The webcomics blog about webcomics

Dammit

Editor’s note: This post is largely going to concern the economic well-being of Jon Rosenberg; long-time readers may recall that Jon was the first publisher of Fleen, and largely the driving force in me writing this damn thing for the going-on-five-years since. You can insert any necessary disclaimers about conflict of interest into this piece that you feel necessary.

It sounded serious on Twitter the other day:

I have just completely wasted thirteen years of my life.

… but then again, we’re talking about Jon; he’s been known to exaggerate his woes on occasion. But as the followup has shown, this isn’t a moment of artistic doubt — this is a wholesale re-evaluation of … life, I guess. After being part of the defining generation of webcomics, after just about creating the two guys sitting on a couch genre, after providing countless hours of free entertainment and thousands of updates (which, contrary to his own self-interest, have become increasingly artistically, narratively, and philosophically complex), Jon’s toying with the conclusion that the creation that expresses him best isn’t sustainable:

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.

The bright spot in Jon’s missive is what he didn’t say — he’s not giving up comics or creative work, he’s not going to get a job selling insurance for this wife’s uncle’s cousin or anything like that. He is going to be looking at what things he can make that will appeal in a more immediate, less attention-requiring, and financially remunerative form. As much as I would love to think that there’s a place for long, complex stories that demand attention from the reader, Jon doesn’t owe me that in my free entertainment; nevertheless, he’s said that he’s not dropping Goats where it stands.

There will be a wrap-up to the (as of today) six years, five months, and three days long storyline that those of us in his (too small to satisfy his publisher, alas) cult have invested in. It won’t feature the original depth and breadth that he conceived, but maybe after he’s become the next JJ Abrams and conquered all forms of media, he’ll have time to go back and release the director’s cut of his first magnum opus and we’ll get to read it then. I hope so — he deserves that closure.

And as much as a final groundswell of sales might not change any decisions based on balance sheets and long-term exploitation possibilities, if you’ve ever chuckled at Jon’s work, I think getting a book or two would be a nice thank you for a story that he’s fought to give to us in exchange for meager and shrinking rewards.

Thanks for the stories, Jon. I can’t wait to see what the next one is like.

Am I the only one that sees this as kind of a normal progression for webcartoonists? We were all pioneers of one medium and once we do everything we can in it and still can’t pay the bills, there have to be more frontiers to conquer.

Just don’t make any puppet films, Jon.

Tom Siddell still has to work a day job as well and it just blows my mind. Is it really impossible for longform webcomics to make enough to support their creators?

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nina Lords. Nina Lords said: Editor’s note: This post is largely going to concern the economic well-being of Jon Rosenberg; long-time readers m… http://bit.ly/a7XAb7 [...]

I used to be a regular reader of Goats, and I’ve tried to get back into it several times. But every time I’ve tried, I’ve been thwarted by an overcomplicated plot that is (literally? I have no idea) in another dimension from its “two guys on a couch” beginning. The art is vastly improved, the writing might be as well (I’m not sure), but I don’t really care, because the comic just doesn’t make any sense to me and isn’t worth the effort it would take to get back into it.

I wonder if it’s a major flaw in the medium. Goats, as Jon’s major source of income (?), can’t become too different too quickly if it wants to retain its readership. Especially since Jon doesn’t have a publisher willing to carry him until he finds his legs again. But Jon wants to stretch himself narratively and chooses to do so within his established comic. So the comic changes little-by-little, eventually becoming radically different. Along the way thousands (?) of potential and former readers are turned away by a plot that is increasingly prohibitively complicated.

What would happen without all of that pressure to build something? If he allowed himself to start over and tell stories without worrying about maintaining a daily audience? The way it is now, narrative choices made years ago come to define the comic until 2012. But what about the narrative choices made in the beginning? That was an entirely different comic. It seems to me that something is lost when new story elements are just continuously grafted onto a body that doesn’t necessarily want them. The comics that are successful know what they are and don’t try to overstep those bounds. I don’t just mean Penny Arcade, PvP, or xkcd. The Abominable Charles Christopher, many Activate comics, Octopus Pie, Dash Shaw’s Body World, Achewood, and others, are all representative of the kinds of long stories you can tell in the webcomics medium simply by… planning a little bit. Being ruthless with yourself. Knowing what you have. I don’t think the Abominable Charles Christopher would be anywhere near as successful if it had started as a gamer comic that just happened to have a Yeti in it who, we later discover, has an epic past or some secret destiny. There is an aspect of play and learning in growing something like Jon has, and it’s obvious he’s grown artistically over Goats’s run. But I think at some point you have to start over and redefine your work. If Goats ends sooner rather than later that might actually help Jon’s development as a cartoonist and bring him closer to achieving success with his next project.

