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Eric: Damn it, now I need a new 80's sitcom reference.

Goats!

(From Goats! Click on the thumbnail for full sized neurotic introspection!)

On October 11, Jon Rosenberg posted an unusual newspost on Goats. It was the occasion of the 100th strip in the "Infinite Typewriter" storyline, and it was an occasion for Rosenberg to wax lyrical about his strip, where it had come from, and where it is going to. One of the passages from that newspost highlighted the metareasons for embarking down the path he had gone:

I knew in 2002 that I wouldn't be able to do a gag-a-day comic strip about a bunch of animals in a bar forever. I wanted to write something a bit meatier. I wanted to make a change that would keep things interesting for me as well as you. For a while, I pondered various concepts for a new strip, anticipating that I would want to end Goats altogether and start over. But something kept pulling me back to the characters, and I knew I couldn't let it go altogether.

So rather than end the strip, I decided to change it -- to remake Goats into the sort of strip I was interested in writing. But I didn't want to make the switch a jarring, upsetting event. I wanted to make the transition as natural and smooth as possible, so I decided to work the changes themselves into the storyline, letting the characters find their new roles at their own pace and help set the tone for what was to come. Infinite Typewriters is the culmination of those changes.

It was a gutsy move. After all, Rosenberg makes his living off his strip. As does his partner in beer and crime, Phillip Karlsson. If their fanbase didn't like the changes, obviously they'd leave, and suddenly Karlsson and Rosenberg would have to do something else with their days. And, it was obviously successful -- Rosenberg reports tremendous positive support, and as far as I know profits haven't taken a nosedive. Certainly I've been back every day, looking for the next strip. And this is despite my well-avowed hatred of Oliver, of whom so much of this storyline depends.

(It's depressing to admit it, but Oliver is beginning to grow on me. He seems less like a forced villain and more like... well, a villain to me now. Also, the idea of him controlling the headless meat body of Khan's illegitimate son makes me giggle.)

And, as is almost inevitable, as soon as Rosenberg posted his newspost, the e-mail started coming in to me. "Whoa, Rosenberg's pulling a Cerebus," they said. "Do you think he pulled it off? Do you remember the last time anyone came right out and said 'I'm going for the Cerebus Syndrome' before?"

I've been busy, so I haven't had time until this morning to respond. But now that I have a few minutes to rub together, I can finally comment.

Rosenberg and Karlsson aren't going for a Cerebus Syndrome. They're doing something infinitely harder.

Let me drop back and explain what we're talking about, for those who came in late. (Besides, as has been remarked before, there's a tradition in talking about the Cerebus Syndrome where we go over what one of those is in painstaking detail at some point in the post.) The Cerebus Syndrome was named after the comic strip Cerebus, written by Dave Sim over the course of years. Said comic began as a pretty straightforward comedic parody of Conan the Barbarian, only with an Earth-Pig Born instead of a Cimmerian.

But somewhere in there, Sim decided he wanted to tell a serious, sophisticated story instead of a goofy parody. Somewhere, he decided to shift gears into satire and drama and a depth of characterization. And so he did, and the silly battles with wizards gave way to the politics of High Society, the religion of Church and State, and the very personal drama of Jaka's Story. It was risky, because he was walking away from the audience's expectations, and going for something grander, something greater, something (in his estimation) better.

Then, after a few years, he went batshit insane. But that's outside the scope of this essay.

Since then, a comic or comic strip that starts as humorous -- even gag-a-day -- that moves into serious storylines and drama, shifting into a high Story strip instead -- can be said to be trying to repeat Dave Sim's successful transition. We here at Websnark call that "The Cerebus Syndrome," and when it's pulled off, it's a glorious thing. Two strips that have been floated as successful Cerebus Syndromes are Sluggy Freelance and College Roomies from Hell! There have been others.

And there have been a lot of failures. We call the corresponding failure "First and Ten Syndrome," after a goofy tits and ass HBO comedy of the early nineties that suddenly and without warning lurched into full on drama, mostly because they were clearly out of ideas. In so doing they alienated their existing fans and failed to attract any new ones, and the series crashed and burned.

You can see why my correspondents think this applies to what Rosenberg and Karlsson are doing. Rosenberg practically spells it out. One person wondered why he didn't use the term and save everyone time.

Only... here's the thing. Goats never turned serious.

Honestly. Goats never turned serious.

