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Jon Rosenberg looking beyond “Goats”

Jon Rosenberg, considered one of the more successful webcomics, appears to be creatively frustrated with the webcomic model for his Goats feature. His original plan was to end the feature in 2012, but the economy has made him think about wrapping the feature up earlier and moving on to a new comic with “more economic potential.”

He writes:

Goats is thirteen years old. Since 2003, I’ve been working on a single epic storyline meant to culminate at the end of 2012, at which point Goats would toddle off into the sunset and I would start my next comic. Easy, right?

It is becoming apparent that this approach isn’t viable. While I’m happy with what I’ve done creatively, the webcomics medium rewards quick, easy updates with traffic. Long, continuity-filled stories like Goats that take a long time between updates tend to stagnate, although there are certainly folks more talented than I who can pull off this difficult feat.

None of this is news to me. It’s hard to come to a teenaged webcomic and not get put off by the large archive. And the books do not seem to be mitigating the problem as much as I had hoped, since most folks are trying to buy food and pay rent these days and graphic novels understandably do not provide shelter or many other things at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. As many other problems as Goats has, as many mistakes as I have made, this is the only one that matters right now. Without growth, I’m dead in the water. There’s only so many times I can beg you guys to buy stuff.

If I were single, or younger, or less encrusted in the leakings of children, I would hunker down, buy some ramen and just tough it out. But it’s not fair to my family to ask them to suffer like that, they deserve better. A lot better. So I have to make some changes.

I’m sure there will be some who pile on the “see the webcomic model doesn’t work,” but I don’t find Jon’s situation any different than other creative industries. Most cartoonist, regardless of the medium, will hit plateaus or face declines in viewers at some point in their careers. Thirteen years is a good run. I’m looking forward to whatever Jon does next.

Community Comments

#1 Matt Razzano
@ 9:13 am

I have to agree with the writer of this article that thirteen years is a very good run for just about any media. Mystery Science Theater 3000 didn’t run for that long, and neither did Star Trek in any of it’s incarnations. Honestly, I think the fans are far more interested in seeing whatever comes next than worrying about the format. Just keep writing funny stuff and we’ll keep reading.

#2 Ted Rall
@ 9:22 am

Jon is a talented guy, and I agree that it’s pretty hard for new readers to jump into a continuity strip mid (late) stream.

Pointing to one person’s expression of financial frustration with webcomics is no more representative of the form’s viability than pointing to one successful strip. What matters is looking at the averages.

It’s the averages that don’t look good for webcomics or, to a lesser extent, comics in general.

#3 Tony Piro
@ 9:23 am

I was really sad to hear about this. I think Jon Rosenberg is one of the best writers on the web. Goats is deep and serious and zany and wacky all at the same time. I?ve read both of his first two books, and they are excellent. That said, I don?t normally visit his site; I just buy the books as they come out because the material reads so much better that way. That’s probably very telling.

Although this is just one data point, I think it highlights a discussion that many webcomic creators are having these days. How does one balance the desire to do long form stories with the webcomic business model? Is it more effective to do one long story, or a bunch of shorter stories? Is it better to update in large chunks (like Meredith Gran does with Octopus Pie) or three or more time a week (like Goats and Girl Genius do)?

The nature of the web seems to really favor gag-a-day type strips. They fit the culture of websurfing better, plus they can grow an audience easier through viral word of mouth and social network sites. But it would be nice if a large array of webcomic styles were viable for people trying to make this their career.

I’d enjoy hearing what Kris Straub has to say on this subject since he has experience with both a successful long form comic (Starslip) and gag-a-day comic (chainsawsuit).

#4 August J. Pollak
@ 9:53 am

“I?m sure there will be some who pile on the ?see the webcomic model doesn?t work,? but I don?t find Jon?s situation any different than other creative industries.”

Well, yeah. Or rather, what Ted said. I don’t enjoy the “editorial cartoons are lame and unsuccessful now” argument any more than the “webcomics are lame and unsustainable” argument. They’re both simplistic and lead to pointless fights.