Ok. So, I have every one of the books, both the originals and the new ones. Just ordered the soon to be released third volume. I started reading when there were only, what, 3 or 4 years of archives to dive through.

I love what he’s doing and, at the same time, I do sort of grow weary of the storyline.

Don’t misread me, I like an ongoing, coherent story line/universe, but, there are days where I feel lost… and I’ve been reading it ‘daily’ (or whatever the schedule is now… damn RSS for making me stupid).

I gladly wear my league of pedants shirt. The only reason I haven’t stickered up my netbook is I can’t decide which to use.

But yeah, what I really want to see is what new amazing thing Jon can wow us with.

I think.

I think the right decision would have been to end “Goats” in 2003, then launch “Infinite Typewriters” or whatever as a new comic, featuring a few of the same characters, and structure it in such a way that you never needed to read the original Goats comics to understand the new one. That way, instead of a 13-year-old comic, he’d only have a 7-year-old comic with two left to go. It would seem less daunting to new readers, and there are plenty of longform comics of that age with strong readerships. Basically, what John Allison did with Bobbins, then Scary Go Round, and now Bad Machinery.

As it is, I think by ending it early, he runs the risk of alienating loyal readers who were still hanging around for a show that won’t happen.

I am the problem.

I’ll be up front about that, just so we’re clear. And the problem is this: I am constitutionally incapable of spending money (and when you’re talking multi-volume series, it can be a fair bit of money) on something to which I don’t know the ending. As an example, were I eligible to vote for the Hugos, I would vote for Girl Genius over Schlock Mercenary; on the other hand, I own Schlock and not GG. A serial has a definite ending at the end of each arc, and enough catharsis to make it a worthwhile purchase, even if the quality diminishes for the next volume. Long form works just build tension, and if the next volume doesn’t fulfill that it’s terribly unsatisfying. Since you can’t know what the future holds, that means long form works lose out.

I’ve been bitten by it too many times, which is why I subscribe to the idea that ‘Friends don’t let friends read Robert Jordan’. I know that George RR Martin is not my bitch, but I’m not his either. If he wants to finish the series, then (and only then) I’m quite interested in reading it. Until then there are plenty of other places to spend my money.

In the case of webcomics, I think the medium does really hamper long form works, since we’re conditioned to the page-a-day. I don’t know what the solution to that is, but there will be people here far better qualified than I to discuss that. Until someone figures it out, I think the best we can hope for are labors of love (with credit here to Paul Gadzikowski, who has ‘long form’, ‘brilliant’, and ‘unmarketable’ all nailed.)

tl;dr: I dearly hope that the Foglios make it long enough to satisfactorily conclude their story, and I know that I’m shooting myself in the foot by not helping them along the way. I just don’t see much choice, given limited disposible income. I’m terribly glad that Narbonic ended so well, and I treasure those volumes on my shelf. And best of luck to Jon, Goats really is a marvelous work.

Matthew, that is a super interesting POV. From mine (which may be unreliable as a creator), I feel like the second I kill a project, I kill all the back issues in existence. Not end outright, but let’s say I took six months to wind Starslip up right and print a handsome Book 4 to tie it all with a bow.

To me, only die-hard fans would be interested in the books at that point, because other readers might go “well, what if I really like it, and then it runs out? Forget it.” Like the known ending kills interest, in the same way I don’t really want to go back and watch all of X-Files now, even though it is possible to.

Kris, the ongoing success of Problem Sleuth would suggest that there’s an audience for works that are complete and have a conclusion. There’s something to be said for knowing that whatever you start reading is going to be worth it when you’re done; for my money, Goats never really made that case. I’ve never had friends link me Goats pages and say ‘are you reading this? This is fantastic’ like they have with Homestuck or Gunnerkrigg Court. This suggests to me that the story was too difficult to share. Gunnerkrigg has regular pages only loosely connected to the main storyline that are charming and give a good impression; Homestuck, despite its kudzu plot, has regular conclusions and awesome animations.

An aside: Tom Siddell appears unwilling to make a living off Gunnerkrigg, that boy has a terrible lack of self-confidence and he’s admitted he’s got no business sense. Doing good work, I think, isn’t enough; the Penny Arcade guys would have gone bankrupt years ago if it wasn’t for Robert Khoo.

[...] At Fleen, comments have become a fascinating discussion of how to manage long-running works and whether [...]

Howdy guys! This is a great discussion, a lot of good points and many that I’ve come to independently and will be working to fix in the future.

