The webcomics blog about webcomics

Really Not Trying To Stir Up Anything This Time … Honest

Joe Zabel doesn’t like you if you haven’t read his latest piece at The Webcomics Examiner. Go read it so he likes you, then come back here and we’ll talk, okay?

What starts out as seemingly another means to quantify art (and after thousands of years of trying, seems like somebody might actually do it) takes a sudden shift towards the end. There’s some contradictions inherent in some of Zabel’s theses — if I’m reading his charts right, Achewood is extroverted, and therefore derivative (of what, one begs to ask) — but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because four of the last five paragraphs head off into completely different territory — micropayments:

This is the chief reason that paid content systems, particularly micropayments, are so necessary. By collecting payment from the readers up front, artists are free to control the context in which the comics themselves appear, i.e., they need not resort to advertising.

Reasonable enough … I don’t think anybody would deny any artist any means to attempt to make a living off their honest effort. Here’s where things get a little problematic:

Alas, micropayments so far haven’t gained momentum as a viable payment system. That’s why it’s so important that we build support for the system and solve its problems. We need for hosting services like Comics Genesis and Webcomicsnation to enable micropayments as an option. And we need for the webcomics community to begin speaking positively about the system, instead of slamming it like it was the spawn of Jack Thompson. [emphasis mine]

Big personal reveal here: I don’t know much about Joe Zabel’s background, apart from his comics work. I really like what he’s done with Harvey Pekar, and I like that he’s trying to keep a regular conversation going about comics and webcomics in general. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess he’s not a technologist. And by that, I don’t mean, Uses a computer for regular tasks, up to and including the creation of his art. I mean, Has built commercial-grade, practical systems where they did not exist before.

And this is the rub with micropayments, I think: the vast majority of people who have radically invested themselves in the success or failure of these damn things are not hard-core nerds. Disclaimer: I’m not either, at least not by the definition I gave just above; I’m capable of doing a part of what would be necessary for a practical implementation of micropayments, but not the whole thing. I do, however, have a sense of what would be required from a technical perspective. And from that perspective, micropayments need so much more than We need to talk them up, then they’ll work. Scott McCloud was, I believe, sold a bill of goods when he wrote in Reinventing Comics:

… sooner or later, micropayments are bound to come into their own. After all, the cost of any of these operations — old or new — is ultimately just a function of bandwidth and processor speed, and in an industry governed by Moore’s Law, whatever clever protocols can’t solve sheer computational force eventually will! [emphasis original]

That’s page 185, for those of you playing along at home. And with all due respect to McCloud, he places way too much faith in The Promise Of Technology to solve what is essentially a financial transaction, which is governed not by bandwidth limitations, but by regulations, industry agreed practices, and guarantees of service. Somewhere in the basement, I have the notes for an unsubmitted thesis in defense of a Master’s degree (interdisciplinary: electrical engineering and history, because I hated having joy in my life) about what has to happen for technology to spread in a network. From telephony, telegraphy and power grids, through to internets, electronic banking, and yes, micropayments, it requires a hell of a lot more than sheer technological might.

Example: the one-swipe method for verifying credit cards didn’t come about because modems became faster or cheaper; it was because Congress passed a law that made credit card issuers responsible for fraudulent charges, not the consumer. Sure the swipers are convenient, but the system as a whole is expensive as hell for the card issuers, and they would drop it in a second if they could legally do so. And from the department of unintended consequences: To make up for the cash they have to sink into instant-verification systems, you have ever-escalating fees and late charges, and clauses buried deep in the cardholder agreement that lets BobsBancCorp of South Dakota retroactively jack your rate up to 34.99% if you fail to pay an entirely unrelated card on time. Technological constraints are the easy part of the puzzle: regulatory, societal, and financial constraints are where the real work has to be done.