To hear that Goats is facing a sustainability crisis is incredibly disheartening, because it’s hands-down one of the finest webcomics ever made, and the epic storyline is what had me, personally, coming back every time. The problem is, yeah, the economy is in the tank and people aren’t buying things.

I don’t believe that the Goats “model” is in itself unsuccessful. Jon Rosenberg had a heavy continuity but still had marketable characters and a steady influx of merchandise. I’m honestly curious which part of the model is having trouble… low merchandise revenue? Low web ad revenue? Book sales?

#5 August J. Pollak
@ 10:01 am

Adding, one of the other things that really scared/upset me in Jon’s post was his reference to the context of “taking care of his family.” This is something I heard a lot from laid-off staff cartoonists, etc. and it reminded me that this is an issue I’ve always been curious about re self-sustaining cartoonists (print and online): how many are sustaining families while doing this?

As an approaching-30-something, I’m becoming far more aware of the HUGE financial difference between being one of four roommates in a group house and planning for the hopefully near-future chance of having to own a house to raise a child in, etc.

It’s something I’m dealing with myself in real life, and Jeph Jaques actually made an interesting reference to this in a recent QC, about the conflict over wanting to do something better career-wise and not being able to just get an internship or volunteer, etc. because you still need to make money to pay the rent.

Or in simpler terms, maybe this is a panel topic from Jon’s own post: “what do you do when you can’t just buy some ramen and just tough it out?”

#6 Ted Rall
@ 11:46 am

@August: “Or in simpler terms, maybe this is a panel topic from Jon?s own post: ?what do you do when you can?t just buy some ramen and just tough it out??”

Well, this is a question I’ve asked in countless web v. print threads. I’ve never read an answer, much less a satisfactory one.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe webcomics will be sustained and revitalized by new generations of 20somethings, who will then grow up and burn out, only to be replaced.

But it does matter if webcomics are the only comics, and print goes away. Because then there will never be experienced cartoonists like me, who need 15-20 years of practice to start to not totally suck, not to mention have real life experiences to draw upon. What if Schulz had had to quit when the crystal in his palm turned black?

#7 August J. Pollak
@ 12:17 pm

Maybe it doesn?t matter, maybe webcomics will be sustained and revitalized by new generations of 20somethings, who will then grow up and burn out, only to be replaced.

Again, I think this is descending into the really bad over-generalizing realm. Especially in the context of Rosenberg, who in absolutely no way can you say has “burned out.” In fact he’s the exact opposite. Burnout is what I would ascribe to someone who has clearly run out of steam and is merely going through the motions for the sake of a paycheck or some other motivation. Goats is the inverse- it’s something that keeps improving and broadens the artist’s range despite, as we are just now being informed, not maintaining financial viability. And that’s a damn shame, because I don’t think ANYTHING is going to replace Goats.

On a broader note, is there really a massive “burnout” rate for successful webcartoonists? I can only think of PBF off the top of my head. I don’t feel like it’s any more or less than print cartoonists.

#8 Steve Skelton
@ 12:56 pm

Imagine being a syndicated cartoonist with a ten year contract and you are only in 14 newspapers. This is actually far more common than most would like to think. And that is how burnout happens, working hard on something yet needing to earn money to pay bills so you have to work another job or two. I know in the case of my comic strip, I work 30 hours or so a week on it, and I make less than one dollar an hour. Subsequently, I work a full time job and freelance in addition to the strip and I can tell you……..I am burning out. And the sad part for me, is my work has never been better, I feel, but it doesn’t always translate into financial gain.

#9 Ted Rall
@ 1:10 pm

Bad choice of words–I didn’t mean “burn out,” as in going through the motions artistically, but rather getting tired of working hard for not enough money. I am sure Jon will do something new and even better.

For the zillionth time, PBF was not a webcartoon. Why do people think it was? It. Was. An. Altweekly. Strip. With a website also.

