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Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): R. Stevens

Diesel Sweeties

The Webcartoonist: R. Stevens

Current Webcomics: Diesel Sweeties (in both original webcomic and extra crispy newspaper forms!)

Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked

You know, when I sat down to write this essay, I figured it wouldn't be very hard. Richard Stevens Model 3 is a mainstay, after all, and his work is solid -- so solid he ultimately ended up on the physical newspaper page. I know. I've seen him there. In ink. At the time the deal was announced, it was groundbreaking. Stevens would retain ownership and the ability to do the web version of his comic, plus he would retain merchandising and print collection control. In other words, United Feature Syndicate had agreed to license his webcomic for paper inclusion, though Stevens agreed to create custom content for them.

Very 21st century. Very Web 2.0. And it seemed like it was the harbinger of a new age of newspaper comics -- an age where the newspapers recognized the evolving nature of the marketplace and sought out content without the contracts. A golden age, where the Von Trapp family wouldn't need to be put to death for singing on mountainsides.

As it turns out? Not so much. Since this deal, things have more or less chugged along as they had before. But hey, it worked out pretty well for Stevens, didn't it? And that's a cool thing.

So I figured this would be an easy essay to write. Of course, that's before I actually started to write it. Staring at the blank editing window, I realized this wasn't going to be so simple after all. Because the things Stevens does well, Stevens does very well. He nails it pretty much every time out of the gate.

And the things he doesn't do well? He doesn't do at all.

Diesel Sweeties is a Pixel Comic, which is a weird thing to say when you consider every comic on the web is made up entirely of pixels. In the case of Diesel Sweeties, it's designed to look like something eight bit from the mid-nineties. Which isn't to say it's easy. Stevens clearly has spent a lot of time and energy honing his craft, getting his figures to look exactly the way that he wants them to look. He has variations to reflect hair changes, beards, levels of inebriation -- what have you.

But with all the effort he's put into the comics, they still come down, almost entirely, to talking heads comics. A couple of characters face off, they lob banter back and forth. Sometimes someone gets angry. Sometimes a large red robot will be declaring someone's death is about to occur. Regardless, however, what we will see is the scene immediately before things happen, or the scene immediately after things happen.

Which, by the by, is one reason Diesel Sweeties works so well as a newspaper comic. Stevens doesn't need a huge amount or space to make distinctive looking characters who he dialogues well. This is one reason why the newspapers have tended towards talking heads as comic strip size has reduced.

As stated above, the things Stevens does he does exceptionally well. I mentioned the art design, which honestly is great (and that isn't necessarily easy when one is working in an eight bit form). I also mentioned the dialogue, which really comes down to the writing. Stevens is an excellent dialogue writer, and his sense of humor is excellent. Pretty much every strip is going to be a grin, and plenty of those strips will be chuckles and there's even laughs. And if that sounds like faint praise, I would remind you that it's rare that any comic strip will actually cause audible results on a regular basis. To actually produce regular laughter, you need an audience who's sitting together feeding one another triggers in response to the jokes, like a comedian or a Presidential debate.

So. It's well written. And the art design is good. And it makes me smile. Which begs the question of why its Hoi Polloi instead of one of the more enthusiastic ratings.

Well, one reason comes back to Stevens's very success. I read two Diesel Sweeties strips each and every day. The web one might be a little more visually interesting (and often it's a bit saltier, to use a term Cary Grant might have used), but the humor is very similar and the execution surprisingly so -- the extra panels in the web-only version might contain more jokes but it doesn't marginally restructure those jokes.

Further, for all the effort, skill and aesthetic intention Stevens puts into his pixelated creations, in the end he doesn't significantly use body or figure language along with the dialogue. (Though there are exceptions.) He's mostly constrained to facial expression and occasional tricks of color. On occasion that can be very effective, mind, and it's not like this has made Diesel Sweeties a bad comic strip. On the contrary, it's a very good, very solidly written strip. However, it does mean we see fewer tools and techniques employed, and that in turn leads to a certain sameness of strips. And that's the kind of thing that can have a well written strip become less anticipated -- or even taken for granted.

The areas where Stevens has combatted that -- the monumental shakeups (Clango's head comes off, Clango's memory is erased and Indy Rock Pete destroys his backup disk, Maura gets drunk and nails Electron Pete Mike, anyone gets drunk and nails Indy Rock Pete) -- have always served to keep things interesting. Stevens doesn't rest upon a status quo. On the other hand, they're relatively few and far between, which makes them very, very interesting or even shocking when they happen, but it also means a few months of banter go by between them, and that can make the strip fade into the background.

Which leads us to the metrics. It's like rubrics, only you have more of a sense of what the word means, even if you're wrong.

Strengths

As stated above, Stevens is a solid dialogue writer. His characters are both funny and witty, which aren't the same thing. His pacing between strips is well managed, his plot and character evolution is solid, and while he mostly eschews body language, he's great at constructing facial expressions within the pixel medium to convey mood. And the art style is very distinctive and well rendered -- even in the world of pixel art you can usually pick a Richard Stevens piece out at twenty yards.

