Goats by Jon Rosenberg, reviewed by Eric Burns
Ten days after 9/11 (which would make it 9/21, for those of you with some arithmetical deficiencies), Goats took the first step towards returning to normal life. They didnâ€™t do it with a long, poignant speech, the way David Letterman and Jon Stewart did. They did it with a short acknowledgment, and a joke.
Not a joke about the disaster, of course. They're not that kind of bastard. (Though they are bastards, over at Goats Central -- and pretty proud of it, too.) Instead, they did what real humorists do. They pointed out the idiosyncrasies of life, in a way that makes you laugh. And that laughter started people thinking that we would get over all of this. "I wrote a funny joke about the tragedy," Diablo says. Diablo, for those not in the know, is a satanic chicken. Somewhat lapsed. And actually, he worships a guy named Stan, but chickens don't have the best eyesight in the world and he misread Stan's nametag. It happens. Philip, one of the two human leads, cautions him against telling anyone. "They'll think you're a deviant," he said. And of course Diablo is a deviant, but no one likes people thinking they're deviants. So, when Diablo protests that the joke is funny, Phillip suggests he just change the subject of it. Instead of horror and destruction, go with penguins! We fade on the pair considering the tragedy of flaming penguins.
From the horror of real life, to burning cartoon penguins scampering about. This is what comedy is supposed to do. When it hurts too much, all you can do is find some way to laugh. And at the same time, when you examine what's happened here -- ten days after the death of fifteen hundred Americans and the inauguration of a new era of fear and warfare, Jonathan Rosenberg and Phillip Karlsson did a burning penguin joke about it -- there's a sense of the horrific. Like if they'd slipped off the tightrope even a little, tens of thousands would have stormed their house and set them on fire, laughing like banshees as the New Yorker and the Swede (or the New Zealander. Or the New Yorker. Apparently, Phillip Karlsson's ancestry is a matter of some convolution) screamed and clawed their eyes with burning hands. "Where's your penguins now?" the ringleader would shout! "Where are they now?"
This, in a nutshell, is what Goats is. It's funny as Hell. It's brave. It doesn't shy away from poking at the most painful things. It's surreal. And you always feel like it's a half-step away from going too far, and then the mob will kill everyone involved.
They do cross over that line, from time to time. One of their recurring characters is a hideous amalgamation of Scott Baio and a gecko (at least, if you take his eyes as an indicator). He's obsessed with feces. He's creepy as Hell. And when he shows up, I'm always one inch away from running in terror. It's not that it isn't funny. It is. But it also edges over the line. It wants to edge over the line, sometimes for good solid comedy reasons and sometimes because lines seem to offend Rosenberg and Karlsson. For proof of that, you just have to look at the way they got offended when Hershey's enjoined them from selling merchandise based on their Jesus' Peanut Butter Cups strip. When they got angry, they naturally pushed vastly farther over the line they were told they'd crossed, with the Fecesâ„¢ Brand Penis Butter Cups plotline. ("I've never seen so many nipples on a candy bar, before.") Hell hath no fury like Cartoonists being pissed off.
I make this sound like a full on collaboration, when really the strip is pretty solidly in Rosenberg's hands. Karlsson does the web site, the servers, the underbody work, and takes some of the profits from the enterprise, which, like Rosenberg, he then converts into beer. And the site is about as good as any database driven website I've ever seen -- it's clean, it loads well, it gives many different methods to get into the archive, and it's pleasant to look at while not getting in the way of the comic strip itself. And that's exactly as it should be.
The comic strip, on the other hand, is a nice example of using traditional and virtual tools to produce a nice, clean comic strip. Rosenberg's been doing this since 1997, and you can see the tremendous evolution of his toolset and his artistic style. The first two strips seemed to be the opening of yet another comic strip about a couple of roommate losers who never go out and who can't score with women. Then, on the third day, Thor showed up and gave the pair a magical goat named Toothgnip. It's been like that ever since.
Rosenberg isn't afraid of stylistic risk, either. Semi-regularly, Diablo is inspired to pick up the story of his earlier life with Shazam Twix. During these times, the artwork becomes perfunctory bits in the corners while the panels of the comic strip are filled with cramped writing. Writing that reads like Hunter S. Thompson and Mickey Spillane had a love child, no less. You can just imagine how many vodka tonics that mating took. These flights of near stream of consciousness fancy also introduced the series antagonist (such as he is), Gregor Mendel, who along with his genetically mutated band of mobile pea plants seeks to take over the world.
All of this hasn't even gone into the secondary cast (or even all of the primary cast). Rosenberg feels free to let his creativity explode all over the page without a moment's notice. There are evil sentient cheeses and gimped up sex dwarves. (Done significantly before Something Positive's Pepito, I would add.) There's Jerrill, a creepy little programmer who has distilled the essence of human thought into the three eternal concepts of death, sexuality, and evil mostly by saying "Die! Die! Die! Fornicate! 666!" and nothing else. There's our hero, Chessmaster 2000, and his mighty Speak and Spell. ("Spell LOSER. L-O-S-E-R"). There's Lori, who used to torment Jon by teasing him and then breaking his will. Then she died and came back as a zombie, which improved her personality. There's Neil and Bob, the aliens who were supposed to invade and instead just kind of bum around, drink, and play hamster-based role playing games. And always, the sweet, innocent Fish, who lives in beer.
And then there's Jon, Philip, Megan, Lauren, Toothgnip and Diablo. The lead characters, who are all clinically insane, but have flashes of lucidity just long enough to comment on the insanity of those who surround them.
This is not a nice, safe comic strip. This strip will kick your ass if you don't go into it with the right expectations. It's surreal, sometimes disgusting, and savagely funny. If it senses fear or weakness on your part, it drives at your throat. This isn't Count Your Sheep by any stretch of the imagination. Parents who see this will be horrified that their children might see it. Children, naturally, will love this strip passionately, because kids think poop is hysterical.
Which probably leads to the largest problem with Goats. Rosenberg is so versatile and funny it's almost frightening. He has sophistication and skill, able to shift gears between gag-a-day humor and surreal continuity at the drop of a hat. Sometimes, when he falls back on squishy poop jokes and Scott Baio, it feels like he's using them as a crutch he doesn't need -- like he goes back to the shock value because he has to, even though he clearly doesn't need to.
At the same time, take Baio and poop out of Goats, and maybe it wouldn't be Goats any more, and that would just be tragic. The challenge for newcomers is to trust in Rosenberg's skill, backtrack through the logs to get the unique feel of the strip, and accept what's to come.
Until, of course, the day Rosenberg falls over the line. Then they need to gather the torches and head out to burn them alive. With luck, that won't be for some time, but it will clearly happen. And deep down, I don't think Rosenberg and Karlsson want it any other way.