Pow! Zap! Comics on the internet? On the big screen! Biff!!

On Feb 9, I made the following comment on my Mastodon:

still can't believe the shithead behind Pupkin managed to get his webcomic turned into a movie with Jennifer Lopez

Nobody responded to this in any way, because, quite frankly, nobody who wasn't an absolute fanatical follower of webcomics discourse 20 years ago has any idea what the fuck this means. Hell, I barely understand my feelings about this. But to do them justice, we are going to have to unpack 25 years of webcomics history.

The process of researching and writing this has rearranged my view of the formative years of webcomics. I've done my best to cite my sources, but primary sources are not always readily available anymore. I ended up using the Wayback Machine so much that it locked me out for a few hours. Support the Internet Archive.

Keenspot: Origins

Let's go chronologically. In January 1997, Darren Bluel started publishing a webcomic called “Nukees”. It's more or less the prototypical “me and my wacky college friends” strip, in that it stars thinly veiled versions of the author and his wacky college friends. 25 years later, it's still being regularly updated. Nukees is published with a Perl script called AutoKeen. We'll talk about AutoKeen in more depth in a bit.

In March 1999, Chris Crosby started publishing a comic called Superosity. The main characters include a lovable idiot named Chris, his hyperintelligent surfboard-shaped robot friend named Boardy, and his evil asshole brother, Bobby. Bobby is drawn with all-black eyes and if he had a catchphrase it would probably be “Shut the hell up, you stupid idiot!

Remember Bobby. He's important.

Superosity is also regularly updated – very regularly. Literally every single day since its inception. It updated today, the day you are reading this. No vacations, no filler days, ever, for almost 23 years. There was a contest called “The Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge” where you had to update your comic on time, Monday to Friday, every day, no exceptions, and when Crosby was late with an update people were legitimately worried he had died. (Turns out a snowstorm had knocked out his power.)

Aside: I discovered while writing this that the Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge ran for fifteen years before a single victor finally claimed the prize in 2020.

By 2000 webcomics were exploding, and the place to find new comics to read was Big Panda – a giant list of comics, ranked by a peculiar algorithm. Many of the comics listed on it were also hosted there. Here's a bunch of interviews about Big Panda with webcomic artists who were there, conducted in 2006.

The algorithm was meant to reward comics for prominently linking to Big Panda (generally using a dropdown list of Big Panda comics, injected into your page with JavaScript) and encouraging their readers to check out other comics linked to by Big Panda. Yes, even in 1999, The Algorithm ranking content by engagement was there, although it was at least explicit and openly explained. Of course that didn't stop it from being mercilessly gamed and exploited.

Looking at the Wayback Machine from November 1999, I pretty much read all of these. Big Panda was where webcomics lived.

In early 2000, the creator of Big Panda lost interest in maintaining it, and the site started to go down regularly. So Darren Bluel, the creator of Nukees, Chris Crosby, the creator of Superosity, Teri Crosby, Chris' mother and the colourist of Superosity, and some dude named Nate Stone who ended up CTO but I couldn't discover much else about, launched a new webcomics portal called Keenspot, in March of 2000.

Keenspot provided a similar service to Big Panda – a one-stop portal where you could discover other webcomics, cross-promotional tools so everyone on Keenspot could boost the profile of everyone else on Keenspot, and hosting. Unlike Big Panda, however, they wouldn't just add anyone to the list – Keenspot had to sign you. And Keenspot started by signing virtually all of the most popular comics on Big Panda, which means Keenspot started with an exceptionally strong lineup.

A few months after Keenspot launched, they launched Keenspace. This was Keenspot's weird little brother; anyone could create a Keenspace account and start publishing comics. You wouldn't get the full promotional might of Keenspot, but you'd get the same hosting and publishing tools.

If your Keenspace comic was good, and updated regularly, the promise was that you might get “promoted” to Keenspot. For a time, this meant that there was prestige attached to being a Keenspot comic. Having your comic on Keenspot meant that it had Made It. People who were into webcomics paid attention. It was News.

