Saturday, June 18, 2011

Q&A with Diesel Sweeties creator Richard Stevens

Richard Stevens is the quirky, idiosyncratic 34-year-old creator of Diesel Sweeties, a popular web comic filled with random pop culture references, nerd humor and sentient, talking robots.

Stevens began Sweeties in 2000 and has been able to focus on it full-time since 2002. Before the strip, he worked as a graphic designer and built tech support websites for a Connecticut phone company.

Aside from admitting he originates from Southington, Conn., Stevens declined to discuss his upbringing and his family, because, “some are in the public sector and I make dick jokes.”

Today, Stevens is firmly ensconced in Easthampton, Mass., where he spends his days at Eastworks, a converted factory building that houses various young professionals and plays host to the now-annual New England Webcomics Weekend, a yearly gathering of web cartoonists.

In addition to writing and drawing a five-days-a-week web comic, Stevens has also carved out for himself a niche of geeky merchandise he sells through the Diesel Sweeties website. Stevens designs T-shirts, socks, stickers and bags for a very specific type of audience. For instance, one of his designs is of a sheep plugged into an electrical outlet, an allusion to the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted as the film, Blade Runner.

Stevens, in perpetual need of a shave, is quiet in a crowd, though he is an avid tweeter under the handle, @rstevens, where he once tweeted, “It still amazes me how my work is most successful when I don’t analyze anything, but rather do stuff I’m personally crazy about.”

What brought you to Easthampton?

I’ve been coming up this way to clear my head since I could drive. First visited for the long dead and lamented Words and Pictures Museum. I moved here in 2004 when I needed to get the heck out of Connecticut and a friend pointed out an interesting converted factory building to me.

How did you decide you wanted to do web comics?

It wasn’t a conscious decision to pick web over print. Originally, the plan was to test out comic ideas on the web and see which I’d self-publish. It worked out better than expected!

Was Diesel Sweeties your first attempt at a web comic?

[It] was my first serious web comic. I posted some hand-drawn story stuff on college servers in the mid-’90s, but the talent and the audience weren’t there yet.

Why web comics, as opposed to strictly print comics? Do you feel there’s a discernible difference between the two formats?

Why not? I personally feel that “it’s all comics” and an author should look at their project and decide where it fits best. Daily humor and the like seem to work best online. Books are still the best way to take in big stories. Subject matter counts a lot, too. Video games and robots work perfectly on the web, but I’m not sure the same holds true for longer, personal, graphic novels.

The advantage the web has over stores is immediacy. You can always bump into new things with nothing more than a link. No stores or mail order to deal with.

How many readers does Diesel Sweeties attract?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t track everything. Definitely in the tens of thousands of people per day and the hundreds of thousands in a given month, but that isn’t something I worry about.

If you don’t mind my asking, how much revenue does the merchandise bring in? Does the web comic itself turn a profit or do you rely on the merchandise for that?

That’s between me and Turbotax. Let’s just say I’m middle class, don’t think I’ll ever be wealthy, constantly need a little more cash and yet somehow always have a new iPhone.

My comics are a total loss and I’ve never really tried to make money off them. It’s all merchandise, which works for me because I love silly things like T-shirts and toys.

What made you decide to create the T-shirts, hoodies, stickers, socks, et cetera?

I love merchandise, T-shirts and the like. I honestly love this kind of stuff and spend as much time thinking about it as writing comics.

I was lucky enough to know a spectacular T-shirt printer and the price-profit ratio on shirts is great. It just happened. It cracks me up when people tell me they don’t really like my comic but love my T-shirts. That’s a huge compliment! Overcoming distaste to actually get paid means the shirts are good.

Is there a particular Diesel Sweeties strip that you consider a favorite?

Nope. When you do something pretty much daily for one-third of your life, it all blends together. My favorite comic is the one that most recently popped into my head and isn’t done yet.

Where did the ideas for the characters come from? You introduced the strip with Maura, an alcoholic ex-pornstar who used to date the robot Clango. Indie Rock Pete is that obnoxious hipster music snob we all know. Red Robot just wants to crush all hu-mans. It’s a pretty varied cast of characters, human and robot alike. What do they mean to you?

I didn’t realize this at the time, but all the characters who stick around anthropomorphize one of my personality flaws. They all represent something about me and just kind of developed their own names as I drew them.

Do you have a favorite character? Someone you really enjoy writing for?

Following up on above, it depends what is on my mind that day. I think Lil’ Sis is the backbone of the strip, with connections to more characters than anyone else. Not sure that counts as a favorite, but she is the most important to me.

Could you describe your creative process? Do you script out the strips before you start drawing? Do you do both simultaneously?

It is extremely efficient and inefficient at the same time. Basically, jokes pop into my head completely written while I’m doing other work or taking a walk. I guess it’s as close as I get to meditation. That’s the fast part.

I follow that up with a mess of editing and restructuring on paper, then draw and letter it up one strip at a time. I don’t usually work in batches. It’s pretty close to “live” in that it was baked fresh most every day.

What do you use to illustrate the comic? Hardware/software? How has new hardware/software changed the way you’ve drawn Diesel Sweeties over the years?

I sketch on legal pads and in email, then do everything in Photoshop with the pencil tool. I use a Wacom Cintiq for some of the naturalistic drawing, but do 90 percent of it with a mouse and keyboard. You’d laugh if you could see just how much of the “drawing” is done with arrow keys.

The biggest change over the years is speed! For the first time in my career, my laptop is fast enough to keep up with me drawing and pounding on the keyboard.

Why draw the comic in an 8-bit style?

I started with the idea: girl dates robot. Tried about three, four styles until I hit pixels, which clicked for the subject matter.

How geeked (no pun intended) were you when you found out your shirts were going to be featured on The Big Bang Theory? How did that come about? Did they contact you about it, or was someone on the show already a fan of the comic strip?

Pretty geeked!

All credit has to go to Wil Wheaton on that one. He suggested some shirts for his return appearance, having worn Penny Arcade stuff the first time. He showed the staff, the production folks bought a bunch, then he called to ask me to express them over. Took me about .00001 seconds to run to the office and pack ‘em up!

How many conventions do you attend a year? Do you have a favorite con?

It depends on the year. It’s usually about five to 10. I hate prepping for cons and constantly try to talk myself out of the stress of traveling, but love it when I actually get there.

TCAF [Toronto Comics Art Festival] in Toronto is the only show I never threaten to skip, so I guess that is my favorite by default!

How has your con experience changed over the years as Diesel Sweeties has grown in popularity? What was your first con as a pro like compared to today?

Hasn’t really changed much over the years, I’m just a little lazier. Still have to buy our own booths for the most part, still carry our own crap. Biggest change is that we’ve seen fans grow up and change over the years kind of like extended family. That and we have better hand trucks.

I’m curious, could you describe your work area? Do you write/draw at a desk? Are you surrounded by boxes of T-shirts and hoodies?

I’m in a big messy factory room I call “the garage” after the actual garage my dad fixes cars in. My desk is a big, crappy folding table I found in the basement and sawed a bunch of holes in for cables. It’s a total piece of shit and perfect to cover in electronics, coffee and paper.

I keep the T-shirts safe and clean in the next room and work in a chaotic pile of mess. Clutter is comforting and I’m always getting ideas from looking around at all the junk. Old computers, office supplies, all manner of broken industrial junk, clocks set to the wrong time, books, you name it.

Hope that my description of my office, which I will never, ever let anyone take a picture of, doesn’t make me out to be too insane.

Just a little insane.

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