Five Years: A Mantis-Eye Retrospective
In late 2004 I was in my final semester of college. It was a spare ninth semester I had enrolled in mainly to retake a course I had previously failed. Everything I took were from two years prior, so compared to what I had gone through the past year they were all pretty easy. The number of credit hours were also far lower than any other semester, so it goes without saying that I had a decent amount of free time.
As with many college students I enjoyed watching Adult Swim from time to time. At that point my sleep schedule was so utterly wrecked that I was in a habit of staying up until 4 or 5 in the morning every day, and Adult Swim was usually the only thing that I cared to keep on while I did assignments or goofed off (being a computer science major I was on my PC a lot, for better or worse).
You're fucking up the branding, does this look like Helvetica to you?!
I don't precisely recall the first episode of Venture Bros. I watched, but I believe it was Mid-life Chrysalis. I enjoyed it and later on I happened to catch Tag Sale, You're It! and I decided I needed to learn more about this show. After a bit of searching I learned that it was a brand new show but I couldn't find any other info. Whereas my other favorite series' (especially animated series) such as The Simpsons, Futurama and even Invader Zim had fairly comprehensive fan sites providing news and information, The Venture Bros. did not. I decided that maybe this time I should be the guy to make that page, and thus the Mantis-Eye Experiment was born.
Since I'm not a crazy dictator I didn't actually document anything as far as when I started on the site or how I came up with the name, so most of this is recalled from memory. At the time I didn't know any web programming, so the original site was static files and lacked a CMS or any sort of real functionality. I just came up with a simple design, a name for the site, and a goal.
My main inspiration for the site was The Simpsons Archive, which hosts a comprehensive set of Simpsons episode guides. The capsules here were initially going to be modeled after the ones on that site but I ended up simplifying it to be a capsule followed by episode notes rather than separate sections for things like callbacks and animation goofs (the latter of which I generally didn't want to point out).
As far as the name of the site goes, I couldn't even tell you how I came up with it. However the name purposely exists as a non-reference to the show. Since most TV show fan sites tend to place the name of the show or an object from the show in their title I decided to go against that and make up something entirely new while still attempting to fit in with the feel of the show. I certainly succeeded on the first point and hopefully the second as well. So there, if you were ever wondering what 'The Mantis-Eye Experiment' means or refers to, the answer is 'nothing'.
With all of that in place I built a fairly simple site. It had episode capsules, news on the front page and a few other random sections like 'links' and 'characters'. I honestly had no plans beyond providing info on the show and getting together the first set of capsules, which is why the list of episodes kind of floats off to the sides in the original design. Here's what it looked like (click to enlarge):
After finishing up the capsules for season one and getting hosting from my like-named friend Mike (who still graciously hosts the site to this very day), I was on my way to fortune and fame. On December 7th of 2004 I launched the Mantis-Eye Experiment, telling various Venture Bros. fans (of which there weren't many at the time) on a few forums. Perhaps this new site was not destined to live for very long though. You'll notice that the launch actually happened after season one had already ended. The only new Venture Bros. content planned was the Christmas special to air in two weeks and beyond that it was anyone's guess.
Waiting to Exhale
I don't know how well anyone remembers, but the wait between season one and two was nearly two years. There was basically darkness as far as news on the show went. During this time I learned PHP and built a proper site. I took submissions from other fans who could add notes to each episode. I even revised the site to allow people to sign up for an account so they could post comments. I made the site themeable and let users pick their design from a pool (I even allowed for submissions, though I never got any). Here's a snapshot of that version:
Comments and user accounts weren't overly popular, but then again the site was still pretty small-time, a not unexpected occurrence since not very many people knew about the show at all. Later on we would all learn that the show was actually extremely close to being canceled after its initial run due to poor ratings. The second run of that first season coupled with fan outcry is what saved it.
On January 25, 2005 I broke my greatest story, or at least the first one that established the site in a major way. A fan of the show had attended a conference with Ed Murrieta, the creative director at Cartoon Network. Apparently during the conference Murrieta was questioned as to the status of the Venture Bros. to which he replied that the show was being renewed. So this fan emailed me about it and the internet (or at least the Venture Bros. segment of it) exploded. At this point it became clear that the show's renewal was all but a done deal, but there was still a lot of teeth gnashing until two months later when the official announcement was made.
The Second Coming
At the end of May the season one DVD was to be released, and in anticipation I redesigned the site entirely, not only the look, but I also rewrote all the content management tools (since the originals were pretty terrible). User accounts went away in favor of the comment system we all know and love today. The site also gained a bit more personality though the limitations of my design abilities are still apparent. Here's a shot of that:
Season two started airing in June 2006 to much fanfare. Since this was the first time new episodes were airing at the same time the site was live I decided to start discussion threads. It was done entirely on a whim, and was simply a place where people could write whatever they wanted about the episode. I expected it to just kind of sputter but the Powerless in the Face of Death Discussion ended up getting 80 comments, which was pretty unusual at the time since most articles were lucky to get 10 comments. I continued that practice throughout the season and each discussion ended up with anywhere from 60 to 116 comments. The final two episodes of the season (Showdown at Cremation Creek I and II) ended up being the most successful, sparking 167 and 209 comments, respectively.