Keenspace was the Geocities of webcomics and therefore, unsurprisingly, I loved it; a perfect example of the y2k-era web where a guy with a server and a janky perl script could provide thousands of people with a home for their creative work. It's still around, though in 2004 the name changed to Comic Genesis, I guess so it wouldn't be confused with Keenspot.

As might be obvious from the name, Keenspot / Keenspace was built on Darren Bluel's AutoKeen. Prior to AutoKeen, artists would generally roll their own HTML by hand; AutoKeen was a big improvement in tooling for its time. The way it works: artists upload specially named image files and HTML templates via FTP. AutoKeen runs nightly, generating the day's new archive pages and front page. You could upload comics in advance and they would be automatically published on the date given in the filename. The archives were accessible via little HTML calendars, built from <table>s.

Bluel even released a “lite” version of Autokeen as public domain open source.

Keenspot also wasted no time in organizing significant cross-promotional events, like, uh, Bikeeni Summer 2000, where a bunch of Keenspot cartoonists drew pinup art of their characters in swimsuits. Weird horniness of early 2000s webcomics aside, what I want to convey is that when Keenspot launched, its members were excited to join and support each other. It was a group of peers trying to make something exciting and unprecedented happen. The web was providing a new opportunity to folks who had been shut out of the old way of doing things; rejected by newspaper syndicates, producing work that could never be published in a mainstream way.

That's not to say that everyone thought everything about Keenspot was entirely keen – see, for example, keenparody, a comic (hosted on Keenspace, and which Chris Crosby linked from his Superosity news page) that portrays, among other nastiness, Darren Bluel cutting open the corpse of a panda with a chainsaw. It's, uh, not subtle. (Also CW for nudity in some of the other strips. I wasn't kidding about the weird horniness of the era.)

Enter Bobby Crosby

Now, remember Bobby? Turns out Chris Crosby has a brother in real life named Bobby. In 2002, Bobby Crosby began publishing Pupkin. Pupkin is a round orange dog, who can't seem to find his forever home.

I won't say that nobody liked Pupkin – it managed to attract some fans – but it is generally not well-remembered. Pupkin isn't particularly well-drawn or funny. The punchline of the first strip is a baby saying “Pupkin” while looking at a round orange dog. The punchline of the second strip is Pupkin worried that he might have AIDS.

It turns out that Bobby Crosby does not take criticism well. When someone writes anything negative about his comics, he shows up in the comments to yell at them. I haven't found anything from 2002 about Pupkin specifically, but here he is going absolutely nuclear on someone who rated one of his comics 3/5 stars:

Nothing that you said in your review made any sense on any level and at least half of everything you just said is a lie...

I could go on and on and on forever refuting all of your nonsense points, but I’m trying to stop wasting time doing such things and yours would be the longest of all. I mean, you’re yet another person who actually somehow thinks that ALL OF THE ZOMBIES USED TO BE VAMPIRES, as if the world was made up of seven billion vampires before this all started instead of seven billion humans. You CAN’T READ.

I don’t give a shit about word choice and tone and remaining civil. I hate everyone and everything, especially morons like you idiots who can’t read.

I recall Bobby Crosby showing up absolutely everywhere his comic was mentioned to respond to everything. If I remember right, Bobby would sign off all of his responses with “Thank you for loving Pupkin”, no matter how much the original commenter had hated Pupkin. If you google this phrase now, you'll find that this became a Something Awful meme.

By 2009 (I will link the article later), Gary of the webcomics blog Fleen is saying things like:

Bobby Crosby tossed in his two cents (at some point in the future, there may well be a “Bobby’s Law”, the point after which no useful discussion on a webcomics topic can take place).

You know you're a level-headed individual when someone decides that they need to name a variant of Godwin's Law after you.

As far as I am able to discern, Pupkin was never officially a Keenspot comic. But it had a Keenspot banner at the top, was clearly using AutoKeen, and as far as I can tell, there was never an associated Keenspace account. Chris Crosby linked to it with a prominent banner on Superosity's sidebar.

