Interview: Jon Rosenberg on ‘Goats’ and the Art of the Reboot
There aren’t many people who have been in the webcomics business longer than Goats creator Jon Rosenberg.
After more than a decade creating comics in the online scene (and doing so as his sole source of income for the last few years), the popular creator has certainly earned "veteran" status — especially by the "here one day, gone the next" standards of Internet fame. In the time that countless other comics have enjoyed celebrated beginnings, mediocre runs and quiet dismissals into digital limbo, Goats has persevered, evolved and gone so far as to develop a rich, complex history that continues to develop to this day.
Yet, as both the series and its creator have grown, so have the elements providing the series’ foundation from the start. Minor and major characters have come into their own and prompted various spin-offs and memes that carve out an even greater niche for the series in webcomic history. Whether experimenting with subscription-based content or new hardware for illustrators, Rosenberg’s longtime readers have been privy to an ongoing experiment with the Internet’s ability to support webcomics. Heck, one might even go so far as to say that the evolution of Goats is a pretty darn good model of the evolution of webcomics as a whole, with many of the trends, pitfalls and successes of the online model represented by different points in the series’ history.
And to think it all began with a couple of guys in a bar.
For this week’s webcomic interview, I spoke with Rosenberg about Goats, his creative process, the art of the relaunch and the big announcement he has planned for Comic-Con International in San Diego next month.
Oh, and we also found some time to talk about beer, too.
COMICMIX: What are you up today, Jon?
JON ROSENBERG: Today was one of those rare non-comicking days where I did a couple hundred small businessy-type tasks. "Taskettes," really. Customer service email, product design, paying bills, that sort of thing. From the sorts of things I’ve heard lately, print cartoonists all have assistants and butlers to do that sort of thing for them since they’re all so rich, but us webcomics folk sometimes have to get our hands dirty.
Lately I’ve been working on banging out as good a story as possible and learning to use my new Cintiq at peak efficiency. Electrons is where it’s at, I’m never going back to ink on paper. Most of my mental bandwidth has been taken up by a large project which I can’t talk about until July, unfortunately.
CMix: Goats really stands apart from other webcomics when it comes to the level of continuity you write into the stories. Many of the arcs run for dozens upon dozens of strips. Can you tell me a bit about why you chose to go with a continuity-laden strip instead of the one-shot architecture used by so many other webcomics?
JR: I think I accidentally stumbled into continuity. I was looking to give the strip a unifying theme that would hold it together beyond beer jokes and random stupidity. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that whatever it was that became that overarching hook would allow me lots of flexibility in the sorts of stories I could tell. So I cobbled together a Goats cosmology from whatever bits of popular science-fiction I had lying around at the time and flung everyone into it.
I didn’t want the switch to be jarring so I worked the transition into the strip’s storyline. That story turned out to be a lot bigger than I had anticipated and by the time the transition to the new format was made, the strip was just as much about maintaining that stream of continuity as it was about bumming around the multiverse.
CMix: Do you worry about turning away new readers because of the heavy continuity?
JR: Only a little. It does figure in to the way I write the strip, I try to reintroduce important concepts every so often and where appropriate, but too much coddling of new readers can slow down the pace of the story.
Sometimes I’ll put up a newspost on the homepage with links to relevant strips in the archive if I think new readers could use a helping hand during a particularly plot-heavy episode.
Ideally if readers are intrigued enough they’ll go back and pick up the story at one of the convenient jumping-on points in the archive. Print collections are definitely in the cards for the future.
CMix: With all of that backstory, what do you tell people who ask what Goats is about?
JR: I tell them it’s either the world’s longest bar joke or the world’s worst livestock-based sci-fi epic.
I don’t really have a standard pitch for Goats. I suppose I should, but I worry that if I gave it a rigid definition it would limit the sorts of things I could do with it. I guess the Hollywood pitch would be a cross between Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Dark Tower and The Matrix but I don’t think that really properly conveys the spirit of the thing.
How would you describe it? I honestly don’t know.
CMix: Way back when, the Peculier Pub in Manhattan was one of the main settings for Goats – and pubs continue to factor into the strip in a big way. What’s the attraction for pubs as the setting for comics?
JR: For me, at least, the attraction of pubs is the drinks that they serve.
All good sci-fi comedies take place in a bar at some point during their narrative.
CMix: You’ve extolled the virtues of good beer at many points throughout Goats. What’s your favorite beer? I’m a fan of Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, myself…
JR: I don’t have a favorite beer, choosing one might make the others angry and I love all of them so.
I have been known to drink a whole lot of IPAs, though.
CMix: Science and scientific terms are a big part of Goats. Do you have a background in science?
JR: Yup! When I was in college I majored in Biology and minored in Neurobiology and Behavior. Every time I use a science term in the strip it makes me feel better about all those student loans I had to pay off.
CMix: You’ve featured a lot of cameos from both mainstream and niche celebrities. What cameo have you enjoyed scripting the most?
JR: Woody Allen "plays" the editor-in-chief of the Multiverse in Goats. It’s been challenging to write for him. Hitler is probably my all-time favorite cameo, though. Nothing is funnier than Hitler. If I thought I could get away with writing Good Hitler vs. Space Hitler stories full-time I would probably do it.
CMix: These days, the Goats cast is spread all around various dimensions. How do you keep track of where everyone is at any given point in the Goats timeline?
JR: It’s not easy. I spend a lot of time dipping back into the archives and refreshing my memory before I start a new leg of the story. Luckily it’s easy enough to cover up holes in plot and continuity with one-liners
if I get something wrong.
CMix: You successfully rebooted the entire webcomic years ago, destroying the Earth and then starting over again. Since rebooting and ret-conning are controversial topics in the print comics scene, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to pull off a successful reboot of an ongoing story. Why did you decide to reboot Goats back in the day?
JR: I think the key to a successful reboot is to make sure that all the material before the reboot is terrible, and that the material after the reboot is not quite as terrible. People don’t complain if a comic gets less terrible.
I’m always uprooting the comic and seeing if it settles into some more interesting configuration. It keeps things from getting stale for the reader and from getting boring for me. The reboot was just another way
to shake things up a bit.
CMix: With Goats as your full-time job, what’s your daily schedule like? Can you tell me a bit about your creative process?
JR: No two days are identical, what with chaos theory and all. But there are patterns. Most days I spend the "morning shift" looking after my tiny baby girl. At around 2 PM, I hand her off to my wife and lock myself in my office until I am inspired to write the script for the next day’s strip. Then I frantically draw on the Cintiq until dinner. After dinner, I go back to drawing and usually finish up around 2am or so. Then I get five glorious hours of sleep, rinse, and repeat.
CMix: You’ve been mentioning on Twitter that you’re involved in some contract discussions and such… Can you elaborate? What’s going on?
JR: They let journalists on Twitter now?
I can’t say anything about the thing that you’re referring to, I have been asked to keep my mouth shut until at least San Diego Comic Con, at which point I am hoping I will be able to say a bit more on the matter.
That said, I have indeed signed a contract recently, and it may or may not have been for the weekly services of a lawn care professional. I simply can’t say at this time.
CMix: What’s next for Goats?
JR: I’m trying to figure out a way to get more lasers in there. I think there’s still some room left.
Jon Rosenberg’s Goats is updated Mon-Thu every week, and can be found at Goats.com. For anyone who wants to get caught up with the series, there is a handy Reader’S Guide available, too. Goats merchandise is available at the Goats Store, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. (I highly recommend the Diablo action figures.) Goats is part of the Dumbrella webcomics collective.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!