Warmoth on Webcomics: Jonathan Rosenberg

Posted by – January 17, 2009

[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of some of my favorite webcomics creator interviews that previously ran on WizardUniverse.com and were a part of the site’s archives that are no longer hosted there. Jon Rosenberg’s Goats is one of those webcomics that could really have only been born in webcomics. He’s also one of my favorite individual creators in the webcomic world. Hearing that the strip is getting released in 2009 in a series of print volumes from Del Rey made me really happy. This interview was originally posted on September 25, 2006.]

Jonathan Rosenberg’s webcomic Goats has been raking in the hits since he first launched it 1997. Nine years later, the creator is making a living off of his surreal fantasy strips that shift settings and characters as often as he pleases and long ago dumped his daily journal format for outer space, demonic chickens and extra-dimensional exploits.

BRIAN WARMOTH: Goats started off as an autobiographical strip and morphed into something else all together. What changed along the way, and why did you change creative gears so drastically?

JONATHAN ROSENBERG: One of the things I hate about newspaper comics today is how static they are, how unmoving the styles and characters and plots can be. An audience can tell when an artist is uninterested in their work, when they’re phoning it in. So you’ve got to keep the work interesting, keep creating fresh challenges for yourself. If you’re not learning and growing then it becomes this repetitive, pointless exercise. After ten years I’ve found a way to integrate change into the nature of the strip, so that it becomes a part of how the strip functions. These characters have a literally unlimited universe to play in and/or kill each other. Anything can happen. It’s always new for me, so I’m having fun with it, and I hope that makes it more fun for a reader as well.

This isn’t the sort of thing that would fly in a traditional newspaper environment, but as an independent artist I don’t need to appeal to the same aunts-and-uncles demographic that a newspaper does. Aunts and uncles always want to see the same thing on their comics pages. They feel safe from Soviet attacks when they see good ol’ Dagwood eating one of his large sandwiches. They love consistency above all.

My life is far too boring for me to take the sort of interest in it that a daily comic strip would require. It would mostly be a strip about me running out of breakfast cereal. I prefer fictional autobiographies to the real ones.

Which is, of course, why my next project is going to be a journal comic called Team Force Alpha.

What’s the publishing history of Goats, and how did you eventually end up under Dumbrella?

ROSENBERG: First, if you’ll forgive me a small correction, one is not “under” Dumbrella, one is “in” Dumbrella. Dumbrella is not a dominatrix, it does not require submission.
Goats started in April of 1997 as one of the first regularly publishing webcomics; there were about a half-dozen others at the time that I’m aware of. It’s been going pretty steadily for the last nine and a half years. In that time I’ve published three print collections, two minicomics, and a little under 2000 web strips.

Joining Dumbrella was a pretty natural step, I was good friends with original members Jeff Rowland (www.overcompansating.com), R Stevens (www.dieselsweeties.com) and John Allison (www.scarygoround.com) around the time of my first Comic-Con. I had gotten a table in the Small Press area and asked them if they were interested in squatting with me; they, in turn, invited me to join the group.

It’s a pretty unique thing, I think, to have that sort of a decentralized, anarchic group of artists who pitch in to give each other a hand when they need to but still give each other the space to do things their own way. You’ve got six or seven guys all coming up with their own ideas, experimenting, sharing, supporting each other. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of value out of being in Dumbrella.

What professional title do you prefer: webcomicker, webcomics artist, creator or what’s the standard these days? Or is there one?

ROSENBERG: When people ask me what I do, I tell them I draw comics. Titles are a pretty silly thing, I don’t know if there is a standard but I’m sure it is a topic of heated debate on some message board somewhere.

The people who concern themselves with those sorts of things, I find, would do better to focus on their comics.

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Did you have any clue when you first started Goats that it might one day turn into something you could make a living off of?

ROSENBERG: I had an inkling, but responsible thinking didn’t allow me to dwell much on the possibility. Luckily, I enjoyed it enough to keep it up for long enough to build an audience large enough to allow me to work on the strip full-time.

Doing a webcomic full-time is sort of like when Wile E. Coyote is hovering miles above a canyon floor with no visible support–it’s best not to examine the situation too closely.