#10 Keith Brown
@ 1:16 pm

Ever notice how people “love your work” or “you are so talented”…..until it comes time to get paid for it. Like many of you, when I add up my time I make far below minimum wage. It does get depressing

#11 August J. Pollak
@ 1:20 pm

PBF was not a webcartoon. Why do people think it was?

Well I’m called a webcartoonist too. I blame the title of Attitude 3. :)

#12 Mark_Tatulli
@ 2:01 pm

People think PBF was a webcomic because that is how it became popular…it was spread virally via email and such.

#13 Ted Rall
@ 3:13 pm

All those ATTITUDE books were edited by some total moron and should be discarded.

#14 Jonathan Rosenberg
@ 3:25 pm

“Well, this is a question I?ve asked in countless web v. print threads. I?ve never read an answer, much less a satisfactory one.”

I’ll be answering this question in a month or two, hopefully. The basic answer is that you take your experience and you put it to use and you start something new that works where the old idea failed. Simple! Rinse and repeat until you rule the world.

“Because then there will never be experienced cartoonists like me, who need 15-20 years of practice to start to not totally suck, not to mention have real life experiences to draw upon. What if Schulz had had to quit when the crystal in his palm turned black?”

I know my 13 years of experience falls conveniently outside of the range you’ve chosen but I think you’ve drawn an absolutely ridiculous conclusion here. I’d pick apart this paragraph but really, where to start? I have too much to do.

#15 Dave Stephens
@ 4:14 pm

Ted probably starts each day with 10 ridiculous conclusions and works his way up from there… LOL

Poor Ted Rall, just listen to him squall,
And he wants that shiny ball that the Web Kids have…

He watches lots of news and he’s always so amused
Of how stupid and confused people always are…

At least compared to him – he’s a maestro with a pen,
With rhetorical ripostes on par with Kant and Proust,
And what he knows is quite beyond our ken…

#16 DJ Coffman
@ 4:40 pm

Beyond having a great long running webcomic, Jon is just a fantastically amazing cartoonist with a style all his own. I’d love to see him spread his wings and start dipping into pitching animated shows and I’m sure he could find some side cartooning or spot illustration work that pays more than his webcomic does and still have time to do his stories as he pleases. I want Jon Rosenberg flavored greeting cards and giftery.

I cringe at the next thought… But it might also be great to perdue getting a product in hot topic or spencers gifts. I know of a couple artists who did just that and those accounts pretty much pay all of their bills every month and then some.

#17 Scott Metzger
@ 4:45 pm

?you take your experience and you put it to use and you start something new that works where the old idea failed. Simple! Rinse and repeat until you rule the world.”

Great answer ? and that applies to pretty much any creative endeavor.

#18 B. Root
@ 7:13 pm

The problem with using averages as a metric for web vs. print is it necessarily leaves out all of the cartoonists for whom print is their intended destination but haven’t yet been syndicated, or landed an agent or publisher, or what have you. There’s no metric for tracking them, you can only sample from the cartoonists who’ve already arrived, whereas on the web the whole gamut is visible.

I’m sure that the ratios for success on print vs. web are very close to parity; the only real difference between the two is that on the web, you have to impress each and every single reader if you want to hang on to an audience, and in print, all you have to do is impress an editor or art director.

#19 Moongu Kang
@ 9:05 pm

I have read all of the Goats strips so far. Around twice, actually.
I like the comic, and I don’t want it to die. However, the new stories are pretty terrible, too hard to keep up with, and really not very funny.
The ones around 2003 were the best, where his art style improved and the stories were still believable.
I don’t want it to happen, but I think it’s about time that this comic series ends.

#20 Howard Tayler
@ 10:56 pm

I think Jon’s issue is less specific to webcomics and more specific to creator-owned IP. I have a lot of genre-fiction author friends (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) and while most of them do well for themselves, most of them also take care to have more than one money-making series in print at any given time.

I don’t know the details behind Jon’s recent posts, but I suspect it has more to do with Goats not growing enough than with Goats failing to feed him. If it had grown enough, he could end it in 2012 and coast on residuals while coming up with whatever he wants to do next. Without the coasting time he has to scramble.

