Eric: Apropos of nothing, I'd kind of like one of those turtles.
(From Goats! Click on the detail for full sized bitching about Hippies!)
There's a number of techniques you can employ in your heavily story based comic to keep flow going well and keep a sense of movement and action even when there... well, isn't really that much movement or action to keep going. On the one side, you have something like Amber Greenlee's No Stereotypes -- a masterpiece of decompressed storytelling, with each new day's installment another piece of choreography. It's beautiful to read and follow, and the cumulative effect is phenomenal.
But on the other side, there is Goats. And Goats has a different means to its end.
Taking a step back, let's consider what Jon Rosenberg is doing. Ever since the soft relaunch of the series, Goats has followed an epic storyline between dimensions, with moderately absurd but always internally consistent mythology being woven into the story at all sides. It is a monumentally complex story, with several concurrent plotlines and -- more often than not -- a lot of exposition.
That could be a recipe for disaster. Or worse, for tedium. But Rosenberg manages to avoid both through judicious use of points of convergence. Convergence usually means a bunch of different things -- the tendency of the eyes to angle towards each other to maintain binocular vision when things are close, the mathematical tendency of an infinite series towards a finite limit, the nature of distant points on the horizon to seem to be touching -- all sorts of things, really.
However, what I mean by the term is somewhat different. I'm describing the rest states in Rosenberg's storyline, where the cast comes together in different combinations and tells us what's happened next.
Consider the different plotlines running through the strip. We have Fish, Fineas and Diablo actively trying to save the multiverse, having met Woody Allen and seen the laptop the universe is currently running on. In many ways, they're fighting against Oliver to do this. We have Philip as the prophesied Programmer being pursued by the Topekans and rescued by his young Knack-endowed cornfed girlfriend (don't tell his wife) so he can fulfill the prophecy of hacking into God's laptop and -- once again -- saving the universe. We have the Topekans apparently using Philip's weasel harvested sperm (man, there's a sentence I hope I never have to type again) to make a new programmer (we assume, which will take some doing since the universe ends in five years). We have Oliver running roughshod over the multiverse just blowin' everything up that he can while his highjacked body of Khan Junior is protected by Carl and Roger. And we have Toothgnip, Neil and Bo... um... Toothgnip and Neil seeking Oliver and the matchbox full of demonic fire matchsticks that scarred and altered Toothgnip. And everything I can't remember.
That's a lot of stuff. That's a lot of things happening. And thats a mind-numbing amount of backstory that needs to be disseminated.
The way Rosenberg manages to keep the story moving and dynamic is the reassembly of the cast into different groupings. It's like he's built a flowchart of storylines, and every so often two storylines touch each other, connecting and bridging. At those points where different parts of the cast touch we have a point of convergence. Those points of convergence give new opportunities to explain what's going on, fill out bits of backstory we don't already know, and set new elements of the plot in motion. And because he keeps the combinations dynamic (and distracts us with pretty colors) Rosenberg manages to conceal the fact that nineteen out of twenty strips are just people standing around and talking.
Seriously. Philip gets kidnapped by the Topekans, who stand around and tell him about the legends of the Almanac. He then stands around a cow he's programming to repair the damaged code of the multiverse, and he and his assistants talk for a while. Then a resistance movement kidnaps him (with a few brief moments of action) and everyone stands around and talks about that. There is a daring raid which turns into a capture, and then there is standing around and talking (and weasel sperm harvesting) until it becomes clear they're being rescued by Farmella. They then end up in the ruins of the Axis Pub where there is significant standing around and talking for a bit, whereupon they are transported to Pinktopia. There is riding of corndogs to Peppermint Springs, and then everyone climbs into a rock monster's mouth and they -- you guessed it -- stand around and talk. When they're returned to a decidedly non-pink world, they find Neil and Toothgnip, and Philip runs inside and stands around and talks for a bit.
And that's just one plotline. Jon's plot is almost infinitely weirder, with even stranger standing around and talking. Including with a Lizard Bluesman.
It's not that nothing happens -- things clearly happen all the time. But the moments of activity lead inexorably to a point of convergence, where exposition and plot movement take place. They then springboard to new and exciting points The points of convergence are the resting points between frenetic activity, but each one builds a new kind of tension and triggers a new release towards yet more points of convergence.
Take the last point of convergence. Jon and the Middle Pangeans, the demons of the Mayan Underworld, Fish, Diablo, Carl and Roger and Strawberry Shortcake all end up in the Axis Pub alongside Alfred. There is a forty (subjective) year long Mexican Standoff. Jon melts Strawberry Shortcake. And all relaxes and we get into the exposition. We start by learning that Jon, in killing himself to transport to the Axis Pub, has activated the EULA he signed giving the Mayan demons his soul. They then let him know everything he does is now their will, and he's given an expense account and an iPhone. There is significant exposition about his all powerful turtle, which Phineas then uses to export both himself and Fish into separate beings, killing the original Fish. We learn Carl and Roger's backstory, and the reasons behind their oath to protect Khan Junior's (deceased and decapitated) body. There is more exposition, and then Jon melts Carl and Roger, who are exported and recreated 'wherever Oliver is.' They then decide to seek out Philip to continue their quest to... you know, save the universe from destruction.