Let's look at this storyline. Fineas, having been disgusted by the world and the aesthetic failure of the last Good Hitler movie, goes to Oliver seeking assistance in triggering practical teleportation via the common household kitten/poptart singularity effect. Oliver agrees, claiming to want half the profits. They steal the singularity from Neil and Bob, who vow revenge. So does Toothgnip (we're not told why, but one expects Fineas has done something to the Panties of Potency -- possibly even stealing them) and the three go on a spaceship rampage destroying everything in sight. Diablo helps smuggle them out of the city in a stolen police cruiser. They go to see Satan Stan, who actually does turn out to be Satan and sends the group off to get the Demon Fire of Xibalaba. So, they go to the Mayan Underworld, which turns out to be on the Jersey Turnpike. After trials and tribulations which includes a game of ball, they meet (two of) the Lords of Death. (Who mention in passing that one makes demons out of corn flakes and Murphy's Oil Soap.) The implication was also made that Scott McCloud was in a room of infinite punditry and a concept of micro-pimentos for very small olives was floated. Fineas realizes that the world is significantly more solipsistic than he expected, but the trio discovers they're in danger of becoming pretentious assholes. They then fought the clone of Diablo's brother that once Diablo helped to kill. Though instead they end up going to Hell's version of Chucky Cheese's. They discover they have the demon fire (in a box of matches). They return to Stan Satan, just in time for Neil, Bob and Toothgnip to arrive ready to kill everyone. Oliver burns Toothgnip horribly with demon fire, and they manage to teleport for the first time. The effect zaps our trio of malcontents to a plane of infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters, but the effect causes the "Fineas" personality to get reset, making him the sweet, lovable Fish once more. Without Fineas's combat training, Oliver seizes the moment to steal the robot and strand Fish and Diablo on the infinite plane, leaving in a rush.

Which is when the Monkeys mention they actually know who Fish and Diablo actually are.

For the record?

That's half the storyline.

Is there anything in the above that implies Rosenberg and Karlsson have gone overly serious?

What they're doing is much harder, and potentially much more rewarding. You see, the drive to try a Cerebus Syndrome stems, much of the time, from getting sick of writing gag strips and bikini suicide frisbee stories. The author wants to stretch themselves as a writer, to explore new venues and avenues, to deepen their story and themselves. Sometimes it works. More often it doesn't.

Rosenberg and Karlsson, on the other hand, decided they wanted to stretch themselves, explode avenues, deepen yadda yadda yadda but continue bringing the Funny every day. They sought a grander, more sophisticated humor. And as Rosenberg himself said, they've been moving in this direction for years and years.

Whatever they're doing, it's not an attempt at a Cerebus Syndrome.

And whatever they're doing, it's working.

In today's strip, they meet the Editor-in-Chief of the cosmos, and it's Woody Allen. Which works for me, because I love Woody Allen. They seem to write him well, for what it's worth.

And as I read the strip, I remembered the common complaint about Allen (particularly in the 80's, but still echoing in his work today). "Oh, I love Woody Allen -- especially his earlier stuff, when he was funny." Woody Allen is a real life Cerebus Syndrome in action, and he was successful with it (well, until the whole one-order-removed incest thing made people all skeeved). Somehow, it's apropos that he shows up now as God in a universe that never stopped being funny, but continues to stretch the boundaries of what that means.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at October 24, 2005 10:09 AM

Comments

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at October 24, 2005 11:51 AM

So you're saying that Goats is now a continuity strip that is also a comedy.

I would say both Sluggy and CRFH!!! are the same thing -- I certainly wouldn't call either primarily *serious* strips. Comedy is still their primary trade...

Goats is probably more "pure," genre-wise, but I'm having difficulty seeing how CRFH!!! would be Cerebus and Goats would not...

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 24, 2005 12:43 PM

Both have significant serious/plot oriented arcs, Christopher. "That Which Redeems II" had light moments, but was clearly a serious story. (And serious stories go all the way back to the Storm Breaker Saga.) "Solitude of the Warrior" had essentially no humor at all in it. And so on.

Both continue to have humor, which was also true of Cerebus. But it's hardly the only tool in the toolbox.

I'm not saying Goats never has a serious moment, but they're accent notes, not main themes. Humor is still the order of the day, even though it's a grander, more epic humor.

Comment from: TheNintenGenius posted at October 24, 2005 12:47 PM

Well to me, what makes the distinction between Goats and, say, Sluggy, is that Goats has never really had any seriously dramatic moments in it and has remained as hilariously irrelevant as ever.

