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Review of the new Comics.com

Over the weekend, United Media rolled out a radically new designed Comics.com and announced that their paid subscription model service was retired in favor of free, unfettered, full access to all their 92 comic features and 45 editorial cartoonists. Comics.com went from one of the most expensive paid subscription comic services to completely free. Free is the keyword – not just in absence of fees, but in the shift in attitude toward access and usage of the portfolio features. Throughout this review I’ll compare Comics.com to King Feature’s Daily Ink, Universal Press Syndicates’ GoComics.com and Creators.com’s web site (Creators’ comics are available on both GoComics.com and Comics.com, but they offer some features on their site).

Let’s start with the major shifts in offerings – archives. Most comic feature are now available going back several years, many to at least 2000, with some exceptions. Charles Schulz’ Peanuts goes back to October 2, 1950; Pat Brady’s Rose is Rose goes back to 1995 (a feature that began in the mid-1980’s). GoComics allows for a 30 day archive for the free portion of their web site and an extended archive for its subscribers as does King’s DailyInk.com.

Personalization: If you want to personalize a page with only the features you enjoy, you’ll have to sign up for an account. Even if you’re an existing member, you’ll have to re-register. Once you have an account you can create how you want the comics delivered to you. You can view them through the browser, send them via email or through an RSS feed. While the other two services will send you an email with your comic collection, only Comics.com will send you your comics in an RSS feed. Yes, GoComics and Creators’ site allow you to create RSS feeds for your favorites, but they merely send you a link back to their web site. Additionally Comics.com’s RSS feed sends the comic as an enclosure of the feed which, depending on your RSS reader’s preferences download and keep on your hard drive.

Readability: King Features has always had the selling point that they allowed their subscribers the ability to enlarge the comic to a bigger size for easier reading. Comics.com now offers their features at a zoomable 1000 pixels wide (compared to King’s 900 pixels and Creators’ 750 pixels wide. GoComics doesn’t allow zooming). The normal size for a daily as it is displayed in the browser and RSS reader is a tad smaller than other offerings measuring in at 640 pixels compared to King’s 750, Creators’ 690 pixel, but beats out GoComics’ nearly unreadable 590 pixels wide.

Lastly, let’s look at the “social web” aspect of their features. Comics.com now adds tagging and ratings – features that GoComics rolled out previously, but Comics.com goes much further in the area of sharing. Both GoComics and Comics.com allow for sharing a feature (or a link/thumbnail) on Facebook and Reddit, but the latter allows for sharing through Twitter, MySpace, Google, Yahoo Bookmarks, Ask, Yahoo Web, del.icio.us, Digg, Slashdot and Technorati. Some of those options are gratuitous and questionable in their value. The most surprising new feature is the ability to embed their comics on your website or blog, like a YouTube video. I looked for information regarding restrictions and guidelines but could not find any which might be problematic if allowed to an excess.

The above mentioned items are things that I believe were done right. One can question the business sanity of giving away for free, but from a delivery of services stand point, Comics.com definitely delivers a great deal of value and features.

Now, here’s a few of the things that I believe United Media struck out on. First and foremost, I think United Media is doing their creators a disservice with the design of this site. Each feature is trapped into the same template, showing the same ads, offering the same features. It treats each feature and its audience as being the exact same. If United Media (or any syndicate) wants to maximize the revenue that could be generated from their features, they have to allow each feature’s web page become a portal itself – skinned (themed) uniquely to match the content and humor of the feature. Each feature should be able to sell advertising that is unique, appropriate and interesting to the feature’s target audience; there should be more communication between the cartoonist and his/her fans in the form of blogs, or forums; there should be targeted merchandise for the feature’s audience. In the end, if the syndicate is going to give the feature away for free, they might as well take a page from the most successful webcomics to see how they make money from their fans, or take a look at how Dilbert.com – one of United Media’s own properties – is done. It has its own domain, design and features unique to that feature’s audience.

Continuing on with the “strike outs” – on the homepage and some feature’s pages, the comic is “below the fold” – a borrowed newspaper term to describe content that is only visible when one scrolls down the page. I would think that the comic is the main focus of the page and therefore should be above the fold – especially on the most trafficked page – the homepage.

Last item: rollovers. A well delivered hover or rollover is a great way to present information in a timely fashion that is otherwise neatly hidden so as not to distract the visitor. Unfortunately the rollover/hover/pop-up is used to an excess on this site. Trying to read through the list of the 92 features available became problematic when my mouse entered the list and started hovering over the titles initiating a flurry of rollovers with the feature’s descriptions – many of which were not readable because the text overlapped a busy background image or colors that made the text illegible.

As I stated before. I think Comics.com has delivered a winner when measured on features and function. I can imagine in some ways they have raised the bar for other syndicates and their offerings. I continue to question the wisdom of giving away the product for free. Earlier this year King Features rolled out a new comic application targeted at helping newspapers use comics to increase ad revenue for the paper. Isn’t that what a syndicate ought to be doing – helping make newspapers make money? In that respect, giving the farm away for free seems shortsighted.

