Jonathan Rosenberg has been writing and drawing "Goats" since 1997, which in terms of the internet and webcomics qualifies as a very long time ago.
What the author describes as the story of ordinary people with horrifying pets in unusual situations and what happens when you find out your universe is artificial and you've only got a few years left before it crashes, "Goats" has never remained static. There is no status quo, and since the strip was rebooted it's only become stranger and funnier. What used to be an outlandish and geeky tale of guys in New York City became an increasingly over-the-top science fiction tale. Rosenberg never lost his interest in skewering just about everyone and everything from William Shatner to Republicans to Democrats to religion, but now it's part of something much larger and stranger and more ambitious.
"Goats: The Infinite Typewriters" has just been released from Del Rey books, the first of three volumes scheduled to be released over the next year, and Rosenberg took some time out to talk to CBR News about the new collection.
CBR: Why is your strip called "Goats?"
JONATHAN ROSENBERG: "Goats" is an acronym which, when decrypted, spells out clues to how the strip will end in December of 2012. You'll need a cell phone and a good GPS loaded with maps for the US and Mexico.
Two of the main characters are Jon and Philip. How much of you is Jon?
Jon is a slice of me. Most of the characters are different two-dimensional slices of me. Jon is probably the closest but he's still fairly two-dimensional. I like to think that maybe he's the me that might have been had I never figured out that drawing comics is better than working. Or maybe he's the me from the next level of existence over.
At what point were you conscious of the strip really evolving and changing into something other than what you were originally doing?
In 2003 I had been doing the strip for about six years and I was already getting bored with it. The same boring beer gags, week after week. The same safe resets at the end of every storyline. I was daydreaming about the next project and spinning my wheels with Goats.
I came up with this idea for a story about interdimensional janitors, a team of characters that jumped from world to world-fixing physics problems, like "Time Bandits" meets "Damage Control." And then I realized that the idea mapped pretty well onto my existing characters, which made the whole process much easier. It's heartbreaking to ditch an existing reader base, you never know who's going to stick around for whatever's next.
The new "Infinite Typewriters" book contains a two-year story arc I wrote to transition over to the new format. By the time it was done, everything about the strip had been burnt to the ground and rebuilt without any angry emails from readers, which is a fairly good way to numerically gauge the success of a given storyline. I think the slow approach helped acclimate folks to the new pace and rhythm of things.
You've been self-publishing books for a while now, what made you go with Random House?
Self-publishing is wonderful, and it's not a model I've written off by any means. But I like to tinker with the webcomic business model and when the opportunity to try something a little different presented itself I was excited to give it a go. The Random House folks have been nothing but superb and professional and wonderful to work with, they've done all the heavy lifting and printing and publicity and distribution to stores. I want to make comics as much of the time as I can so not having to deal with a lot of that is nice.
For people who have your other books, what does "Infinite Typewriters" include that others didn't? What strips does it include and what new extras are in it?
I've drawn seven pages of introductory material designed to suck you in and catch you up as quickly as possible. That segues into a revamped and improved 16- or 17-page story called "Contains One Space Battle," which sets up a lot of the mythology of the cycle and gives you a good baseline for the main characters. The remainder of the book includes all the "Goats" strips from December 2003 through the end of 2005.
The collection comes with praise from Jerry Holkins, Scott McCloud, Charles Stross, Stewart O'Nan and Lore Sjoberg. How did you get this incredibly talented but very eclectic group of people shilling for your book?
I have no idea! Life has been very strange and kind to me. Stewart was my creative writing teacher in college for two semesters. He taught me the importance of making every sentence count, and his appreciation of my unorthodox writing gave me a tremendous boost of self-esteem. Teachers are important! I doubt I would be working full-time creatively if it weren't for his shiny example.
The other guys I'm lucky enough to see at conventions every now and then, we all end up at the same sort of events looking for tolerable people to drink with. I'm fans of all their work and just happy that they were kind enough and/or susceptible to blackmail enough to put their names to these boldfaced lies on the back of the book.
How important do you think t-shirts and other merchandise have been as far as promoting "Goats" and gaining visibility and making a living as a webcartoonist?
For me, merch has been invaluable. Probably more than 90% of my income comes from sales of shirts, books, action figures, prints and that sort of thing. It helps that I enjoy the merch design as much as I enjoy doing the comic. I loved collecting toys and useless knickknacks as a kid so it's great to have the opportunity to make the stuff as an adult.
I don't know how much the merch has promoted the strip overall, but the "Republicans for Voldemort" stickers and t-shirts have received just as much press attention as the strip itself.
