WASHINGTON — 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, prompting Rosenberg to declare his paid-comics experiment "a conclusive and absolute failure."
That doesn't mean Web comics are doomed, however. They actually are thriving as readership grows for the thousands of cartoonists 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 website, 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, has a part-time job but thinks he and his business partner will move to Web cartooning full time: "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 he 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 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.
ModernTales.com started as a subscription service in 2002. Today it has about 2,000 members paying $3 a month, says its publisher, Joey Manley -- hardly enough to make the one-man operation a financial hit, even though he moved to Louisville, Ky., from his former home in California to cut costs. Manley also publishes other subscription comic sites but has concluded that ads represent the industry's future. So, he is preparing to launch Webcomicsnation.com, 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 also left California to lower costs.
Chris Crosby, the 27-year-old co-chief executive of Keenspot Entertainment, bought an old school in Cresbard, S.D., that serves as home and office.