Webcomics and the Art of Survival: An Interview With Jonathan Rosenberg

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Mixed with art, the topic of money is nearly always an entirely unpleasant subject. It is, however, a necessary one. After all, for as long as humans have made art, they’ve attempted to parlay it into something life sustaining.

In few fields is the struggle between art and survival so well defined is with comics. On a fiscal level, sequential art is generally a zero-sum game, save for those few lucky and/or talented (generally a combination of the two) individuals who have managed to transform their labor of love into a full-time career.

With the advent of Webcomics, the topic of monetization once again came to the forefront. As it did with so many other fields, the Internet presented the possibility of new paradigms of payment for struggling artist. As with their print counterparts, however, those not among a chosen few have largely struggled to stay afloat in the online world.

In a recent post titled “I’ve Made a Huge Mistake,” on the site for his long-running strip, Goats, Jonathan Rosenberg apprehensively highlighted something that many in the industry were either unaware of or just unwilling to acknowledge—even the creators of some of the Web’s most popular strips are still struggling with the online payment model.

“If I were single, or younger, or less encrusted in the leakings of children,” Rosenberg wrote in the post dated May 4th, “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.”

It’s a letter well worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the world of Webcomics. It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, it’s reflective without being self-pitying.

A few weeks after the posting of the original letter, we sat down with Rosenberg to discuss what it means for the artist and the strip, and where things stand now.

How long did that post take to write? Was it something that you labored over?

I probably went through three or four drafts, in reality. I think I said 50 in the post, but I may have been exaggerating at the time. It probably took a couple of hours. I didn’t spend days on it, or anything, but I wanted to make sure that I was saying the right things, and not being—it’s an emotional thing. I’ve been doing the strip for 13 years now, and to make a decision as large as scaling back and/or ending it is hard. I wanted to make sure that the things I was saying weren’t coming from raw emotion and were coming from reasoned thought.

Were you concerned that it might come across as you feeling a little sorry for yourself?

I think it’s impossible to separate your emotions from an artistic work. Art is about emotion in its rawest form. There’s been a lot of drama in the Webcomics community. I didn’t want to create more than was necessary. I just wanted to explain my reasoning and be fair to the fans and let them know what was going on.

Goats has never struck me as being expressly confessional, per se. I’m sure you put a lot of yourself into it—do you feel like you’re revealing a lot about yourself through your strip??

It’s obviously not autobiographical, but if you read between the lines, you put a lot of yourself into anything you create. There’s a lot of me in it. I’d say that the strip reflects a lot of different facets of myself. You kind of have to have multiple personality if you’re going to do a comic strip with an ensemble cast like Goats. You’ve got to be able to split yourself into multiple people. In a way, that’s kind of what it is. For me, it’s therapy. I have to take all of these demons in my head and separate them out from everything else.

Has it made you a more rational person, in the process, having done it for 13 years?

I think if you did anything that regularly for 13 years, it would give you some kind of insight into your own mind. It’s become a ritual. It’s been weird, the last few weeks, not drawing. I have been working on some comics, but not on the regular schedule that I [had been].

I miss it, but hopefully I’m going to be getting back to that soon.

You’re on a planned hiatus at the moment. Is that part of the larger picture of what’s going on with the strip?

Yeah. I just needed to take a step back and figure out what changes I needed to make to continue doing comics online. Part of that is shutting everything down, so I can really focus on it, and make sure that I’m not repeating mistakes because they’re convenient at the time. I need to really reevaluate how my comics have succeeded and how they’ve failed and see if I can figure out a way to see what works and remedy the problem at the same time. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks. Probably I’ll have some new stuff to show—I’m hoping by July. I think that will probably be enough time to get the new sites built and get enough new comic done, so I have a nice buffer ready to go.

You mentioned bringing Goats to an end in the post. You almost mentioned, abstractly, a new plan that you were working on. Is the plan essentially the creation of the new strip?

Yeah, that’s part of it. There are other things I’m doing at the moment—I’m looking into some other creative projects that I’ve had some opportunities to possibly do. but nothing solid that I can talk about. For the most part, I’m going to try to launch a new Webcomic. It’s not going to rely on continuity, the way Goats did. It’s hopefully going to be a standalone every day. But it will still have some of the same sensibility that Goats had.

I think that might help remedy some of the traffic-building problems I have with Goats. It’s very hard to get into a comic when there’s 13 years of backstory to catch up on. People get very intimidated. I love that stuff, and a lot of people have been telling me, “that’s what I loved about Goats.” But for the majority of people, it’s very hard to wrap your head around that.

Has the strip been online for 13 years?

Yeah—April 1st, 1997 was the day it went online.

You’ve seen a lot of strips come and go, since then. You’ve seen what works and what doesn’t online. As you noted, the vast majority of successful strips are self-contained. Have you begun approaching at the creation of the strip from a marketing/business point-of-view?

I think you have to. Am I doing it solely for that? If all I wanted to do was make money, I’d go back to building Websites. I’m doing it because I love to make comics. But in order for me to make comics full-time, I need to make sure that I do it in a way that’s financially feasible. When one thing doesn’t work, you have to be able to admit it, make a change, and be willing to try something different. I’m hoping that the overall result is something that might be more fun for people and more financially successful for me.

Have you stopped building Websites? Are comics your primary source of income?

I haven’t built Websites since, I think, 2007. It was before we moved out of the city. Comics have been full-time since then. I’m probably going to be picking up some freelance gigs while I’m building out the new sites, just to supplement my income. Traffic is obviously slow during a time when you’re not updating. But I’m hoping that will be a brief period of time. I’m really not cut out for office work.

How long was the transition from day job to full-time art?

Luckily I had some friends in the industry that had their own firm. They were willing to work with my schedule and would hire me for three days a week, and I would work on Goats for two days a week. Later on, I went down to two and eventually none. I was able to transition out of there by basically reducing the number of days I was working every week.

When you started in ’97, did it ever occur to you that comics were something you could do in order to support yourself?

No, not at all. It was just a lark. It was a hobby. Something to fill time. There was no such thing as a Webcomics “business model,” or even a thought that you could make money, doing something like that at the time. But it was fun to do, and I got a little attention for it. It was addictive. Over time you experiment and see what works. It became apparent that, if you were lucky and had some talent, you could really make a go of it.

In the post, you mention 2012 as the original ending point. Did you really have a nearly two-decade long storyline from early on?

Yeah, basically. I had this story in mind that ended at the end of the Mayan calendar, on December 21st, 2012. In 2003, I don’t think many people were thinking about, but it was all over the news, last year. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence in a couple of years.

I was just really bored with the bar jokes and the beer jokes. I decided to try something crazy, with a little more substance. I decided I was going to tear down everything I had created, and start over. Over the course of a year, I figured out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to get there. I left an open framework with touchstones along the way, so I can keep it fresh.

Obviously you’ve learned a lot, especially in the past few weeks, as you’ve been reflecting on things. Have you come away with any wisdom to impart on artists who are just starting out in Webcomics?

Be ready for the long haul. Make sure you’re doing it for fun, because only a few people get to do this successfully for money. It’s just the nature of it. Have an original idea, have an original style, have something to say, and just keep pluggin away forever. Other than that, good luck.

Is it still fun, after 13 years?

Oh yeah. it always will be. I can’t stop. It isn’t something I have choice about. I’ll be doing this until I’m dead.

–Brian Heater

3 Comments to “Webcomics and the Art of Survival: An Interview With Jonathan Rosenberg”

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