Sluggy HAS had moments of drama, sometimes very heavy drama. Things like the Fire & Ice storyline and the death of Alt-Zoe in the Dimension of Pain saga last year, which were both very intense and definitely not played up for laughs and both increased the complexity and sophistication of the comic quite a bit.

On the other hand, with Goats, I can't even begin to think of a reasonable analogue. Goats, though getting more sophisticated, has never ever stopped being funny. Even things that could reasonably be considered "dramatic" (such as earlier in this storyline with Fish having to make the decision to bring back the Fineas aspect of him) have been willfully kept irrelevant and funny by way of some very cleverly placed jokes or just plain nonsense. It's a more complex silly world but it's still, overall, a very, very silly world.

Maybe not the best explanation, but that's the best I can give.

Comment from: Mam J-Jason posted at October 24, 2005 12:47 PM

So does Toothgnip (we're not told why, but one expects Fineas has done something to the Panties of Potency -- possibly even stealing them) and the three go on a spaceship rampage destroying everything in sight)

Fineas set Toothgnip's panties on fire, as can just barely be seen in the third panel of the May 5th strip. The pink things on fire are the panties. I didn't notice this either until I reread the story. Kinda easy to notice for such an important plot point.

Comment from: Mam J-Jason posted at October 24, 2005 12:49 PM

I mean kinda easy to miss. Stupid words.

Comment from: Kail Panille posted at October 24, 2005 12:49 PM

So you're saying that Goats is now a continuity strip that is also a comedy.

But hasn't Goats always fit that description?

I think I can see the difference between Sluggy and what Goats seems to be heading towards, but it's not that one has more Funny, it's that one has less Drama. Yes, Sluggy has, on occasion, included strips that made no attempt to be funny, but only furthered the plot, or explored a character, but this hasn't been the norm even during the really Dramatic arcs. And yes, that's something that Goats hasn't really done yet, to my knowledge.

But for my money, the best Sluggys are the ones that have Drama _and_ Funny, e.g. "Sorry, Ma'am. I'm union."

Maybe there is Drama in this Goats are, but I'm just not seeing it because it doesn't involve the characters I actually have the ability to care about (basically the core human cast--does that make me a racist?). I sort of care about Fish/Fineas, but Oliver and Diablo and Toothgnip and Neil and Bob... They're funny, but I don't have any real emotional investment.

Comment from: hitch posted at October 24, 2005 12:58 PM

on the one hand I tend to agree with Chris Wright above, but in the case of sluggy in particular I would say that the distinction is that (And note here that I can only speak to sluggy, not being a reader of CRFH) sluggy has done and continues to do plots that are primarily serious, despite their incidental humor. You have to point to the That Which Redeems storyline as the most obvious case of this. Sure, funny. But ultimately very very serious. Goats? I've yet to see a strip that was, from beginning to end, not intended as humor.

Comment from: hitch posted at October 24, 2005 12:59 PM

crap.
and eric beat me to it.

Comment from: Michael Nehora posted at October 24, 2005 1:01 PM

(basically the core human cast--does that make me a racist?)

Maybe a speciesist? *joking*

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at October 24, 2005 1:03 PM

Still, I'd point to CRFH!!! as having more in common with Goats with than with Sluggy. Sure, when it gets serious, Satan is usually involved -- but I still consider it primarily a humor strip, and a wacky one at that, with the seriousness being something of a diversion than the focus of the strip itself. Sluggy, I guess, you can quibble over. For Sluggy, I'd still consider it primarily humor, it just takes long side-trips down serious lane from time to time. Or something like that.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at October 24, 2005 1:19 PM

You know, it may be a typo, but "exploding avenues" really does fit.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at October 24, 2005 1:34 PM

Goats is one of several webcomics I've added to my trawls since I decided not to demand of myself that I read a webcomic's archive before I add it to my trawls. I think my first regular Goats was the animated one when they didn't teleport to New Jersey. Perhaps it's because it's in the middle of a 100+ installment storyline, but Goats so far has failed to engage me so I can't comment on its cerebosity. But of my trawl webcomics postdating my archive-reading days that I don't read any more, most or all have been dropped because they stopped updating reliably, and Goats sure isn't that. And I have to admit to a soft spot for an established webcomic which used the punchline "Khaaan!!" after my webcomic referred to it as "Every Webcomic Uses This Punchline Once #1".

