Welcome to the final interview in this round of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best comics online. Today, we talk to the creator of one of the longest-lived – and most twisted – webcomics around.
Since 2000, Richard “R” Stevens has brought us the pixilated human-cyber relations of Diesel Sweeties, the tale of Clango Cyclotron, a robot who is as confounded about relations with the opposite sex as most flesh-and-blood males. It doesn’t help that he’s in an on-and-off thing with the equally-complicated Maura (“on-and-off” meaning they broke up, then got back together when his memory got reset), and that his friends include the likes of the ultra-elitest Indie Rock Pete and the ultra-Goth Pale Suzie. It’s fun, it’s honest, and more than not contains a few R-rated punchlines.Stevens spoke with us about his experiences chronicling robot love, his brief experience doing a cleaner version of Diesel Sweeties for newspaper syndication on top of his online strip, and the influence of his work.
Newsarama: Richard, you're one of the veterans "in the trenches" we've interviewed for this series. When you started this, webcomics weren't nearly the presence they are today -- what made you want to work in this medium, and what were some of the challenges you encountered?
R. Stevens: I started way back in the dark ages of early 2000. To say that webcomics were less of a presence would be an understatement along the lines of calling WW2 a squabble!
I was doing web development at the time and building lots of quickly abandoned websites on my days off. I'd always been a comic book fan and saw a website as a great way to test out ideas and stories to see which ones people took to. Diesel Sweeties took off fairly quickly and I wound up never getting around to the rest.
The biggest challenges back then are pretty much the same as today: Code and money. I was lucky enough to know a good programmer and have a job, so I just went for it.
Nrama: For that matter, there have been a lot, a LOT of strips done in faux-8-bit pixel since Diesel Sweeties premiered. What's been your reaction to those, positive or negative?Stevens: I try not to look at work which might be similar to my own. Most of the 8-bit comics I've seen over the years have been cut and pasted video game sprites, which I try to ignore because I think it devalues how hard drawing pixel art really is.
Nrama: Has it surprised you how much people have come to care about the characters, or how personally they take something like the memory-wipe storyline? What do you feel makes the characters so relatable?
Stevens: I like to think that each of the major characters is a representation of one or more of my personality flaws. (There are many.) I've also always tried to write with characters first and continuity second. I think people enjoy seeing familiar faces working out familiar struggles.
Peanuts is my model for day-to-day writing. Never miss a comic, stay true to the characters, dump on them as you have been dumped on and make sure they never give up. It's about as basic a human tale as you can get.
Nrama: How do you feel your perspective on relationships has changed since you started doing the strip? Or, for that matter, do you find you identify more with different character than the ones who spoke the most to you at the beginning?
Stevens: I used to think I identified with Clango. As a somewhat inept but lovable dude, he kind of stands in for the stereotypical "nice guy." Boy, was I wrong.
I'm way more of an Indie Rock Pete in that I reject a lot of things before even knowing what they are. I aspire to be Lil' Sis, the character who wound up *actually* being at the center of things. She knows everybody, defers to nobody and has absolutely no use for anyone else's bullshit.
Nrama: For that matter, how do you feel you've evolved as a writer/artist?
Stevens: I've never been a super great draftsman. Most of my education was graphic design. Visually, I think I've gotten a lot better at removing detail and figuring out how lettering and subtle facial expressions work. I've also become obsessed with trying to add meaning or emotion with color.
It's been a much harder road writing-wise. I think that's where I've grown the most.Nrama: Doing the hard-copy syndicated version of the strip meant you had a Herculean -- some would say masochistic -- output for a few years there. What would you say you learned from that experience? Do you feel online comics have overtaken the classic newspaper format -- at least in terms of the ability to grow and maintain an audience – and what do you feel syndicates could be doing to take better advantage of the possibilities online?
Stevens: Doing a syndicated comic is rough. Seven days a week means you never get a day off unless you did extra work on another day. Doing a syndicated strip on top of a daily webcomic is insane.
Obviously, the whole thing was a great learning experience but an economic bust. I'm still kind of recovering from the extra work causing me to lose focus on what I actually survive off of - t-shirts, socks and the like.
I try to look at it as grad school. I walked out in debt, but I got a great education in writing out of it. The editorial help I received was really helpful. You can't buy that kind of on the job training. It also built me some serious idea-generating muscles. Writer's block just doesn't happen for me when I don't take extended breaks.
It was worth it in the end. I'd really like to try writing in other professional mediums sometime and see what I learn from that. Writing's where my passion really lies. I never stop telling jokes and making up stupid stories. That's why some people find me kind of difficult to hang out with.
Seriously, a good conversation should be like a sparring match. It keeps you healthy!
Nrama: I'm also curious as to what you feel have been the biggest advantages and disadvantages of making the archives available via Creative Commons, and what you feel more creators should understand about using such a license.
Stevens: Honestly? People are going to repost and save and duplicate your comics. You might as well put a license on there and offer up the rights you're comfortable giving up. I feel that saying someone can non-commercially duplicate my work shows that I live in reality while still showing that I value my work commercially.
I like it when people repost my work as long as I still get credit and my link is on there. Nobody's ever going to leak a ton of my strips before I publish them because they don't exist yet.
I survive off my work in real time as if I were a musician on tour, which is weird because live music really stresses me out.
Nrama: And the ultimate fan question: With whom do YOU think Clango should wind up?Stevens: Ideally, he would figure out how to branch off into a million separate sub-personalities and wind up with everybody. That's my plan as soon as I get the time machine working.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite comics/creators, online and off?
Stevens: Ah, the impossible question! Here's who comes to mind after staring into space for a few minutes.
John Allison is still one of my favorite artist-writers. Nobody grows and pushes and evolves in webcomics like Johnny. Matt Fraction is killing it lately in both the mainstream and creator-owned arenas.
I'm still regularly blown away by Kirby, Ditko and Aragonés. I'll never get tired of John Byrne, especially with him back on the Next Men. Seeing that book come back and live up to all my expectations is exactly how seeing The Phantom Menace should have felt in a perfect world.
Nrama: What have been some of the biggest opportunities/challenges with new delivery systems such as the iPad and mobile phone content, and what do you feel creators could be doing to take advantage of these opportunities?
Stevens: I'm still trying to figure that out. I think there's a big opportunity for free webcomics to offer better app-style experiences to readers while selling some electronic upgrades along with the traditional merchandise. I'd have to get back to you on that.
Nrama: What's the biggest challenge in keep the jokes and characters fresh for both readers and yourself after all these years?
Stevens: I honestly don't know if it's fresh for other people, but I'm still having a great time. I do my writing almost exactly to deadline every night, one comic at a time. Hopefully that keeps it from getting too boring or repetitive.
Nrama: Have you ever come up with a strip so filthy that it offended even you, and if so, which one and why?
Stevens: I don't really get offended. I try to keep my truly vile jokes for my friends. I write for a PG-13 audience because that's what I feel suits my comic the most, but find me at a con some time and I'll disgust you.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Stevens: I'm hoping to be writing a graphic novel this year for an actual publisher. All I can tell you is it's creepy and involves food.
Keep up with the lives and loves of the Diesel Sweeties every day at www.dieselsweeties.com.
That’s it for this round, but there’s plenty more webcomics out there, and we’re already arranging some interviews with some exciting new creators! Keep watching Newsarama for more Wide World of Webcomics – or check out our archives!