Trouble brewing

2002 is also when we really started to see some other groups outside of Keenspot try to take on webcomics. Joey Manley started Modern Tales, which took the approach of selling paid subscriptions to access comic archives. Several high-profile cartoonists quit their popular Keenspot comics to go independent – Jeff Rowland ended “When I Grow Up” and started “Wigu”, John Allison ended “Bobbins” and started “Scary Go Round”. Both were part of a loose collective called “Dumbrella”, which had a portal to some comics, but was largely a message board community site where cartoonists hung out with each other and their readerships.

By 2005, the Dumbrella wiki had this to say about Keenspot:

Keenspot is now a festering assland of a turdhole powered by Chris Crosby's gravitational pull and haunted by the tortured souls of captured Internet cartoonists.

I would wager that this was probably written by a member of the message boards, rather than an artist, but still. It's not totally obvious to an outsider exactly what was so egregious about Keenspot that caused talented artists to flee with that level of acrimony. But clearly something went very wrong.

In 2004, Keenspot moved its corporate headquarters in Cresbard, South Dakota, population 121. The people of Cresbard had decided, due to its dwindling population, to close its high school. Keenspot bought the high school on the cheap, and as far as I can tell, Chris Crosby and his mom Teri moved to rural South Dakota to run Keenspot there. There is a Superosity storyline about how terrible an idea moving to South Dakota was, posted shortly after the blizzard that knocked Crosby out of the Daily Grind.

That's weird, right? Moving your internet media company to an abandoned high school in rural South Dakota? That's kind of an unhinged thing to do?

Blatant Comics and the push for More Bobby

In 2006, Bobby Crosby launched two new comics, both now fully backed by Keenspot: +EV, a comic strip about online poker, and Last Blood, a zombie-themed graphic novel serialized online on Keenspot, published in print by Blatant Comics, and which Bobby very explicitly wants, from day one, to turn into a movie. Bobby is the writer for both of these comics, but this time is collaborating with artists. (Even Pupkin's most ardent fans would have to admit that its art is pretty amateurish.)

Wait. What's Blatant Comics?

In 2007, Blatant Comics had a handful of different books by a couple of different artists that they were advertising. They're... embarassing shlock. There's a superhero parody of The Office, there's Bobby's zombie book, there's “Impeach Bush! A Funny Li'l Graphical Novel About The Worstest Pres'dent In The History Of Forevar”, and there's “Dead Sonja”, which is a zombie parody of the Marvel hero “Red Sonja”, I guess? The company appears to be called “Blatant Comics” so that they can put “A Blatant Parody” on the cover. Their webpage displays their address in the footer... Cresbard, SD.

Blatant Comics has a Wikipedia page, which I am gonna quote from:

Blatant Comics is an independent American comic book publisher founded in 1997 by Chris Crosby... Blatant is known for publishing parody comic books such as Sloth Park, XXXena: Warrior Pornstar, and Dead Sonja: She-Zombie with a Sword...

So prior to Keenspot, Chris Crosby wasn't just making webcomics – he was publishing print comics. Awful, pulpy, dumb parody print comics.

In 1997 Blatant Comics published something called “The EboniX-Files” with taglines like “The truth be out there, g!” and “Yo, bust a cap in da future's ass!” and thought this joke was clever enough that they ALSO, published in the SAME BOOK, included “The Ungrammatical EboniX-Men”. Chris Crosby is credited as the writer.

I vaguely remember some shitty stereotypes of Black people in Superosity, and honestly it's possible they may have been as bad as this, I don't remember. But, yiiiiiiikes! Fuck this!

In 2006, it would appear that Chris was using his old print comics company, which hadn't published much of anything since Keenspot launched, to try to kickstart the career of his brother Bobby. He certainly wasn't using it to promote anyone else's Keenspot comic. Today, Blatant Comics' website is nothing but Bobby Crosby, and in fact looks startlingly similar to bobbycrosby.com.

Chris also launched a new Keenspot comic towards the end of 2006: “WICKEDPOWERED”, a paid advertisement for “a laser pointer with a range of 141 miles that can melt a garbage bag.” WICKEDPOWERED ran for a year and a half before the sponsor pulled the plug.