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at October 24, 2005 1:37 PM

"Fineas set Toothgnip's panties on fire, as can just barely be seen in the third panel of the May 5th strip. The pink things on fire are the panties. I didn't notice this either until I reread the story. Kinda easy to miss for such an important plot point."

Actually May 2nd. Has there been any insight onto why Fineas stole and burned said panties? Didn't really do anything for his "find the answers to everything/develop teleportation" scheme.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 24, 2005 1:43 PM

My assumption is he burned the panties to power the teleportive effect. When they proved insufficient, our animal heroes had to seek out the Hellfire instead.

Comment from: Tice with a J posted at October 24, 2005 1:44 PM

In my opinion, the best CB strip out there is Queen of Wands. It went from being a simple, gag-a-day strip about Kestrel and her friends to being a moving, thought-provoking (but still funny) strip about the various trials and tribulations of Kestrel and her associates. There may be other, better ones out there, but I haven't found them, mostly because I'm lazy. But I really think QoW is a better example of a proper Cerebus Syndrome than Sluggy or CRFH.

Comment from: Merus posted at October 24, 2005 1:45 PM

I'm a big fan of the 'fire is pretty' explanation, myself.

Comment from: Merus posted at October 24, 2005 1:50 PM

Re: QoW as Cerebus - I thought the point of the Cerebus syndrome was that it starts off as a silly gag strip, and at some point the author gets bored and turns it into a dramatic strip, without losing anything in the translation, and First and Ten is when it starts off as a gag strip, it gets turned into a dramatic strip, and it sacrifices things in the process.

You'd be hard-pressed to say that QoW started off as a straight gag strip. I always got the sense that the first few months of clowning around was more establishing the characters and their voices for the more serious storylines than Aerie getting bored with that direction, considering she's stated in the reruns that the characters and stories were based off her housemates. One would have to assume she was planning that direction from the start.

Comment from: EsotericWombat posted at October 24, 2005 2:42 PM

So Eric, if we aren't talking about Cerebus, then is there a name for this strange beast before us? Or is "Goats Syndrome" going to find itself added to the lexicon?

Comment from: Tice with a J posted at October 24, 2005 2:56 PM

A distinction has been made between strips that start as gag-a-day, but evolve and become more serious right from the start, because that's what the author intended, and strips that start as gag-a-day, stay that way for a while, and then change because the author wanted to do something new. I wonder - in the context of the Cerebus Syndrome, does such a distinction really matter? The processes are different, of course, but the effects are similar in many ways.

Another thing: I forgot to mention Kid Radd. Kid Radd is definitely in the "planning on being serious all along" category, and it's thoroughly awesome. It's run its course now, but it's still the most innovative sprite comic in human history - not only is it funny and thought-provoking, but it pushes the envelope in ways that would make Scott McCloud shed tears of joy.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at October 24, 2005 3:05 PM

How about "Police Squad!" Syndrome? If he's sticking to an 80's theme, at any rate. At the end of every episode Frank Drebin would name every character that had been sent to jail throughout the entire run of the series... which only made sense if you saw the episodes in order. There was nothing remotely serious about that show.

(To bad it didn't last longer than six episodes. I would have liked to hear that list after the end of a full season...)

Comment from: Duff the Tragic Wagon posted at October 24, 2005 3:10 PM

Has there been any insight onto why Fineas stole and burned said panties? Didn't really do anything for his "find the answers to everything/develop teleportation" scheme.

I see it as an act of petty revenge, for all of Toothgnip's casual cruelty towards Fish over the years, and for inadvertently setting in motion the events that led to the 'birth' of Fineas. I could be totally wrong though.

Comment from: Tangent posted at October 24, 2005 3:19 PM

So, what you're saying, Eric, is that Goats is going for a "Woody"?

*evil grin*

*flrrd at high speed*

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Webcomic Reviews
http://www.tangents.us

Comment from: fred posted at October 24, 2005 3:30 PM

About "apropos": I do not believe that that word means what you think it means.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at October 24, 2005 3:56 PM

It works as an adjective.

Comment from: Wednesday White posted at October 24, 2005 4:12 PM

Merus: No, fire *bad*. Tree pretty.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at October 24, 2005 4:15 PM

Fire embers the baby pony.

Comment from: Aerin posted at October 25, 2005 4:59 AM

Then, after a few years, he went batshit insane. But that's outside the scope of this essay.

You know, I think you say that just about every time you bring up Cerebus Syndrome. I must say, I'd love to read the snark about Sim's batshit insanity.