I just want to be clear that Goats will have a real ending, I do not plan to abandon it or rush it with a handful of strips.

The new strip will be designed in such a way that it will hopefully not suffer from many of the problems Goats has had. With 13 years of experience under my belt, I’m excited to see what I can do now with a clean slate. I’ll be sure to let you guys know when there’s more detail.

I made this comment over at WishTales who discussed Jon’s points, too.

I think the real problem is the internet is made for short attention span theater. The popularity of stumblepon, digg, reddit and all the other thumb it and boost the bouncerate tools just kinda end up being a quick boon to gag-a-day, but are a little trickier for the longforms to reign in real readers.

There is something to the people that want a complete ending. I’ve definitely noticed that when we finish an episode we get a traffic spike & people are staying on the site longer.

Anyway – I just want to thank Jon for his work and taking the time to comment on an issue I’ve always been curious how other long forms see this.

Everyone makes great points here.

This kind of thing is a little concerning for us longform webcomic creators but I think it comes down to objectives.

I’ve been publishing my comic, Nathan Sorry, for over a year now and have had some nice and frankly unexpected success with it but I have no intention of abandoning my real job for it or hoping to ever make enough money (or really any money) from it to support my family. It’s just something I really really want to do and work hard to find the time to do it.

I’m also using the webcomic more as a vehicle to garner interest and support for an eventual graphic novel. I know that’s where my true readership would lie. I’m 44 pages in to what will be a roughly 300 page story right now and I know the further I get into it the less likely I’m going to pick up new online readers.

But what I hope benefits me is that I have a planned ending, though it will still take me years to get there. And I think the rise of tablets like the iPad may help us longform guys out a little by giving readers a more comfortable platform for reading (and a potential revenue generator for) our work.

[...] of good discussion in the comments thread of yesterday’s post, re: Goatspocalypse. What I find most encouraging is that whatever [...]

My disclaimer: I’ve been reading Goats since it’s humble beginnings and have bought just about everything Jon has put up for sale.

That out of the way, I have been reading the last few months and thinking to myself, “Where are we going?”, but I do feel as if we are getting to the top of the hill where each storyline will peak and all head toward the climatic finish.
In hindsight I wonder if I should have written Jon asking if things were under control. But it’s not in my place to question the author. It’s his work, not mine.

I am disappointed by the slow book sales. They really are beautifully done. I ordered 3 copies of Volume 3 before this news.
I am also glad that there will be a conclusion. Not that he owes it to me, because he wants to. I’ve read too many webcomics that just stopped right where they were and felt cheated even though the author had valid reasons.
I’ll patiently wait for Jon to come back and finish Goats and start whatever it may be. Good luck Jon!

To me this has almost been like suddenly everyone sees the 800lb gorilla in the room. Longform is tough because it’s not a real good match for people’s habits on the internet.

Big archives and slower pacing make the problem worse. We’re writing stories that read just fine in a book, but dripped out 2 or 3 times a week, it’s not nearly as satisfying for either reader or creator.

I found out about Goats a year or so ago, and I tried to read it, and I was utterly lost. I went and looked at the archive, and I just said “no way – not a chance.” And that was that.

There comes at time when getting new readers into something like that just becomes harder and harder until it’s almost impossible.

I had been thinking of these things already when Jon made his announcement. One thing I had already decided to do with Marooned was to use my universe and characters as a setting, but to try and make each new story stand as much as possible on its own. Time will tell if this works or not.

I’ll say this about making a living with comics though – man that’s a tenuous life. I feel for Jon, but on the other hand, it’s a risky way to go. So many things have to go right.

Even for the guys who are established and living consistently right now – it would not take much to completely upset the apple cart. An injury that stops you from drawing, a storyline that loses your readers, your own family expenses rising above what your comic normally supported.

It feels like to strive for that is almost insane. And as far as this being a young mans game… man, absolutely.

At Wishtales we hope to find other alternatives to making the comic thing work. Who knows if we will or not. But I think it’s definitely time to start looking at things differently.

As another long form guy, i feel his pain. I’ve considered ending Wandering Ones more than once, and I do have ideas for new comics. But that one more story just keeps popping into my head…

Team Force Alpha! Finally!

Any sort of 2-guys-on-a-couch-drinking-beer strip again wouldn’t be terrible either.

I still say this is all part of the webcartoonist life cycle. If you haven’t gotten there already, you will. It’
s not the end of the world — it’s just time to assess the situation and learn from it.

Team Force Alpha is still some time away, I won’t be starting it until Goats is wrapped up.

[...] see that Jon Rosenberg is retooling Goats to make it more compatible with his life. I can totally relate to that. Spread the [...]

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