You don't seem to like a status quo. "Goats" is constantly moving and changing, both the storyline but also the look of the strip. Is that indicative of the kinds of stories you enjoy?
I get bored easily, so I try to build change into the fabric of the strip. It keeps things interesting, unpredictable. I end up with a lot of happy accidents that way, I stumble into something good and add it to my bag of tricks.
The last thing I want "Goats" to be is one of those stagnant newspaper strips being drawn by the third artist since the original creator's death, still using that same style guide from 1940, still telling sandwich jokes. So many artists are concerned about consistency! A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, y'know? And you can't grow as an artist if you're always churning out the same crap.
After all this time of writing a pretty continuity-heavy strip, how do you manage to tell stories without getting bogged down in it and alienating people who haven't read every previous strip?
That would be a good trick if I ever managed to figure it out. The best I can do is mitigate those problems, they're sort of inherent to the sort of story "Goats" is. I try to throw in subtle reminders of important earlier plot points right before they're likely to become important in the story again. I also supplement continuity-heavy storylines with news posts, pointing folks towards earlier relevant strips they might want to re-read. And I try to suggest good jumping-on points where people can pick up the story from a more recent date and not miss much without having read the previous strips.
The real answer is that people who are reading "Goats" for the first time should start out by buying the new Del Rey collections, since they're designed specifically to make the whole thing slightly more comprehensible for new folks, if perhaps not altogether clear.
Having said that, as you alluded to earlier, you once destroyed the Earth and rebooted the strip. Why was that a good idea and what do you think made the reboot work?
The strip had been rather silly before the reboot. I like silly, don't get me wrong, but I wanted to take a more serious approach to the silly. I wanted to take the meager amount I had learned from my early efforts and try to do things a better way with a clean slate. Things have been going pretty well since then so I must have done something right.
Do you have a bigger Ã¼berplot in mind for the strip and how far ahead do you plan things out?
I have a loose sense of the major plot points I need to hit in each of the threads but I try and keep the planning of the fine details to a minimum. It keeps things fresh and topical and gives me the flexibility to play with last-minute ideas. It also keeps the writing interesting for me, since I'd get bored if I knew everything in advance.
Do you have an end in mind or are you just going to keep doing this until you're tired of it?
The strip will run for certain until the end of 2012, when the current storyline will resolve in one of three or four different ways I'm toying with. What comes after that is hard to say; I have some ideas for a follow up but the 2012 version of me may have different plans.
The next two books Del Rey is putting out: "The Corndog Imperative" and "Showcase Showdown." When are they coming out and what extras are we going to see in those?
"Corndog Imperative" is hitting shelves on December 1, and "Showcase Showdown" will be out sometime in the spring of 2010. They won't have bonus comics like the first volume but they will have goodies like character bios, new self-portraits, a bit of prose in the form of arguments for each book, and forewords from creative giants Charles Stross and Lore Sjoberg.
What kind of science fiction and fantasy you enjoy? You mentioned "Time Bandits" and Douglas Adams. Anything else?
I'm pretty voracious when it comes to science fiction. I'm always reading something. These days I'm reading a lot of Rudy Rucker, Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, a bunch more that escape me. I've read all the Vonnegut and Asimov and Clarke and Stephenson and Gaiman that I'm supposed to, seen all the Star Whatevers and watched every episode of "Farscape," even the puppet-centric ones. "Fraggle Rock," "Dark Crystal," all those puppets are wicked awesome.
Being at Del Rey alongside, well, it would take too long to mention all the greats they publish, but is it a thrill to be in such company, what with having parodied so many of them?
I'm thrilled but mostly stunned. My parents are thrilled. My in-laws are approaching thrilled but I think I still have some work to do there. When I went to Del Rey for my first meeting we sat in the Douglas Adams room, surrounded by "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Dirk Gently" book covers. Douglas Adams is probably my single biggest literary hero and influence. Sitting in that room was probably the single most surreal experience of my life, and I have seen Jonathan Frakes and Avery Brooks spontaneously belt out drunken showtunes and freeform jazz in a piano bar for two hours straight.
For people who pick up the "Goats" books and check out the website, what's going on in the strip now and what can we look forward to in the near future?
I just wrapped up a storyline where Our Heroes pull a fast one on an interdimensional weapons dealer selling illegal computational weaponry. Next week I think we're going to switch things up and revisit some characters we haven't seen in a while, many of whom are dead and spending eternity in a cocktail lounge in the interstice between levels of existence, and one of whom is an angry broccoli latte artist.