Thursday, August 26, 2004

Webcomics publisher finds "Keen Spot" in South Dakota

Back in late 1999 to early 2000, the webcomic movement was just beginning to pick up steam. Webcomics had actually been around in one form or another since 1993, when the graphical web browser first hit the scene, but most of them hadn't gotten much publicity; about the only strips the average person knew about at this point were Kevin & Kell, Sluggy Freelance, and User Friendly.

Many would-be webcartoonists had a problem: webhosting was still expensive, and the cost of having one's own domain was a high barrier to entry. Enter web strip syndication site Keenspot, founded in part by cartoonist Chris Crosby of Superosity, and his mother Teri. Its goal: to help promote this burgeoning new form of comic art, which for the first time ever offered cartoonists a chance at widespread exposure without being subject to the editorial whims and publishing bottlenecks of a print strip syndicate.
"Most of our comics are too edgy to be in a 'family newspaper' and would have to be watered down for syndication," said Keenspot Co-CEO/"Superosity" cartoonist Chris Crosby, 23. Co-CEO/"Nukees" cartoonist Darren Bleuel, 29, added: "Once a comic strip has taken hold in the newspaper, it's there forever, no matter how bad it gets. Newer, younger cartoonists cannot get onto the comics page without ousting one of these 'tenured' comics. As a result, the typical newspaper syndicate signs up only one or two new cartoonists per year out of thousands of applicants." [1]
In addition to selecting what it considers the best webcomics to aggregate on the Keenspot.com front page, Keenspot provides free hosting service and revenue sharing for hundreds of web cartoonists [2], enabling them to host their strips without having to worry about where the bandwidth money is going to come from. Though it's had some problems along the way, it's done this for nearly five years—even through the dot-com bust—which is approximately a geological era in Internet time.

Thanks to Keenspot's support of web cartoonists, there are many more comic strips on the web now than there would have been without; even those strips that don't host with Keenspot have been helped by its promotion of the webcomic as an art form. Along the way, Keenspot has made the jump from web-only to publishing print comic books, as well as spinning off other tie-in merchandise.

I haven't been paying much attention to the world of webcomics lately, which is why I was startled to see a news item halfway down the front page of Scott Kurtz's PvP webcomic today. Kurtz writes with some astonishment that Keenspot's physical operation is moving out of California...and into a defunct schoolhouse in Cresbard, a tiny South Dakota town in a very rural area. [3]

Looking at Cresbard's homepage, I see that the biggest recent event of which this town of population 143 can boast is the "6th Annual Corn Fest". Chris Crosby relates in a Comixpedia discussion of the story that the purchase price of the entire school was just $36,000, "which [Cresbard's government is] apparently using to pave the roads." Now this tiny hamlet is about to have the publisher of hundreds of Internet comic strips, including many quite popular titles, take up residence.

Having grown up in a small town myself, I can see that the location has certain benefits for Keenspot. In particular, the cost of living and doing business in small rural towns in the heartland tends to be a lot lower than in coastal urban settings. It won't affect their overall business; since their servers are located elsewhere, it doesn't matter where their office is as long as they can receive and ship postal mail easily. And if they enjoy living in the country in general, then I suppose they'll enjoy living in the country in South Dakota specificly.

Chris Crosby notes in Comixpedia that, despite the tone of the news articles, he and his mother have tried to downplay the possibility that Keenspot's relocation is somehow going to "save the town or become an economic boom." This is a sensible position for them to take; even with the printing and silk-screening operations, most of Keenspot's business is virtual, and the datacenters will be staying in California. I would be surprised if Keenspot ended up employing many more than half a dozen people in Cresbard, at least unless they further expand.

The Crosbys do intend to give back to the community in other ways, however, such as by turning part of the school building into a library. "[A]t the very least it looks like we'll have a positive effect on the place," Chris writes. "And it's having a positive effect on us, too."
[1] Astor, D. (2001, February 26). Keenspot is major comics spot on web. Editor & Publisher, 134(9), 27. [Found via the EBSCOhost magazine index.]

[2]Keenspot was actually not the first site to try this approach; merely the first long-term successful one. It followed in the footsteps of an earlier hosting operation called Big Panda, which formerly hosted Superosity and Nukees among others, but ultimately imploded amid clouds of acrimony.

[3] To what Kurtz says, I should add the correction (courtesy of Crosby's post in the Comixpedia discussion) that Keenspot didn't actually buy the school, the Crosby family (who co-own Keenspot) did, and will be using it for the work that they do for Keenspot. It's a distinction that was apparently too fine to be caught by any of the journalists covering the story.