Rich Stevens has been creating the webcomic “Diesel Sweeties” since 2000 and stands as one of the major webcomic success stories and a model for many creators. He was a co-founder of the Dumbrella alliance of webcartoonists and for a year and a half created a syndicated version of “Diesel Sweeties” which was published in newspapers through United Features Syndicate. The run of the series continues to be available for free online as free PDF collections. Stevens’ gift for humor is evident in much of the merchandise he sells, and today the strip remains as inventive and funny as ever.
This year, Stevens has teamed with Oni Press to begin releasing “Diesel Sweeties” in book form. The first volume, on sale now, is “Diesel Sweeties: I’m a Rocker, I Rock Out.” The book, to quote the description, “boils down hundreds of strips of music elitist snobbery into an intensely potent jam of cheerful disdain and will heap minute upon extended minute of enjoyment into your life.” It does all that and more, and Stevens spoke with CBR News about his long-running webcomic and new collection.
CBR News: You’ve been doing this for a long time, but where did the look of “Diesel Sweeties” come from?
Rich Stevens: I started with the concept “Robot Boyfriend” and started hand-drawing comic strips. I didn’t find my ink art to be terribly compelling or relevant to robots, so I flushed those and started experimenting with other ways to draw a comic strip.
Pixels clicked for me because they said “robots!” really clearly, but also had a friendly feel. I figured even if people didn’t like the comic, they’d remember the artwork. At the time, no one was really doing pixels as a nostalgic thing because we barely out of that era of gaming. It was a pleasant surprise when other people began to appreciate them as an art form.
How do you work?
I’m one of the few who still sit down every night few hours before deadline and start writing and drawing for midnight.
I start out by sketching panels and writing out dialogue on a legal pad. The real drawing is all done in Photoshop on a 3-panel grid with the pencil tool. The whole thing is muscle memory at this point. I probably use the arrow keys in my drawings more than anyone else in comics. I put everything on the server manually and flip the switch on an updater script that’s been chugging along since 2002 or so.
After working on the comic this long, what keeps you interested in the strip and working in this style?
Writing daily on the same project over years has been an amazing education. You get over performance anxiety and worrying about perfection and you just go. If it’s not perfect today, you get a shot to get it right tomorrow. It’s a process of slow evolution and learning. It’s really fun. I’ve gotten so much clearer and sharper with my use of language.
The style just feels natural to me. I still have a half dozen old black and white Macs and my childhood Apples IIGS. I’ve got a small army of arcade games in my shipping office. There’s just something about having grown up alongside computers that makes me happy. I could never get tired of drawing this way.
Pac-Man machines are pretty cheap if you look around on Craigslist. They’re a highly effective method of meditation and you get to save an old robot from being thrown away. Win-win.
In recent years you’ve experimented with releasing strips as free e-books, and last year you did a Kickstarter campaign to collect all the strips into a large e-book. Now you’re releasing collections of the strip through Oni Press. How are these collections being organized?
I feel that my website (and now e-books) is a comprehensive record of everything I’ve ever done. Thousands of comics done in real time over a billion years are there, in exactly the order I made them. I don’t touch them unless there’s a spelling error or a mis-colored pixel. I’m not allowed to look back, only to go forward.
Books are a chance to take the long view and make something permanent. I pitched the idea of doing the print collections by theme as a chance to pick the very best of my strips and edit them down into something tighter. Every single page gets taken apart, edited, rebuilt and recolored for print. It’s a little insane.
Having an editor (Hi, Jill!) and a production schedule is the only way for me to face down a task this big. They’re letting me design the books, which means my college education is finally being used correctly.
How did you connect with Oni and decide to publish with them?
I’ve followed Oni’s output forever, but I got talking to them one year at SPX where our tables were next to each other. I liked the vibe I got off of them. They’re small enough that it is possible to know everyone in the office, but they’re big and organized enough that they get huge stuff done.
My experience being syndicated in newspapers was so traumatic that I didn’t want to give my personal work to a company I couldn’t trust. Oni is exactly the right place for me. I’m really excited that one of my oldest friends in webcomics came with me. John Allison’s “Bad Machinery” books are gorgeous.
I am still trying to talk John into doing a pitch for grey Iron Man’s off panel roller skating adventures. One of these days.
How did you decide to make the first book about music and make a book that “boils down hundreds of strips of music elitist snobbery into an intensely potent jam of cheerful disdain,” as the book description reads?
So much of what I write is an exercise in trying to stop being an elitist snob who rejects everything as soon as more than three people like it. I’ve wanted to sit down and deconstruct the entire concept for a long time. I like to think of it as a confession told in the form of jokes.
What are the plans for future books coming out from Oni?
I’m deep into a second book about bacon, vegetarians and coffee. I wonder if this is the right place to ask if I could talk them into a scratch and sniff cover?
Do you have any other ideas for what the future volumes will be?
Yes, but we haven’t decided on anything yet. I’d rather not tease people on those and wind up doing something else.
How often are we going to see the books? Once a year? More often?
It’s shaping up to be about two a year now that we’ve got the engine running.
What is involved as far as assembling the books? How much is simply finding the books and putting them in order and how much editing is involved?
Editing is the vast majority of the work. I have most of my comics categorized by character and topic, but none of them are anywhere near the same shape as these books. (or each other, sometimes.) I spend at least an hour per strip tearing the original Photoshop files apart, trying really hard not to rewrite every single word, and then rebuilding them for print.
What makes Easthampton, Massachusetts the perfect center of the webcomics world?
Most people would say it’s the friendly arts culture of the whole valley, but we all know cartoonists don’t really socialize. For me, it’s all the fun old industrial infrastructure that people are re-using. Factories have been converted to studios and offices, train lines to bike paths, stuff like that. I like the character of it. It’s nice, but it’s not fancy.
All we really need are more food trucks.
So what’s next for “Diesel Sweeties?”
I’ll know at midnight!
“Diesel Sweeties: I’m a Rocker, I Rock Out” is available now from Oni Press.