Like everything else online, the funnies want to be free.
Consider the experiment Web cartoonist Jonathan Rosenberg ran at his popular Goats.com comic site last week. For 25 cents, he offered readers access to innovative electronic versions of two 18-page mini-comics that sell for $4 in paper. He invited fans to use a micro-payment system and even threw in a discount on his paper comic books.
Yet among the tens of thousands of people who visit Goats.com for a daily taste of Rosenberg's wry humor, only 213 took him up on the offer over eight days. Their micro-purchases generated all of $53.25, prompting Rosenberg to declare his paid-comics experiment "a conclusive and absolute failure."
That doesn't mean Web comics are doomed, though. They actually are thriving as readership grows for the thousands of cartoonists who are publishing a diverse array of humor on the Internet. Readership for online funnies has grown at a time when Internet advertising has boomed, leading some sites to scrap pay-per-view and subscription models in favor of advertising.
Even though revenue models remain fuzzy, increasing numbers of artists are using the Internet to reach readers directly and break into a business that historically has been limited to the lucky few who get syndicated in newspapers or picked up by comic book publishers.
"On the Internet, anybody can put an image up on the Web site and it can theoretically be viewed by everybody with a connection," said Pete Abrams, who started the Sluggy Freelance Web comic seven years ago and now draws more than 100,000 daily readers. "With newspaper comics, editors decide who gets noticed. And on the Web, readers decide. If they find a good site or a funny comic, they pass it along to their friends."
Abrams, based in Denville, N.J., is among the dozen or more cartoonists who earn their living full time by creating Web comics. Thousands of others use their Web cartoons to supplement day jobs; some split their time between part-time employment and Web cartooning.
Rosenberg, whose Goats.com pulls more than 80,000 readers on many days, works another job three days a week but thinks he and his business partner will move to full-time Web cartooning: "At our current rate of growth, I think it will only be another year or two before that is a real possibility."
Making a go of it as a full-time Web cartoonist is already reality for Scott Kurtz, 34, creator of the PVP strip, which Kurtz said draws more than 100,000 daily readers. In addition to selling ads on his site, Kurtz sells print versions of his serial strip, as well as related merchandise.
While other sites such as Penny-Arcade.com and Megatokyo.com sustain their creators as stand-alone strips, most Web cartoonists participate in group sites that function like print comic syndicates, collecting revenue from advertisers or subscribers and sharing it with artists. ModernTales.com, a subscription site, and Keenspot.com, supported by advertising, are two popular services aggregating Web comics in central locations.
"There have been people making a living from Web comics longer than people have been making a living from blogging," said Joey Manley, publisher of ModernTales.com. "It has developed more quickly than blogging and with less fanfare."
ModernTales.com started as a subscription service in 2002. Today it has about 2,000 members paying $3 a month, according to Manley -- hardly enough to make the one-man operation a financial hit, even though Manley moved to Louisville, Ky., from his former home in California to cut costs. Manley also publishes other subscription comic sites but has concluded that advertising represents the industry's future. So he is preparing to launch Webcomicsnation, a site that will offer unlimited Web space to any cartoonist for $7 a month. Manley hopes to turn a profit selling ads.
"Webcomicsnation is a completely different model," he said. "I am no longer the publisher. I am the service provider." That is similar to Keenspot.com, a free comic site whose owners, like Manley, fled California to lower their costs.
Chris Crosby, the 27-year-old co-chief executive officer of Keenspot Entertainment, said his family paid $36,000 to purchase a 40,000-square-foot school from the town of Cresbard, S.D., last summer. It now serves as home to both the Crosby family (his mother is the company's chief financial officer) and their quirky comic business.
In an e-mail interview, Crosby said his goal since launching the site five years ago has been to attract enough advertisers to pay a living wage to his cartoonists. His tiny company runs two sites, one at Keenspot.com displaying about 50 high-quality comic strips by invitation only, and another open to any artist at Keenspace.com, where 6,000 cartoonists publish their work.
His firm grossed more than $285,000 last year, Crosby said, up from $188,475 in 2003. More than half came from advertising last year and the rest from merchandise, print comic sales and an ad-free premium version of the site. The company shares half its net revenue with artists, allocating it based on how many readers viewed their work. Crosby said the company has been profitable for several years, though it is not yet paying its four co-owners what he called a "livable wage."
Keenspot draws about 125,000 readers a day, considerably less than the Web's top standalone comic, Penny-Arcade.com.
Robert Khoo, Penny-Arcade's business director, said the three-day-a-week strip about video game culture draws about 800,000 readers a day. The Seattle-based company has grown from just a comics site to a media company that employs five people and turns a profit, Khoo said.
The companies that traditionally have controlled the comics industry have not been idly sitting by. Comics.com, a site owned by newspaper syndicate United Feature Syndicate, offers two paid subscription plans for access to Web versions of its more than 70 print comics. Prices are $12 and $25 a year, depending on how many extra features people want.
Last November, King Features Syndicate rolled out its own Web subscription service called Daily Ink (www.dailyink.com) for $15 a year, providing access to all 70 of the company's syndicated comics and six months worth of archived strips. King Syndicate editor in chief Jay Kennedy said it is too early to tell how well comic subscriptions will fare online.
Eventually, though, he said King Features plans to sign up cartoons born on the Web and find ways to distribute them both online and in print.
"The online market for comics is still very much in its formative stages," Kennedy said. "We know when large numbers of people enjoy something there should be ways to derive revenue from it so the art form can be sustained. The trick is figuring out what those mechanisms will be."
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.