Not that any of what I just told you is going to change anybody’s mind. So, today I am unilaterally declaring a moratorium on the micropayments pissing match. If you think that they’re crap, please acknowledge that they may eventually come about, but only by piggybacking on other protocols that will establish identity in a manner much stronger than is available today. If you’re in favor of them, please acknowledge that a viable one-click micropayment system won’t be developed until a viable one-click macropayment system is developed (because with the costs of building the damn thing, any developer is going to need to see a return on investment before scaling down). To get to the McCloudian promised land is probably going to require something analogous to a national ID card, linked to your bank account, along with the inevitable unintended consequences (think identity theft is bad now?). Everything that could be said from a philosophical POV on the topic has already been said.

Let’s let the people that know how to build payment-processing systems and those who know their way around electronic transaction regulations have their say. The rest of us? We’re just talking to hear ourselves talk.

What does it matter how highly the implementer speaks of his money-removal system if the public doesn’t want to use it? It’s not something that people want to pay. This is tantamount to Chevron bragging about the gas price hike. If I didn’t have to have fuel, I wouldn’t pay their prices for it.

If we wait long enough, the current systems for small-transactions (similar to the one that powered iTunes to 1 billion sales) will essentially be micropayments. Viva inflation!

I see a trend in media towards a la carte programming (all of the major media players are scrambling to cash in on our culture’s assimilation of P2P tech: iTunes video, Google Video, OnDemand…); I can imagine that comics will be able to latch on to the same technology that make small media purchases viable and popular. Especially if someone big (like Google) builds a system specifically for this purpose, and releases it into the wild.

I actually totally agree with Joe Zabel’s introverted/extroverted theory. It’s very hard to survive using what is apparently the only successful webcomics money-making system while producing “quiet” work. It would be nice if there were a way for more thoughtful work to make decent money on the web, but if not micropayments – what?

Micropayments are a cool idea. But isn’t it a total pain in the ass to pay for every page you read? Yes. Yes it is.


I don’t have any problem accepting the idea that someday, someone will come up with a workable micropayment system. I do take exception to the idea, however, that I am obligated to champion such a system due to its inevitability.

Looking at this as a comic reader, I don’t really like the idea of paying to read comics online. I’d much rather spend money on a physical keepsake, like a printed collection of comics.

Obviously, it’s not cheap to go to a comic press or even kinkos and have a stack of books made, but one could take pre-orders and use the money to finance the production of the collections, keeping the profit.

Yeah, it’s more work, it’s not as cool as a couple cents per reader per day magically appearing in your bank account, and not as satisfying as a publishing house producing your book for you and selling it in stores, but the technology is already in place, and like I said, the reader actually gets something physical in return.

I made a ridiculously wordy response to this over at the examiner, but I guess no one can see it because it has to be approved by a moderator.

I just don’t think it’s impossible for an introverted webcomic to inoffensively employ advertisements for their own products. Just like a good website design will complement a webcomic’s content, so will a good advertisement for a related book or poster or whatever else.

A Lesson is Learned is a great example of this… their shop ads are drawn in the same style as the comic, and are integrated perfectly into the site without seeming crass or offensive. If your website is sparse and subdued, your ads can be as well… they won’t get lost unless there is something else on the site that IS inappropriately abrassive.

Mind you, there’s no guarantee that anyone will BUY what they are advertising. But finding a market for subtle, introvertive work is not a challenge that is exclusive to online publishing.

The long and the short of it is, if an introvertive comic becomes popular, there are ways to employ the ad/merch approach without violating the presentation, especially if it is only advertising the author’s own items. But if it never finds an audience at all, neither micropayments nor anything else can keep it afloat financially.

You know, not to totally shit on Joe Zabel or some of the other webcomics talking heads, but it always reads to me and others like they’re only against things that don’t work or would never work for what that specific writer has done. Case in point– no one is going to advertise on Joe Zabels webcomics, because no one gives a shit about his work except for his little group of online friends– so, since something didnt’ work for old Joe, it MUST be bad. — I mean, who do you want to listen to? Someone who isn’t making money with their webcomic, or someone who IS??? — the problem is, the people who really ARE making money, don’t really have the time or don’t really feel like sharing what’s working for them with the random tools of the internet.