That's plenty of events. Surrounded by plenty of exposition around them. Lots of standing around and talking, but in an exciting way where people are sometimes horribly melted. Also, the Lizard guy died. I think. I get confused.
I liked the Lizard guy.
It's not an easy technique -- that Rosenberg makes it look easy is a reflection of his skill as a storyteller. Done properly, a story skips along almost frenetically, despite little actually happening in it. Done improperly, the story bogs down in endless words and no payoff. Rosenberg does it so well that Goats could serve as a master class in the technique.
In the next few (days, weeks, however long) the current group will be going off to find Philip. Maybe they'll track him down and maybe they won't, but either way we're going to almost certainly end up in a new group of characters. And there will be standing around. And there will be talking and exposition. And God damn it -- we're going to like it.
Posted by Eric Burns-White at April 3, 2007 11:17 AM
Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at April 3, 2007 11:53 AM
Wait...that thumbnail looks like it's from a strip that hasn't posted yet....
Comment from: Ford Dent posted at April 3, 2007 12:32 PM
Holy crap, I never realised it but you're absolutely right! They just stand around and talk a lot in Goats, and I love it!
That might come off as a little sarcastic, but it's not actually meant to. Rosenberg is apparently so good at his job that I've been reading a strip that is 90% standing around and talking and I didn't even notice.
Which if you ask me is pretty high praise.
Comment from: Darth Paradox posted at April 3, 2007 1:01 PM
(Dave: Last Wednesday's comic.)
It occurs to me that the vast majority of multiverse-saving that's going on here is either a matter of negotiations with other people (for cooperation, goods, information, or... hell, I guess urethra-weasel torture counts there too), or programming tasks. All the important action really is standing around and talking and occasionally pushing some buttons on an electronic ungulate or something. (As it happens, half of software engineering in a team tends to be standing around talking, too. Philip's programming scenes have been pretty realistic, in that respect.)
This, to me, is what makes Goats's long and convoluted storylines readable, in comparison to GPF's, which are action, but action drawn out to where a single short scene takes strips and strips to finish, to the point where we forget what was going on at the beginning. With Goats, I occasionally forget what's going on, but the standing around and talking refreshes memory while the story progresses at the same time.
And people melted by a talking computurtle always helps.
Comment from: Godspiel posted at April 3, 2007 5:37 PM
"Jon melts Strawberry Shortcake."
Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at April 3, 2007 6:02 PM
"We have the Topekans apparently using Philip's weasel harvested sperm (man, there's a sentence I hope I never have to type again)..."
And meanwhile, I think it's Rosenberg's sacred duty to somehow make Eric type that sentence again.
Eric, not to nitpick, but he doesn't kill Strawberry Shortcake. He kills a drinking and smoking Rainbow Brite. And that alone triggered a LSD-like haze of 80's cartoon flashbacks, and the realization that somehow I loved Rainbow Brite, and her colorful color-pals, fighting Murky Dismal who may have well have been a precursor to the religious right movement for all I know. (I'm weeping inside just typing this.)
The one problem I have with Goats is that you just can't drop in and get an idea of what is going on. You have to read the whole archive to get somewhat of an idea what is going on. I just wish his plots weren't so convoluted.
I really should send Rosenburg my therapy bill for this bad childhood flashback...
Comment from: Alexandra Erin posted at April 3, 2007 10:41 PM
Goats fell off my radar a loooong time ago (not a "You had me and you lost me" thing... I'm fully capable of losing myself) , and never got back on it because I realized how daunting the prospect of going through the archive again was. Maybe I should check it out. I'm always interested in the mechanics of interesting storytelling.
Ah...I was thrown by the lack of charring on Jon, and didn't check back far enough (I was suffering some mega-lag at the time).
Surprising choice of commentary considering that Eric is in trouble for running a phishing site.
Don't believe me? Look here.
I think this is the tenth post on this site titled "Apropos of nothing..."
Comment from: Alexandra Erin posted at April 4, 2007 4:23 PM
That could be referring to any number of people whose sites review webcomics and trigger a phalacious phishing alert.
You might want to hit the next button a few times, there are probably many fewer websites that incorporate the words Web and Snark in their titles, and whose owners are dating a foreign national named Wednesday.
I'm just saying...
Comment from: lucastds posted at April 4, 2007 10:22 PM
Sam and Fuzzy. Now there's a strip with a lot of plot. That works.
Comment from: Alexandra Erin posted at April 5, 2007 7:01 AM
No, no. Exactly the same number.
Comment from: Matt Buchwald posted at April 5, 2007 11:26 AM
Ford: I transcribed over 100 goats stips, and even *I* never noticed all the standing around.
In my recollection of the strip, there is now more action breaking the sitting around talking. So he's had a lot of practice keeping a story interesting and funny while nothing is physically happening. There's even a LARP: http://www.goats.com/features/garp.html
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