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.