The Changing of the Seasons
Almost as quickly as it had started season two ended and we were once again left in an all too familiar lurch. What's the status of season three? Will the show be renewed? It was perhaps less of a wild card this time, with the reassuring message in the end credits and Adult Swim's semi-informal announcement a month later.
Early in 2007 Jackson announced that they had begun pre-production on season three and it was slated for a spring 2008 release which meant another excruciating near-two-year wait between seasons. However the first year of that wasn't filled with uncertain mystery, so that at least took the edge off. Not only that but season four had been approved to go along with season three. What madness was this?! Not only that but we also had the season two DVD to look forward to in the interim!
The DVD was released in mid-May and another giveaway followed. In late July of 2007 the site got its next makeover. The new design was built to present as much information as possible with capsules, the poll, links, the schedule and even recent comments all being displayed on the sides of every page. It was the biggest overhaul the site had gotten in a while. It also got its first real domain name, mantiseye.com (changed from the original venture.mancubus.net). Next stop, success! Here's a shot of that site:
For those curious the site design is largely inspired by Shacknews, a site I've been visiting for a number of years.
The rest of 2007 passed without much to talk about. Random news about season three's production here and there, but not much else. We were onto bigger and better things in 2008 though.
2008 started off slowly but the build up to the late-May season three premiere (actually it was June 1st if you don't count the online video) was fairly epic. We had lots of production news. A rough cut of the first half of The Doctor is Sin was played on AS as a strange kind of April Fool's gag and showed what promise the upcoming season had. I went to NY Comic-Con and saw a preview of season three and got to listen to people ask Jackson, Doc, James and Mike ridiculous questions. During that time I signed up for Twitter so I could make live updates about Comic-Con, though it mostly went unused for a while after that. Oh, and then season three aired! Discussion threads made their triumphant return! They started off a little slow but picked up so that by the end of the season we had a couple good ones with over 200 comments.
Then, as often happens, the season ended. However this time there was no sadness about a show's future being up in the air. In a complete reversal from season one, season three ended with season four already in pre-production. News of the season three Blu-Ray to go along with the DVD release was much appreciated by Playstation 3 owners around the world. The soundtrack was also released and was one of the first non-DVD and non-tshirt bits of Venture Bros. merchandise since the show's conception. This was very much a great time to be a Venture Bros. fan.
In celebration of all this, plus being sick of the design that was now two years old I changed the site into what you see before you today. Slick and full of rounded edges and fancy fade ins and outs, it's by far the most complex and best looking version of the site (in my humble opinion anyway).
The current design was actually at least a year in the making. I started to get sick of the old design after a while so and I began to formulate a new one. The first one I came up with was similar but slightly condensed and with a few minor layout changes to accommodate the new things I had wedged into the old design. However I was never overly happy with that version and around this time a friend of mine who is a web designer approached me with the beginnings of a design he was working on. Naturally he was much better at it than I was, so I decided to wait and see what else he could come up with.
Sadly my friend is a busy guy, so he couldn't devote too much time building a design free of charge. I took what he had shown me and restarted my current effort. The results weren't overly impressive and while it was an improvement over what I had already come up with I was never satisfied with how it looked.
So the final stage in all this is the current design, which I built from scratch. The logo area is based on what my friend created, though I built it from scratch myself but the idea is certainly his. The rest of the layout is my own, though obviously based on the previous one. The top of the site was built to present the latest information about the show at a glance, showing headlines, the schedule and latest capsules. Overall I'm pretty happy with it and I look forward to changing it again in a year or two.
Five Years and Beyond
Getting back to show news, we also found up about season four being smashed in two. Rather than one set of thirteen episodes it became two sets of eight episodes, with the first set starting in October 2009, a scant year and change since the last episode of season three had aired.
For the current season the discussion threads have come back and are stronger than they've ever been. In the capsules I've been providing HD screenshots and I reworked the quotes to be a bit more readable. All in all it's been going well so far, and hopefully success continues into the second half of the season.
A pretty hearty thank you goes out to all the people who have read the site over the past five years. Everyone who has ever posted a comment or sent in some news or episode info; you guys are pretty much the best. Even if you've only visited a few times and read a news update or capsule, you're still pretty awesome. Also enough can't be said about the great guys and gals who toil endlessly to bring us the show. Thankfully they make a super high-quality, funny and very watchable series because there's no other way I could have devoted so much time to it otherwise. If any of you are reading this, keep up the awesome work!
So that brings us to the end of our retrospective. I hope you've enjoyed it. I appreciate the fact that you've made it this far, or at the very least skipped around and ended up here. I've got grander plans for this five year celebration thing, but this is just the sort of lame opener. Stick around!