Schlock Mercenary is doing wonderfully for me right now, but for all the revenue streams Sandra and I have developed, they still all flow from the same comic. That’s not good financial planning. We’re looking at developing completely different things (some comics, some not) in order to further diversify. If there is a lesson for me in Jon’s recent posts, it’s that I should be scrambling NOW, while there’s money in the bank, rather than later when there might not be.

#21 David McGuire
@ 4:12 am

The thing is Jon Rosenberg is more of a print cartoonist than a lot of syndicated cartoonists. He’s currently got 3 books out and has had several other book collections out in the past. A lot of syndicated cartoonists don’t have /any/ books out, but every syndicated cartoonist is published on the web for free.

So bringing up “web versus print” is just silly.

#22 Jonathan Rosenberg
@ 7:49 am

Howard, that’s precisely why I’m changing things up now. If I waited until I was in real trouble I’d probably not have the flexibility to try again. I like to think of this as a controlled burn.

#23 Stephanie McMillan
@ 7:52 am

Best of luck in whatever you do next, Jon.

#24 Howard Tayler
@ 8:10 am

Further evidence that Jon Rosenberg is not only smarter than I am, he’s smarter than I imagine him to be.

#25 Tom Wood
@ 8:12 am

Although many media companies dislike the burden of converting their content to play on Apple devices, many are doing so because the paid app is looking like the best hope to convince people that they should pay for content. Other than animation (Mark Fiore) the long form comic looks like the best candidate for an app because it can be released in large enough chunks to justify the cost of the app to the consumer.

But all the comics I’ve seen are still stuck on a layout that works best on the printed page, rather than a small hand-held screen. Which makes sense if the webcomic is really just an ad for the printed versions and other merchandise. But to really succeed AS a webcomic, it seems to me that it should be formatted to work on the web.

Why aren’t more people trying Yves Bigerel’s approach?

(Be sure to click through the all black frames near the start, it’s a bit confusing.)

The downside being that all the panels have to be the same size, which will be boring in print.

#26 Ted Rall
@ 8:20 am

Not crazy about Yves’ thing. Seems to me like low-rent animation. Why should I, the reader, do all that (clicking) work?

#27 Jonathan Rosenberg
@ 8:25 am

Oh, and thanks for all the kind words, everyone, the support of so many people I admire is really kind of mindblowing. I will try hard to make my next comic as fun as possible for you!

#28 Tom Wood
@ 8:26 am

How else would you get dozens (hundreds?) of panels on a single small screen? Scrolling?

#29 Howard Tayler
@ 8:39 am

Yves’ thing would have been more compelling had it been telling a story instead of delivering commentary. For all that, though, it was very well done. I loved the discussion of time compression, and the slowly swung hammer.

Ted, you’re not supposed to be clicking. You’re supposed to be using the arrow keys. C’mon, get with the 21st-century web. We can totally use the keyboard AND the mouse now. ;-)

#30 Tom Wood
@ 9:22 am

I’m not saying that the content in Yves’ cartoon is the greatest. It’s the format. It’s a workable format for handheld devices.

#31 Ted Rall
@ 9:26 am

I guess I’d rather just see full-fledged animation.

#32 Tom Wood
@ 10:11 am

Well, yeah, so would everybody. But that’s a LOT more work as you know. If you just want to tell a story with panels, this is a presentation method that works on small handheld devices.

#33 Ted Rall
@ 10:28 am

The question is, will people bother with the effort involved? Maybe, if the story is AWESOME. But most stories are less than awesome.

#34 Dave Stephens
@ 11:52 am

Ted, your Red Herring is showing…

“Will people bother with the EFFORT involved.” Effort? A click?

Did you pull a muscle? ;)

#35 Tom Wood
@ 12:42 pm

The need to click isn’t a bug, it’s an interactive feature!

Take that to the next level and hide the advance buttons in different parts of each cartoon panel so you have to go searching for it. Then add a slipcover on the device so it electrocutes you if you push the wrong button. Lots of ways to make getting through the story interactive.

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