The webcomics blog about webcomics

Maybe Not So Much

Only print pays. — Ted Rall, SPLAT! Symposium, 15 March 2008

You may have noticed some sidebar text at Diesel Sweeties last night:

As of mid-August, DS is ending its run in newspapers and going back to being web-only! Why? Because I’m an optimist, I opted out.

You may recall the coverage this page gave to Rich Stevens and his syndication deal a year and a half ago. Now he’s decided that the newspaper isn’t the place for him, which is odd. We’ve been told that for a cartoonist, syndication is the end goal, but in the past two years, we’ve seen two traditional, all-ages strips leave semi-syndication and now Stevens is leaving the full-bore deal. We at Fleen decided to talk to him about it.

Fleen: What’s the last day DS runs in papers?

Stevens: August 10, unless something changes.

Fleen: When do you turn in that last submission?

Stevens: Loan me Dr. Doom’s time machine and I’ll tell you! This may retcon my previous answer.

Fleen: Anything you want to accomplish in your remaining time?

Stevens: To be honest, I’m just doing my best and trying not to get Senioritis. I won’t be giving up any of the characters and can grow and change them for the first time in a couple years. This hardly feels like an ending.

Fleen: What was the prime factor in deciding to quit?

Stevens: Not to sound like a jerk, but time and money. I was (currently still am) spending 12+ hours a day 5.5 days a week keeping my business afloat and doing 12 comics a week. My website and merch were a little over 90% of my gross income last year. When the workload starting making me sicker and fatter, it was pretty much a no-brainer which job had to go.

(And before there is any argument from the Peanuts-worshipping gallery, this was my experience. It is not true for all newspaper strips or print cartoonists, but I lived it and have the debt and carpal tunnel to prove it.)

Fleen: How many papers did you get to pick up the strip? What kind of plans did the syndicate have to increase that?

Stevens: Overall, I think about 50 papers ran DS at one point or another. Some loved it, some hated, some didn’t care. It was a pretty respectable launch, especially in a down newspaper market. If I had no other creative outlet, I’d have stuck around. That’s a hell of a lot of people, even if they’re generally less interested than a web reader.

Stevens: I’m not sure what plans they had or if I should guess. All I know is they had one amazing sales mofo named Ron who is a golden god in my eyes. Sadly, he was only one man.

It’s natural in these things for us geeks to spring on the “Evil Syndicate“, but I don’t blame ’em for anything. They can’t force editors to dump 80-year-old comics and they can’t legally kill all the rabid Snuffy Smith fans who would set the world ablaze if he ever left print.

I’m not saying they aren’t working on ways to kill these people, but I don’t think radioactive nanodagger ink is ready for prime time yet.

Fleen: What would have been the alternatives that would have kept you in the papers?

Stevens: If the cash was there, I’d have considered scaling back on my web strip and creating a saner schedule. The internet not only pays my modest salary, it’s also my first love. I’m really glad I never gave up on the web.

There’s a freedom to completely running your own show that I’ve really missed. Most traditional cartoonists think we web guys are insane and waste all our golf time designing t-shirts and worshipping Satan, but you know what? There’s only one totally positive American trait: scrappy entrepreneurism.

In this liminal state, where print is dying and webcomics are rising, I know of no syndicated cartoonist who has been syndicated since 2000, who doesn’t have a second job. — Dave Kellett, Blank Label panel, San Diego Comic-Con 2006

Fleen: Any idea what your print efforts worked out to on a per-strip basis? Did you clear minimum wage?

Stevens: I tried not to ever quantify the dollars per strip or invent an hourly rate. So much of cartooning is experimenting, editing, throwing things away and free associating that giving yourself set times leads to less fulfilling work.

Fleen: Okay, so how did the syndicate checks compare to the “day job” of webcomics & merch?

Stevens: In the words of MC Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This.”

Fleen: What positive things are you taking away from all this?

Stevens: It was grad school. Med school. Boot camp. The editorial help I got working with Ted was awesome. Having another pair of eyes questioning my writing was incredibly helpful. Would never have gotten that anywhere else.

The perspective of going from moderately well-known on the internet to an absolute nobody in the outside world was really useful as well. Working for a completely new audience who couldn’t give a shit about obscure band lyrics and computer in-jokes forced me to grow a whole lot of new comedy muscles. Hopefully I can still move my neck.

The other positive thing is the joy that I dodged a bullet. You know the bullet where a loved project becomes a fifty year millstone one never gets to put down until one drops dead.

Fleen: So that’s seven fewer strips a week you have to deliver — what will you do with the free time?

Stevens: I’m going to gut my apartment and website and make up for about two years of neglect. I’ll probably lose interest in the apartment a week in and start one of about six blogs/webcomics I’ve had on the back burner.

Somewhere in there, I’m gonna sit down and make a collected book of the newspaper strips: Dead Tree Experiment is a nice title, don’t you think?

Fleen: Yes.

Stevens: I kind of miss getting regular exercise, too.

Fleen: Stepping away from the comics page opens a slot — any preference what the newspaper editors use to fill it?

Stevens: Boy on a Stick & Slither.

Steven Cloud is one of the true unsung geniuses of webcomics. He took a web-only deal with the same syndicate right after I did and wound up having newspaper editors special order his strip. There are a lot of really good family friendly comics out there, but BOASAS is the only one I never miss.

Fleen thanks Stevens for his time and candor; he has agreed to answer your followup questions, so send them to our contact page and we’ll run them at a future date. Fleen also reminds you that BOASAS creator Steven Cloud is getting ready to tempt death by yak-trampling. His Uzbekistani disguise-beard is coming along nicely, and he could use your support in his charity efforts.

Great interview! It’s very interesting since syndication is often viewed as the Holy Grail for a lot of cartoonists, yet here’s R. Stevens coming to the conclusion that webcomics was where it was at in the first place. And it’s not such a different business model, either: where would Peanuts and Garfield be today without the loads of mechandise they sold/still do sell?

Speaking of things that worked for Peanuts, when will we see “It’s Christmastime, Clango”?

– Rose

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