What’s the average weekday like for you?

ROSENBERG: Oh, it’s thrilling. Here’s a sample schedule:

7:00am Wake Up
7:10am Email
7:45am Web
10:00am Write
11:30am Draw
1:30pm Eat
2:30pm Draw
2:45pm Web
4:00pm Draw
5:00pm Procrastinate
5:30pm Draw
6:30pm Color
8:00pm Feed Cats
8:15pm Eat
8:30pm TV
10:00pm Cat Poop Removal Engineering Strike Force Activity: Operation
Freedom Litter
10:15pm Pre-Bedtime Reading
12:00am Silent Cry Into My Pillow
1:15am Sleep

Some days I spend an hour eating candy in an effort to improve my mood but it almost never works.
Your stories often have several levels of awareness and commentary going on with the characters as far as jokes about the story rather than from within the story.

Do you usually write strips in one pass, or do you ever insert jokes like these yourself upon re-reading the stories you lay out?

ROSENBERG: I may punch up a strip at any point of the process. Doing the lettering digitally at the very end gives me a chance to make tweaks that improve the flow of dialogue or change phrasing that I later find awkward or unfunny.

But the basic concept for a strip, or a story (or at least a chunk of story) comes in one pass, generally without structural change. Unless there’s something seriously wrong, and the thing isn’t working at all. In that case I chuck the script I’m working on and start from scratch.

As far as the subtle self-awareness goes, I think there’s a point at which you have to give intelligent characters the ability to recognize the absurdity of the situation they’re in. To ignore it would render them unbelievable. It’s just another way to take advantage of the humor inherent in a story constructed mostly of borrowed sci-fi cliches.

Do you always plan out your storyarcs in advance? Or how does your process of plotting and scripting usually work?

ROSENBERG: I have a general feel for the direction of the overarching story and some of the individual story arcs, but I like to keep things loose so I can work in bits of sudden inspiration. If it was rigorously defined at the beginning, I think writing the strip would get pretty boring for me in a hurry. Allowing for change keeps the strip fresh, unpredictable and topical.

What are your favorite comics and/or comic books historically, and what do you keep up with now?

ROSENBERG: I used to read a lot of DC books back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but most of my influences come from the newspapers. I’m a huge Bloom County fan, just about everything I do is ripped off directly from Berke Breathed. It was pretty hard to grow up in the ‘80s without being inundated with Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side as well.

These days I mostly read webcomics, I love all of the Dumbrella titles as well as a lot of the ones on Blank Label Comics and Dayfree Press. The ones I hit every chance I get are Penny Arcade, Cat and Girl, Dinosaur Comics, Achewood, Starslip Crisis and PvP.

What’s the biggest change you see happening with how people read and publish webcomics now?

ROSENBERG: I think the shift away from subscription models, toward open, free formats like RSS, shows that people are finally getting over their biases about giving away the material. A lot of people feel that you’re not really a comics artist if you don’t charge people for your comics for some reason. At the same time, it’s an undeniable fact that you’re going to have a larger audience if you remove the barriers between the reader and your work. The web makes that possible, it’d be silly to squander that advantage, and it’d be doubly silly not to make the work available in as many formats as your audience is interested in viewing your work in.

I think you’re also going to see a lot more old-school media companies discovering webcomics and realizing that this is where the talent and innovation is coming from for the foreseeable future. They’re going to be mining the bigger properties for book deals, movie deals, TV deals, video game deals, that sort of thing. I can think of half a dozen webcomics folk off the top of my head that either have cushy deals in place or are currently in negotiations with big publishers and syndicates.

Is there any specific place on the Internet in its history that Goats got linked to or referenced that really provided a deluge of traffic or surprised you out of the blue with hits?

ROSENBERG: Yahoo! linked Goats as one of its “Cool Sites of the Day” after it had been running for a week or so; traffic went from 100 visitors to 900 visitors the following day. It doesn’t seem like much of a deluge compared with the sort of audience Goats has now, but it was pretty damned exciting at the time.

I’ve gotten some nice links from webcomics heavy-hitters… but most of the audience growth I’ve seen has been built slowly and organically over time, through word-of-mouth.

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