Comment from: larksilver posted at October 25, 2005 10:24 AM

I think the phrase "Batshit insane" is just fun.

Sorta like going apeshit, only to a higher order of magnitude.

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at October 25, 2005 10:44 AM

Aerin - I'd love to give you a summary, from the early signs to the crescendo of madness later in Cerebus, to Dave Sim's current ascetic, religion-blending lifestyle. But I'd rather wait for the inevitable Dave Sim Snark, cause Eric's better at it.

Comment from: Merus posted at October 25, 2005 9:16 PM

Let's just say that the life of a cartoonist is lonely life, and it can do things to a man, and leave it at that until Eric gets around to it.

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at October 25, 2005 9:34 PM

I respectfully disagree - Dave Sim was quite the playboy in those Early Days. He was also married when Cerebus started. But yeah, let's leave it to Eric.

By the way Eric, in case you don't know: readers of Cerebus from the "phone books" don't get the whole story; The letter page and the "Notes From the President" are essential readings for an analysis of Dave Sim. You can easily find the important ones online, but if you want them all the only way is the individual comic books.

Better stop talking about Sim now, Eric must be getting pretty tired of it.

Comment from: Wednesday White posted at October 25, 2005 11:45 PM

Dude, I think Eric's getting along just fine.

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at October 26, 2005 12:22 AM


Dude, I think Eric's getting along just fine. I, HOWEVER, AM SICK AND TIRED OF READING MR. SIM TRIVIA AND ALLUSIONS TO SAID MISTER'S K-RAZY ANTICS

Comment from: larksilver posted at October 26, 2005 12:40 AM

Dude, I think Eric's getting along just fine.

I, HOWEVER, AM SICK AND TIRED OF READING MR. SIM TRIVIA AND ALLUSIONS TO SAID MISTER'S K-RAZY ANTICS

Uhm... wait. Wait just a second. I've seen the commenters on this site go off on week-long debates about whether there should be an 's or an s', along with a variety of other, less significant matters, with gusto. With glee, even, picking imaginary lint from the surface of Snarky's virtual recliner and, in general, beating any given horse beyond death and straight through into some sort of zombie state.

And you're tired of Dave Sim? Uhm.. dude. Really?

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at October 26, 2005 1:58 AM

larksilver - I was just saying what Weds was possibly trying to say, but was too nice to say it. Argh, sorry. Nevermind.

But if you take time to look around (like, the above posts), you'll see that I can not grow tired of Dave Sim. He's my batshit insane hero.

Comment from: larksilver posted at October 26, 2005 7:00 AM

Alexis - well, in that case, nevermind! Everybody needs a batshit insane hero.

Comment from: Trevor Barrie posted at October 27, 2005 2:17 AM

Getting back to Goats, they have in fact had a number of strips whose "punchline" was much more dramatic than comedic, or in some cases wasn't comedic at all:

http://www.goats.com/archive/030716.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030725.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030922.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030926.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030929.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/031022.html

So I'm unconvinced that the change in Goats is qualitatively different from what Sluggy or CRFH went through.

Comment from: tynic posted at October 27, 2005 9:49 PM

http://www.goats.com/archive/030929.html

Wait ... you didn't find an impaled Fish to be funny?

Comment from: TheNintenGenius posted at October 27, 2005 11:23 PM

Getting back to Goats, they have in fact had a number of strips whose "punchline" was much more dramatic than comedic, or in some cases wasn't comedic at all:

http://www.goats.com/archive/030716.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030725.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030922.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030926.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/030929.html
http://www.goats.com/archive/031022.html

So I'm unconvinced that the change in Goats is qualitatively different from what Sluggy or CRFH went through.

But here we start to get into the realm of subjective humor, in that what you may not find funny, others might. In fact, going down the list you provided, in order:

Funny - Fish's facial expression is totally awesome.
Kind of Funny - Advice on not forgetting to floss in a hateful breakup letter?
Not Funny - Well OK, you've got me on this one.
Funny - The sheer idea of Jon actually trying to inflict physical harm on someone is ludicrous at best.
Funny - Come on, Fish? Not a very dramatic person to accidentally impale. Especially since you'd almost actively have to be trying to impale something that small, therefore, Jon is inept.
Not Funny - OK, you got me again.

Looking through these, there's only about 2 of these that are not funny, while the rest, dramatic are not, are still pretty hilarious.

Now I'm sure someone else could point out that the ones I found funny really aren't funny or that even the ones I didn't find funny really were funny, but as I said, it's subjective.

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