Community Comments

#1 Larry Levine
November/4/2008
@ 9:30 am

When I go to Snoopy.com I get bounced to the Peanuts page on Comics.com, did they close the Official Peanuts website?

#2 R Pyle
November/4/2008
@ 9:38 am

Trying to navigate the new comics.com site has been a disaster from day one. They obviously traded solid programming for large “blammos” of ad space. Logging in took close to 20 minutes. I’ve moved all of my strips to RSS and email to avoid all that mess, which is perhaps what they wanted…

#3 J Jackson
November/4/2008
@ 10:25 am

As someone whose office refuses to allow us to upgrade from Internet Explorer v6, I have found that the new site does NOT play well with this old browser.

#4 Mike Cope
November/4/2008
@ 3:08 pm

Alan, this is a great article, but even after trying to re-read it, I’m too distracted by the F-WORD.

#5 denese young
November/4/2008
@ 3:21 pm

As a subscriber from the beginning, I have to say that the new comics.com is a pain in the tushy. It’s difficult to navigate, the ads are annoying, and Dilbert doesn’t seem to be offered. Granted, I haven’t been online since Saturday, but I’m still royally tee’d off that I lost all of my archived comics without any warning.

#6 Patty Leidy
November/4/2008
@ 4:17 pm

I gave up after 5 minutes of it trying to load the first page and then I tried to sign up and it NEVER loaded…I’m gonna try again today…

#7 Garey Mckee
November/4/2008
@ 6:10 pm

I haven’t had any problems with any page loads or logging in, but I will say that the layout and huge chunks of ad space are very distracting and that does make it unpleasant to navigate. Maybe the full title of the site shouldbe “Comics.com: Brought to you by Classmates.com.”

#8 Daryl Cagle
November/4/2008
@ 6:59 pm

We license 24 editorial cartoonists to Comics.com and don’t allow their feature for generating the code to put any cartoon on any site (youâ??ll see it grayed out on our cartoons).

We sell cartoons to blogs and I was rather surprised, like Alan, that Comics.com is giving away cartoons to anyone on the web – and that Creators and Washington Post Syndicate go along. Blogs are not a very good business, but are a decent amount of income for us; I want to approve a site that is going to run my own cartoons. We occasionally send out batches of DMCA notices to take down blogs that pirate our cartoons.

Has this been a matter of discussion among the cartoonists whose work is now free to be run anywhere on the web?

#9 Kevin Nivek
November/4/2008
@ 11:30 pm

The free archive is OK, but I’ve already been reading the comics I like for as long as I’d want. The Peanuts archive being one exception- that’s a lot of classic material to get for free. But (e.g. forget all that stuff I just said) the new layout and interface is so awful to navigate I decided to read the two comics I was still getting there over on Seattle PI. Months ago I was having so much trouble getting it to load due to the adverts (even over DSL) that I reduced the pages I read there. I like GoComics, though I admit the strips are small, and their recent addition of comments on the same page as the comic is very convenient to immediately scroll down to check the reactions.

#10 R Pyle
November/5/2008
@ 10:11 am

An update: Their RSS seems to work flawlessly, much more reliably than the email version and no screaming ad blocks like the web version. Also, no F-WORD, which I’m convinced is Flash. As in, too much F’in Flash on the web site makes navigation a royal pain.

#11 denese young
November/5/2008
@ 2:24 pm

Okay, so now I can’t get Dilbert on my “page” AND I can’t get the Sunday Betty strip at all. Plus, if you don’t check *every single day*, you have to backdate (for lack of a better word) each strip individually to see the old ones. I would rather pay and get the old comics.com back.

#12 frank white
November/6/2008
@ 12:41 pm

What does Ted Rall say about all this? I thought he was against free cartoons on the web, with it being his employer and all.

#13 Bruce Cole
November/6/2008
@ 2:27 pm

I noticed on the first day that the main page for each comic — I was reading 10 a day and using Firefox’s “open all in tabs” feature to open all the bookmarks quick like — had ten days worth of comics on it, which therefore took a very long time to load, even on my very fast computer and DSL. I registered to avoid this and set up a “MyComics” page – only to discover, the “My Comics” link goes NOWHERE AT ALL. I don’t like getting newsletter type emails, so I won’t be having them email it to me, and I don’t have time for RSS.

At my job, I can’t access comics.com on the Windows ME computer. On the Vista computer, I can access the site, but I can’t log in, so I don’t know if the MyComics page is fixed yet (haven’t been trying at home, on the weekdays I read my comics at work on my breaks). At least it’s been changed to load just the day’s comic on each comic’s page now, instead of ten — I’m sure that clobbered their bandwidth.

I’m also using an adblocker, so I don’t see their ads, but overall it does look cluttered.