Here’s something sort of related to MICROPAYMENTS. For years now, there have been what Scott Kurtz calls “fly by night startups” contacting webcartoonists about things like “delivering your comics to people’s desktops!” — and failing miserably because it was clunky or there were catches to the process– they wanted to charge for these “feeds” — fine, but it was crappy and no one cared, the places went under and no cartoonist made a dime.

Years later, along comes something like FILMLOOP, and they set up their stuff for photos, but it works GREAT for comics. Check it out at — Sooner or later, something that REALLY works will come along for micropayments with no dopey strings attached. People will still buy in bulk with their dumb micro things anyway.

LOOK! It’s 2000-FUCKING-SIX here, a DOLLAR is a fucking MICROPAYMENT. Hell, a couple dollars is a micropayment. It’s just how much can you get for your almighty DOLLAR a month?? I reckon, a lot.

Anyways, to summarize, Joe Zabel is full of shit.


Joe, don’t you have some like SIMS comics to be drawing that no one is going to give a shit about??

Man! Ryan North will be very excited to find out how wealthy he is!

I’ve written credit card verification and processing software (coincidentally, one of our customers was mentioned in this very thread), and, for what it’s worth, I think that some of the things you said here are only correct in a handwavy, approximate way.

By the same token, however, your overall point is pretty much spot-on, and I think your prescription for the debate is useful.

It seems to me fairly obvious that, as far as micropayments go:

(1) Just because it hasn’t worked yet doesn’t mean that it can’t work;


(2) Telling people to “clap louder” is not going to help make it work: Skepticism is an entirely rational response at the moment.

Similarly, it seems to me that the sensible position for a cartoonist to take at the moment — not just with regard to micropayments, but with regard to almost any new revenue model — is “If you think you have a way for me to make more money from my work, I’m all ears; but don’t imagine that my willingness to listen creates any obligation for me to agree with your ideas, much less try to implement them.”

Hope I’m not intruding here, I just wanted to voice my agreement with the specific contributions that Sam and Ray brought to this discussion. Their points seem incredibly sensible and well thought out. I hope others take note of them, too.

“Telling people to “clap louderâ€? is not going to help make it work: Skepticism is an entirely rational response at the moment.”

I completely agree. My remarks in that regard were rather clumsy. What I was trying to say is that the attitude of much of the webcomics community goes beyond skepticism to become an actively hostile response that is counterproductive.


Hell, I’m an engineer at heart — approximation is what we do. While undoubtedly you and I could draw three beer-mats worth of scribbles and understand each other perfectly, the translation of nerd into the vernacular is space-consuming (thus, hundreds of pages of abandoned thesis, where the engineer had to be translated for the historians, and the historian for the engineers, none of which should be inflicted on the readers of these silly little essays).

My apologies if you think I oversimplified anything to the point of misrepresentation. And tell BobsBancCorp of South Dakota that they’re a bunch of usurious bastards.

I think Micropayments is a potentially workable process that is really going to have difficulty finding its place in the current webcomics environment. It is hard to make it work without already establishing a fanbase, and without a fanbase…

Well, there are thousands of webcomics out there these days, most of them available for free. With so much free content already present, it will make it a lot harder for any payment system to win any ground in the fray.

I certainly agree that micropayments don’t need to be looked down upon without reason; I just think that there are legitimate reasons to be doubtful of it.

Wait, hang on.

I’m pretty sure Joyce and Walky runs on micropayments. I paid a small amount of money and got some comics. It worked out to about US25c a comic.

I fully agree that wishing that micropayments will just come along and solve everything will not make micropayments come along and solve everything, but on the other hand something very like micropayments is already being done. No moratorium is necessary because the debate is probably over by now, and the only people left are the people who only want micropayments this way, with some seperate provider and automated systems and all that shit which won’t ever come about until Paypal stops working for people. To my mind, there’s only about three or so of those people left.

