Thursday, October 6, 2011

Talking with Richard Stevens

This is the first in a very occasional series of interviews I plan to do. These first posts will concentrate on my new-found obsession: Web comics. ® R Stevens
If you're reading this, that means you're on the Internet and if you're on the Internet, then you probably already know who Richard Stevens is. For those out of the loop, Stevens is the creator of the wildly popular And Diesel Sweeties is among the first generation of web comics. It's been in existence for eleven years now. It's stood the test of time and the fickle tastes of a media-saturated audience. And it's funny, too. Can't forget that.

Stevens was nice enough to answer some questions about how he goes about making his web comic and how he balances it with the business that it has inspired. (Short answer: He doesn't).

I'd like to thank him very much for taking the time to speak to me.

AG: What led you to pursue web comics versus print comics?

RS: I never saw any kind of divide between the two. When I started (eleven years ago!) there wasn’t much in the way of a professional web comics scene. The plan was to try out comic concepts online and get feedback before going to print. I just wound up never leaving.

AG: And what was the inspiration behind creating Diesel Sweeties?

RS: I wanted to write about relationships and thought that robots would make a good stand-in for clueless men. It spiraled out of control and into more of an ensemble cast gag strip and I was powerless to stop it.

AG: You did a syndicated version of Diesel Sweeties for a time, but then stopped. Can you talk about that experience and why you decided to cease the syndicated strip? The old paradigm of comics seems like it was you tried as hard as you could to get into syndication and then you did everything you could to maintain it.

RS: I did the syndicated version as an experiment when I was approached by an acquisitions editor for a now-dead major syndicate. I never planned to or wanted to be in newspapers, but I figured I’d be stupid to turn down those guaranteed riches! The joke was on me when I found out that newspaper comics sections were shrinking and fairly calcified. I got out of my contract as soon as legally possible, thanks to a clause about a minimum level of income that I was nowhere near earning.

AG: Can you talk, in general terms, about the merchandise you sell on the site? It seems that most web comics make money off of the things they sell. Was that part of your strategy going into the field, or was it something that developed over time?

RS: I can’t speak for other cartoonists, but I really enjoy merchandise. I’ve always bought t-shirts and books and dumb little awesome things, so offering them to people seemed like a natural fit for me. This doesn’t work for everyone. My theory is that you really have to like what you’re selling to sell it. Like everything else about my early business plan, the only plan was that there was no plan. (it didn’t hurt that I had a job at the time.)

AG: Were there strips you attempted before you tried Diesel Sweeties?

RS: Nothing major, notable or archived. I did minicomics in college, but they are long gone.

AG: While there are recurring characters and plot lines that develop over time, Diesel Sweeties feels like a gag strip. Have you ever considered doing something with more of a narrative arc?

RS: It feels like a gag strip because that’s what I’m aiming for. My goal has always been to write as close to Peanuts as I can but with characters who have sex. I’ve written and pitched some longer works. Nothing’s come to fruition yet, but it’s certainly something I see myself doing.

AG: As a follow up, It feels like most successful web comics are gag strips. Do you think it would be possible for a narrative strip to catch on in the same way as gag strips?

RS: I guess it depends on your definition of “catch on”. Story comics are harder to merchandise, but I imagine they could more easily sell books. (or sell book rights to publishers) We live in a world of apps and ebooks nowadays. There’s no reason a narrative comic couldn’t be fabulously successful.

AG: When was the moment you knew that you were going to succeed? Did you go into the web comics business with a definable end goal, or was it more organic?

RS: I started with no goal and hopefully will never feel like I’ve succeeded. Even now, I still wonder how much longer I can survive as an independent artist. Hopefully a little longer!

AG: Do you follow a routine throughout the day? If so, can you describe it?

RS: I tend to do “office work” in daylight and creative work at night. My drawing and writing time is generally from about 9pm to midnight. My days are filled with t-shirt folding and mailing and designing and every other one of the billion tasks that pay the bills. Most days, I don’t know what I’ll be doing until I’ve done it.

AG: How do you balance the creative and business aspects of Diesel Sweeties?

RS: I daresay I don’t have any balance in any aspect of my work life. I never miss deadline and never give up that window of comics time at the end of the day. That’s the closest I can think of.

AG: And how does social media fit into the mix? You seem particularly active on Twitter. Is this part of an overall strategy to drive traffic to the site, or are you just blowing off steam?

RS: Twitter feels like it was designed for me. I used to throw silly away messages on my IM and screw around on message boards. Nowadays, I get to do my goofy short writing for a large audience. I see it as a combination of communication and a second comic strip. It cracks me up when people following me have no idea I draw a comic but stick around for my puns.

AG: Do you see yourself continuing with Diesel Sweeties forever, or do you think you might end it someday to pursue other creative ventures?

RS: Couldn’t say. I think if I thought about the end, I’d lose interest. I am mentally committed to hitting 3,000 comics and will give it some thought then. That’ll be somewhere around twelve years of work!

AG: Is there any parting advice you'd give to someone considering starting up a web comic?

RS: Don’t be one of those jerks who posts an update schedule on your site only to constantly apologize for missing deadlines. Just be who you are and work at the best pace you can. Never apologize for anything. Do your work and get better every day.

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