.  “It unveils a dark secret history involving classified occult research and the unmarked graves of unsung heroes who gave their lives in these desperate yet vital operations.”

    Mike Grell was so impressed by Mark’s script that this is the first project that Mike is drawing that he didn’t write himself in over 25 years. And with the talents of Jason Millet coloring and John Workman lettering, The Pilgrim is a hell of a ride.