#14 Ted Dawson
November/6/2008
@ 7:36 pm

Used to be that the job of a comic strip was to help sell newspapers. Even with TV and radio, Comics were the one thing a person couldn’t get anywhere except newspapers. And newspapers continue to be the main if not sole source of revenue generated by comic strips for their creators.

Putting syndicated comics on the web in the first place was a bad move and an affront to both newspapers and cartoonists. After ten years, the syndicates have failed to produce any profitable marketing model for comic strips on the Web.

Newspapers and syndicates both fell for the notion that print newspapers were going to die and that the web would be their savior. When so many have virtually given upon newspapers, it’s no wonder that the industry continues to weaken… even though there is plenty of evidence showing the strength and potential of both print newspapers and comic strips helping to keep papers viable.

There used to be a symbiotic relationship between newspapers and comic strips, and that relationship needs to be fostered aggressively. Maybe Dr. Phil could help.

#15 Jason Nocera
November/7/2008
@ 7:06 am

Um, Ted, last I heard you were giving away your comic strip free to newspapers.

#16 Ted Dawson
November/7/2008
@ 1:24 pm

Yes, to print newspapers. I see a difference in helping weekly newspapers that either can’t afford comics or want to run something not offered by the big daily papers.

Again, comics should help sell newspapers. Putting syndicated content online devalues comics because people don’t have to buy the newspaper to read their comics. They don’t have to write to the newspaper editor asking him to carry their favorite strip.

Newspapers used to compete for comics. This increased their value. Newspaper competition is practically non-existent today, but offering free syndicated content online does disservice to newspapers and cartoonists. It further devalues comics and removes a competitive edge that newspapers should have.

If the syndicates abruptly removed all comics from their respective websites, after having built up a large online readership, perhaps people would start clamoring for their local newspapers to carry the comics they like to read. Maybe the syndicates should remove the comics while ASKING readers to do so. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but it’s just crazy enough.

#17 denese young
November/7/2008
@ 2:00 pm

It was a comic strip that caused me to give up reading the newspaper. I have different tastes from the mainstream, and if I had to read only what everyone else likes, I would probably give up comics altogether. It would a personal nightmare if I could only depend on the St. Louis Post Dispatch for comics. I like being able to choose the comics I want to read, even if I have to pay for them. I subscribe to three different comic services, and have since they were first offered. Before that, I had my own version of a comics page, with a list of sites that I checked daily. I can’t think of a single thing that the newspaper offers that I can’t get in a better way online.

#18 Bill Hinds
November/7/2008
@ 3:27 pm

Birdcage liner?

#19 Bill Hinds
November/7/2008
@ 3:31 pm

All kidding aside, I think newspapers do well at local news. If something cool happens to you, your family or friends, I think it’s more fun to cut out an article about it than to print it.

#20 denese young
November/8/2008
@ 4:27 pm

I do agree with you that newsprint is cooler than laser print. And I will admit that comics look best in newsprint.

#21 Ted Rall
November/9/2008
@ 9:29 am

I canâ??t think of a single thing that the newspaper offers that I canâ??t get in a better way online.

What Web news sources do better than print:
Searchability
Archived articles

What print newspapers do better than Web news sources:
Serendipity (increased likelihood you will read an article with a headline that doesn’t immediately appeal to you
Portability (can’t read the Internet at the beach

and–to me this is the clincher–

You can’t actually READ a Web newspaper. Screens hurt your eyes; you have to stand still in front of a screen for a long time. And most people don’t actually read Web newspapers; they skim headlines and read one or two articles all the way through. The NYT found that Web readers spend something like 7 minutes with NYTimes.com and that print readers read for 44 minutes. (A 27-year-old friend of mine recently developed RSI and started reading the print NYT instead of the online version. Now that she realizes how little she was actually reading before, she won’t go back to online.)

This fact is also why the Web is unlikely (being charitable here) to replace print as the primary income source for the news business. Advertisers know that Web readers don’t pay much attention to ads online, so they pay a lot less for them. That could change, but only if reading an online “newspaper” were to become more pleasant and more portable. As things stand, print will continue to generate 90 percent-plus of news revenues for the foreseeable future.

#22 Ted Rall
November/9/2008
@ 9:36 am

As for comics, I am currently adding extensive archives to my website. Ultimately it is my goal to have most of my work dating back to 1991 available for viewing online.

No, I haven’t changed my views about the Internet. However, the tragedy of the commons applies here. Once one cartoonist is willing to give it away, others have to “compete” in the race to the bottom of the financial barrel (to garble a metaphor).

Moreover, archives are the area where it doesn’t hurt a cartoonist to offer work for free online. To the contrary, it adds to the possibility of reprint sales for work that otherwise would languish in obscurity–in old cartoon collections and newspapers in landfills.

I further believe that online archives won’t hurt book sales. Fans will always want to read comics in a nice bound format. The ultimate evidence of that is the success of the big A&M Far Side and C&H collections. Most of them were sold to fans who already own the paperbacks that contained most of the work that is in the new books.

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