It seems clear that by 2006, we are looking at a Keenspot that is not driven by a group of peers trying to create a new medium and support each other – it is being driven, more and more, by the Crosbys' desire to cash in as hard as they possibly can.

Keenspot becomes The Crosby Show

In March 2008, Chris and Teri Crosby buy Darren Bluel and Nate Stone's stake in Keenspot, leaving the Crosbys as the sole owners. Chris was interviewed by comixtalk.com about it. I find this quote incredibly revealing:

Eight years later, we failed to reach most of our goals. I'm hoping to turn that around, so that five or ten years later I can look back and be a little prouder of what Keenspot is. We'll see.

To me, Keenspot was absolutely at its most successful, its most magical, right at the start; all those talented artists, breaking free from the gatekeepers of newspaper comics syndicates, using new tools to find new audiences, producing work that couldn't be published any other way. What are the goals for Keenspot that they failed to reach?

Here's Chris posting to the Bad Webcomics Wiki forums in June 2009:

I enjoy working on SORE THUMBS and WICKEDPOWERED, but they were written primarily for the money, not because they're the kind of thing I love to write. They both are purposefully created to be as dumb and pandering as possible. Heck, WICKEDPOWERED was a paid advertisement for a handheld laser manufacturer. And CROW SCARE is intended to be a SCI FI Channel original movie illustrated on cheap newsprint.

Yes, I haven't aimed very high thus far. Bobby's goal with everything but PUPKIN and +EV has been to write fantastic blockbuster movies in graphic novel form. Maybe I should try that…

Someone replies:

So you're basically admitting to being a hack that panders to the lowest common denominator for money?

And Chris responds, simply:

I like money.

Keenspot begins to implode

At this point in time, Keenspot has slowly gone from The Place For Quality Webcomics to an aging portal whose design has not significantly changed in 8 years, and whose creators are still on it largely out of inertia. AutoKeen has not been updated in any significant way – it hasn't been upgraded to do anything as basic and obvious as generating RSS feeds, for example. By 2009 Google Reader would have been in its heydey, and RSS feeds a perfect fit for daily comics. (AutoKeen would eventually be rewritten out of frustration by an administrator of Keenspace around 2010, but didn't necessarily add much in the way of new features – just made it easier to diagnose when it failed.) The Comicpress Wordpress theme has been out for years, making self-hosting comics with archives more accessible than ever. Comics are starting to take off on Tumblr and Twitter. As far as I can tell, Keenspot artists are still carefully naming their files, uploading them to FTP sites, and hand-tweaking bespoke HTML templates. Keenspot as a technology, in terms of the service it provides for creators, is completely stagnant and neglected.

July 2009 – Jodie Troutman, a fairly prominent cartoonist who had “graduated” from Keenspace to Keenspot, is fired from Keenspot for no particular reason that anyone wants to disclose. (CW: deadnaming in linked article) Nothing like this has happened before in Keenspot's history. Troutman's response:

Though I believe my membership was terminated unjustly and through no fault of my own, I suspect I’ll be much better off without Keenspot, whose management I never really saw eye-to-eye with. All my friends have had great success as indie webcomics, so I can only hope to follow in their footsteps.

I see this sort of sentiment a lot – that Keenspot isn't really helping creators, and that publishing independently is a much better value proposition.

December 2009 – Kel McDonald is fired from Keenspot and publicly airs some dirty laundry about how unprofessional and basically useless Keenspot leadership has been towards its artists not named Crosby, and about how nobody is getting paid on time.

Teri Crosby responds in the comments with a polite point-by-point rebuttal, signing off with “Smiles”.

Bobby Crosby responds in the comments accusing everyone of being liars, ranting about how tiny and insignificant Keenspot is, how anything it does for its creators is a gift and above and beyond what they deserve and that they should be grateful, and posits that Keenspot should just be shut down.

“To have a booth presence mismanaged year after year, as Keenspot's frequently is, is unacceptable this far down the road.”

