Editor’s note: R Stevens, creative madman behind Diesel Sweeties, is heading to the newspapers! There have been lots of questions in various places around the web about what this means for Stevens, for DS, and for webcomics in general. As part of Fleen’s continuing series on syndication vis-a-vis webcomics, we present the following interview with Stevens; it’s a bit lengthy, but the guy is just too quotable to edit to any measurable degree.
Stevens: It’s all Ted Rall. I knew him casually from being in one of the Attitude books he edited. He sent me an email saying I should contact him about a really important project, so I wrote him back and the penny dropped on my HEAD like a punch bowl full of hammers. I never thought I’d be suitable for something like this, so I never submitted on my own. Had I not been contacted by someone I already knew and trusted, I would have assumed the whole thing was a joke and not even replied.
Fleen: What’s the duration of your contract? What are your short- and medium-term goals for the strip?
My short term goals are to maintain all my responsibilities, get a helper for my t-shirt stuff to free up drawing time and to invent new euphemisms for sex that make people laugh.
Long-term goals include getting better at writing and drawing, working my ass off and maybe becoming energy independent. Meeting Catbert would be awesome but probably greedy at this point.
Fleen: How many papers does UFS want to place you in for launch? What sort of growth curve are they anticipating for the next couple of years?
Stevens: I don’t know the answer to that and don’t really want to speculate. How about all newspapers in this dimension and geometric growth not unlike a nuclear chain reaction? This is the part that UFS is best at and I don’t wanna get in the way. I have it under advisement that at least one of the sales guys has a mustache, which is pretty exciting to me in its own right.
Fleen: Syndicates carry strips that are inoffensive, by definition. How will DS have to change to get placed in morning papers? What kind of editorial input are you expecting? Buddy Hackett used to do Disney movies, and tell jokes that couldn’t get past network censors during the commercial breaks on Carson. Are you going to have to split your creative effort that way?
Stevens: That’s a great analogy that I’d have never thought of. You have officially “dated” yourself in the name of journalism.
If you look at the hundreds of pages of DS out there, you’ll notice there’s probably as much clean stuff as dirty stuff. I’m planning to just sift and filter ideas based on content and format and put them in the slot they fit best. If anything, working on shorter dailies has really forced me to tighten up on my regular writing. My mutant power is bad haiku. My secondary mutation is the ability to turn into soft-serv.
Fleen: The absolutely newest strip (by at least a decade) on the comics page of my local paper is 8 years old. I’d estimate the median age of what I’m given on a daily basis at more than 30 years. Syndicates only pick up 1 or 2 new strips a year at most because there are huge, entrenched readerships that don’t want anything other than Blondie, Beetle Bailey and The Family Circus. What’s your master plan to win over people who don’t come from your regular readership?
Stevens: I don’t think you can make people like things. I’m just going to do my best and not take it personally if people take time to warm up to me. I’ll just have to outlast them.
Fleen: When you say, maintaining my own copyright, does that mean the credit line in the newspapers will read © Rich Stevens and not © United Features?
Stevens: The tag as I typed it out in my samples is © 2006 R Stevens :: Distributed by United Feature Syndicate
The secondary small text line simply reads www.clango.org
I’m signing my Sunday title panels with my email, which is just to bring the point home that I’m half-Polish and half-Internet till the day I die. I don’t really know what that has to do with being Polish, I just like to say it.
Fleen: Will the papers be keeping their hands off your existing merchandise sales? Will you have to split all future merchandise sales with them, or will there be syndicate-specific items (like books, mousepads, and coffee mugs)? Are they going to object to existing merchandise like MC Menses and I Screw Robots and Jesus Helps Me Trick People shirts?
Stevens: I get to keep doing as I please in all the categories of stuff we agreed on. That’s everything on my site, plus something really neat that isn’t up … just yet.
Nobody objected to my existing shirts, so I’m assuming I can still do as I please as long as I keep horribly offensive stuff out of UFS’s backyard. No pixel Goatses or Tubgirls, but I wasn’t really going there anyway. They get a pretty minimal amount off my regular sales but only as a percentage of what traffic they send me.
They can make other forms of merchandise, but we have to come to an agreement on larger deals. I’m pretty confident in the quality of the shirts I sell. I’m willing to take this gamble.
Fleen: How are you going to preserve your distinctive pixel style at the very small sizes of newspaper comics?
Stevens: I ordered some undiluted, raw pixels from Hokkaido, Japan. They are very expensive, but you can’t put a price tag on the squarest items known to man. I do not advise snorting them.
Fleen: Is this a change in philosophy on the part of the syndicates? Are we going to be seeing more new strips being developed and offered, and other webcomics approached for similar deals? Are you the first artist in a new wave, or are you going to be the token new guy? Does your deal mean that the syndicates have decided to finally try attracting new readers instead of hoping the existing ones die off more slowly?
Stevens: If this is in fact a new philosophy on the part of the syndicates, I think it’s very forward-thinking and realistic. I don’t know of anyone other than UFS going this way, and it’s still pretty new for them. A smart syndicate would snap up Scary Go Round, Boy on a Stick & Slither, PVP, and Goats, STAT.
I know of one or two others UFS was talking to but I’m not sure if I can talk about it. Let’s just say they are speaking to the most well-mannered man I know about some kind of deal.
I wish the big two American comics publishers would think outside of the box like this. They are missing out on so many sales by not trying new things and fencing themselves off from the web. No wonder I like NextWave so much, it’s fresh, dense and covered in a thick sheen of Inter-Net-Jesus.
Fleen: If the syndicates are going to be willing to loosen up some of their control, make the environment better for their creators, and allow them to make a living as cartoonists, what kind of changes do you see coming for the medium? I’m kind of hoping for a Dramatic Rebirth of the Great American Comic Strip, but it’s going to take a wholesale change on the part of syndicates and newspapers.
Stevens: None of us can make up for the loss of Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts or The Far Side. Maybe a dozen new strips could put a dent in the hole that’s in my heart from those two retirements. I’m hoping for the best. I am also hoping to become pals with Catbert! I like the cut of his jib. (Catbert is real)
Fleen: You’re going to be drawing more than twice as many comics as you do now. Is there enough Red Bull to keep you going?
Stevens: There is never enough Red Bull, Gary. Never. Our kidneys just don’t want us to have any fun.
Comics are exercise. I’m just going to start working out harder and pace myself. I just finished the entirety of the sample strips and revisions this afternoon. 24 dailies + 2 Sundays + extra artwork + my regular schedule and no deadlines missed. It’s nice to be single, aside from the crushing depression.
Kirby used to write and pencil three books a month, so I think I can handle writing a couple jokes in Photoshop every day. If I can reach 1% of that dude’s power, I will declare victory and retire.
Fleen: Does this mean that there will never be enough time for the Stevens/Allison IRON MAN project?
Stevens: I would learn to meditate and sleep three hours a day if it meant doing Iron Man & Dazzler Vs. the Kang the Conqueror and his Chronologically-Displaced Orchestra with Johnny. I miss comic books so badly these days. There’s so little out there that reads like a comic book anymore.
Fleen wishes to thank Rich Stevens for his time and candor; if you have any questions regarding webcomics, syndication, or who looks better on roller skates (I seem to remember Kitty Pride had a brief flirtation with them, too), the contact link is only a click away.