I’m Merus, and I’ve made micropayments.

I have some real world experience with making computer technology work, which gives me some confidence that a micropayments technology could be designed to avoid the Chinese water torture Ms. Campos envisions. A good software engineer can identify the minimal information needed from the user, with an understanding of how people would use the software (which is why first versions tend to suck). I observe that we read webcomics in streams, with frequencies in days or seconds, so I would design a micropayments system to prefer input at the beginning or end of these streams.

But I don’t mean to front for McCloud or Zabel, saying “don’t worry, we’ll make it work alright”, because I’m not convinced that micropayments are the best or the only technology to support webcomics. I recognize that many artists may have legitimate needs for income aside from the costs of their web servers. However I also note many artists who wouldn’t put out tip jars and the like if the cost of their popularity hadn’t forced their hand. I feel as well that people ought not to be compelled to create a business if a business isn’t what they had in mind.

I personally see the fault in HTTP and, more deeply, the ‘dumb middle’ assumptions of Internet protocols. There exist valuable advantages of scaling & abstraction for the dumb middle, the principle that the smarts of an protocol are put into the ends of any conversation rather than in the medium inbetween. Living with this strategy helps if both ends are ‘smart enough’ to carry their conversations. In the good ol’ days, if you were online you were a member of an institution or company with smart resources to spare, and amateur initiatives would subsist on their leftovers.

I’d like to see us develop a distributed file system in place of HTTP. Rather than the smarts of rented web servers, this technology would use the P2P smarts of the many computers sharing this new file system.

I’ve got a great idea for a feasible payment plan for online comics!

Give the t-shirts away for free, and then charge for the comic! People will pay it if they want to get the joke.

The really rubbish thing about this whole stupid micropayment argument is that no-one EVER asks the readers what they want or can afford.

I am a poor student. I have no credit card. How the hell can I, or any of the other hundreds of thousands of students who read webcomics, pay for micropayments? When I have a job next year, I will buy merchandise… clearly I will be rewarding the webcomic artists who have invested in my entertainment over the years, and not those who locked up their content in an unusable, unfriendly elitist format.

Yes, that’s right. Micropayments are ELITIST. They alienate the very people who are the core of readership.

And if you’re only catering to this tiny core of rich bitches with credit cards then how in the hell do you get your comic to get that critical mass necessary for your comic to be successful?

Micropayments are a joke.

Actually, that whole introverted/extroverted dichotomy is a bit bollocks too. For one thing, he’s quite incorrectly identified some comics on the spectrum. For another, you only have to see the success of Charlie Brown to see it’s all about marketing niches, not about introversion and extroversion.

I think “introverted” comics probably would (at a guess) make their money best from selling book collections of their comics and other nice limited edition sorts of things. If there is a market/readership… people will buy stuff as long as it appeals to them, surely?

I have made Cat Garza angry! Oh noes!

I have made Cat Garza angry! Oh noes!

… linky?

[…] Uncategorized In the context of not trying to stir up a shitstorm, I wrote: If you think that they’re crap, please acknowledge that they may eventually come about, but only by piggybacking on other protocols that will establish identity in a manner much stronger than is available today. If you’re in favor of them, please acknowledge that a viable one-click micropayment system won’t be developed until a viable one-click macropayment system is developed (because with the costs of building the damn thing, any developer is going to need to see a return on investment before scaling down). […]

[…] Gary … and tired as hell. Which is probably why, in the context of this, I find this far funnier than I should. After all, we here at Fleen are all about webcomics community, and not interested in provoking shitstorms or internet fights to the bloody death. That being said, Bunny is owning all over those birds (start here and keep clicking on “next”, through the ten updates that Lem managed in one day). […]

[…] brief thing for you to consider. It’s been more than five years since I unilaterally declared a moratorium on the webcomics internecine pissing match over micropayments (and you know — it’s worked! Nobody gets het up about micropayments anymore). Key […]

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