Why??? Who cares??? What does it matter to you? Keenspot is a tiny company that shouldn't even have a booth at SDCC in the first place but does so anyway mostly just as a little bonus to its members, a little gift. Are you the same type of person who turns down a free gift because it's not nice enough for someone of your stature??? Who gives a fuck???

“We all know you guys have Keenspot on autopilot and are basically using it to fund Chris and Bobby's side projects.”

It's the OPPOSITE. Our projects keep Keenspot alive so even more time and money can be wasted on it because its owners for some reason love a bunch of people who mostly hate them because of your lies.

No one in my family lives in a school.

There's lots going on in the comments but I would like to quote this section of Scott Kurtz's reply to Bobby:

Blatant and Keenspot are these very disparate entities when it suits you and sister companies when it suits you. You own both companies. You took the Keenspot booth this year and gave half to Blatant.

The Keen dream is dead

Within days after Kel McDonald's firing, Keenspot posts new mandatory contracts that all of its artists will need to sign in six months, or else leave Keenspot. The terms of this contract are... unfavourable towards creators, compared to what came before. These contracts are not sent to creators directly but instead quietly dumped in a private forum post, leaving many in the dark. Webcomics blog Fleen published a detailed exposé.

As one creator puts it:

Every Keenspot member I’ve spoken to agrees that this is the Crosbys’ way of firing everyone without having to fire anyone, since trying to ditch Kel [McDonald] blew up in their faces.

The new contract is ridiculous, completely unreasonable, and they know that. It doesn’t just mandate a revenue split, but requires cartoonists to give up their domains, and the contracts are slated to last three to five years.

Chris Crosby doesn't really disagree:

As well as not inviting or accepting any new members, we may also politely decline existing members who decide to sign the new contract. We’ll be having long discussions with each interested creator (assuming there are any) in order to work out what’s mutually beneficial and what’s not. If Keenspot cannot bring something substantial to the table for the creator in question, we will stop working with them.

I had hoped Keenspot the webcomics collective and Keenspot the independent publishing concern could co-exist happily. But after two years [following a 2008 reorganizaton and the buyout of former partners] the resounding answer is no. Those two sides of Keenspot resent each other, and neither side is happy.

[G]oing forward our focus will be directed solely at properties we have a long-term investment in, which is primarily Crosby-produced comics and related projects. That’s what makes the most business sense for us as a company, and we make no apologies for it.

Aftermath

Have a look at Chris Crosby's print comic credits, paying attention to the stuff with the “Keenspot” banner on top. “Fartnite.” “Yang Gang.” “Barry Steakfries: From the Files of Jetpack Joyride.” Chris Crosby started his career selling trash and it appears that's how he's determined to end it.

There is a big list of comics on the Keenspot frontpage; only the titles in bold are “currently updating”. 7 comics are marked in bold. One of them is Marry Me, which completed its run in 2008, but for obvious reasons has ads in every news box and site banner. Another is Head Trip, which hasn't updated since July 2017. A third is No Pink Ponies, which last updated March 2018.

In 2022, Keenspot is 4 comics.

Marry Me

In February 2007, Bobby Crosby and artist Remi “Eisu” Mokhtar launch “Marry Me”, at the URL marrymemovie.com. The URL and the commentary for the first page makes it clear: this is a graphic novel for which Bobby will be adapting into a screenplay and trying to sell to Hollywood. The webcomic exists as an elaborate movie pitch.

You might be aware that “Marry Me” is now, in 2022, a big-budget Hollywood romcom, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson. It took 15 years and the total implosion of Keenspot, a breathtaking, agonizing squandering of an enormous amount of actual talent in service of one unbearable asshole, but the motherfucker actually did it.

And yet. None of the marketing around this movie mentions the comic it was based on. Nobody going to see it knows Bobby Crosby's name, or Blatant Comics, or Keenspot. The Crosbys spent 16 years pushing Bobby's work, and in the end of all that is this disposable rom-com; every creative decision made by everyone involved for the sole reason that they thought it would sell.

I wonder: is Chris Crosby able to look back and be proud of that?