(Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A successful media model is often a quiet one, gathering up money from the unglamorous corners of the market, cutting checks for its writers and artists in small but regular amounts. When Bob Mankoff retired from the New Yorker this year after twenty years as the Cartoon Editor, he left behind one of most successful new media models of the era: The Cartoon Bank. It was a database he founded in 1992 and ran from an apartment in Yonkers, and it helped cartoonists license their work for thousands of dollars a month. But when Condé Nast bought the Bank from Mankoff in 1997, the money began to dry up and the model began to fail.

Paste magazine recounts the rise and fall of the Cartoon Bank, which was begun by Mankoff with an $1,800 Apple computer and a $745 scanner, and built into a database with over 20,000 images from 50 cartoonists, categorized by subject: “The market was individual consumers as well as businesses; if you ran a dental association, for instance, you could easily find dental-themed cartoons for your monthly newsletter. Early customers included Bloomberg Financial Markets, which delivered a cartoon to 41,000 subscribers each morning,”

With fees ranging from $100 to $1000 for a single image, cartoonists could start to rely on checks coming in from the Bank, and some cartoonists were receiving residiuals of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. But when Condé Nast took over, things began to break and cartoonists saw a reliable income dwindle to nothing.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the Cartoon Bank’s decline, as any cartoonist will tell you, is its website. When I began researching this story, there was no clear end-to-end way to license a cartoon online. After going through several steps to select a cartoon and format—in my case, a one-year Powerpoint license for $10—I would encounter a dialog telling me I could not check out via invoice because my cart was below $500. Instead I would have to submit a detailed request via email. When I tried again last week, a button had appeared allowing me to pay by credit card. This option was only available for a small number of license types, though; most still require submitting an email request. (Additionally, one cartoonist I spoke with said the credit card button did not appear in his browser.) And even when I clicked the button to pay by credit card, I encountered a popup informing me that I could not pay by invoice, instructing me instead to submit an email request. Had I not clicked through the popup, I would not have reached the payment screen.

Several cartoonists I spoke with described their years of bafflement at the website’s clumsy user experience. “It simply didn’t work,” said cartoonist Alex Gregory. “The screen would split, things would just not come up, you would get error messages. It wasn’t just that it did less; it didn’t even do what it was purported to do at all. You would do searches that just turn up nothing. Presumably they had to pay someone to render this shitty service. Why?”

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