Both comics update on a rock solid schedule (not that he would have a choice on the newspaper version, mind, but the newspaper comic hasn't been an excuse to let the web version slack, and that's very very cool.

Site design on Stevens's own site is solid. The newspaper version has the basic Comics.com site design, which isn't my favorite but it gets the job done.

Weaknesses

If you look at the above essay, you'll find a huge amount of energy has gone to describing technique. The writing, the art, the visual language, the banter -- stuff like that. I don't go into the themes of the strip, the characters, the interactions, or the actual content of the strip. That derives from that sense of sameness I mention above. A sense which can cross over into the characters themselves, I would add. While the characters aren't precisely cookie-cutter, if you took out all the pictures and just saw the word balloons, it would be hard to distinguish who was talking. You might be able to ID Clango (and Red Robot is something of a gimme), but on any given day Maura, Li'l Sis, Pale Suzy, Indy Rock Pete, Charles, Metal Steve or the like might be making the same jokes said in the same voice with the same crushing sense of disinterested regret. How Stevens does what he does can therefore be more interesting than what Stevens does.

On the Whole

Both versions of this comic are good -- sometimes really good. The comic is distinctive in the marketplace, the humor is spot on, the characters are well developed (even if they all can share a voice), the narrative is shaken up enough to keep things from getting stale. Eight years into the Diesel Sweeties world things remain fresh and fun, and that's a very difficult thing to do. At the same time, the sheer consistency of the comic -- even though the quality of that consistency is high -- means it can settle into the background of the comic reading day; never bad, but rarely leaping out at you.

Of course, Indy Rock Pete would claim he liked it better before it sold out. But then, he's like that.

Wheel of morality, turn turn turn, what is the lesson we should learn... oh! Cool! Tomorrow's column should be fun to write. I like fun. It's fun.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 26, 2008 8:00 AM

Comments

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 9:40 AM

You sure you didn't win a trip to Jamaica, Eric?

Diesel Sweetie tries to be both a gag-a-day and have some semblance of an on going plot line, and I really think D.S. would be much more enjoyable if it went totally towards a having a consistent storyline instead of trying to switch between having actual events happen (like Maura drinking her way to Alaska) and just bantering between Indie Rock Pete and whomever he feels like belittling this day.

Stevens knows what he's doing, and it's worked so far, but I think Diesel Sweeties can be so much more than it is right now.

Comment from: richard stevens [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 10:58 AM

Thanks for the check in, boss! I'm not here to argue or influence, just to make an observation-

Is it just me, or do comics enthusiasts equate "story" with better, while the larger reading public equates "funny and random" with better?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 11:35 AM

I think it in part depends upon the comic and the enthusiast. Something like XKCD would only be hurt by adding heavy story elements, and something like Girl Genius would be hurt if it became way more gag-a-day.

But to be horribly general, I think you've got something here.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 12:58 PM

But why would that be, I wonder? Is it that the enthusiasts see more to these comics than there really are, or does the rest of the world not see far enough?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 1:14 PM

I'm not sure expectation constitutes a binary state. It's not that anyone sees more than there is, but each of us looks for something different. We approach a work of any kind with our own expectations, hopes, dreams, fish, and capacity for disappointment.

Put another way -- largely what we get out of a work depends upon what we've put *into* that work.

Comment from: Jason Seaver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 1:22 PM

I think that it's selection bias to a certain extent. Serials, whatever the medium, give you more to discuss because there's the chance to speculate or compare what's going on now to the past, so when you go to a place that is built for discussion, you'll see the serials getting more talk because they are built for discussion. On the other hand, if you examine the average person's inbox, you'll probably find more links to gag strips.

Basically, it's possible to have a more visible enthusiasm with story-based works, regardless of the medium. Enthusiasts may love gag strips just as much, but there's not as much to talk about, so that enthusiasm is hidden aside from forwarding links to friends.

(Although, yes, there is a large and vocal group of enthusiasts that will tell you that continuing storylines are inherently better.)

Comment from: richard stevens [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 1:35 PM

I'm really glad I'm not hallucinating that bias, abstract and simplified as my version of it was!

Comment from: Dave Menendez [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 1:46 PM

I mostly agree with the main point, so I'd like to focus on an irrelevant side issue: What do people mean when they describe an image or drawing style as "8-bit"?

If you asked me, I'd say an 8-bit image is one which uses at most 256 colors. But I think a lot of people use "8-bit" to describe a style with obvious aliasing and large pixels, regardless of how many colors are used. (I believe Stevens uses more than 256 colors, although I haven't gone and counted.)

In particular, the aliasing in Diesel Sweeties evokes 8-bit images, since anti-aliasing isn't really practical with such a limited palette.

Alternatively, people may just use "8-bit" to mean "evokes the video game systems of the late 1980s to mid 1990s", even though only some of those were 8-bit.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 2:30 PM

Hm. Thinking more on it, I wonder if this goes back to the discussion from last week on XKCD vs. Irregular Webcomic. XKCD, lacking coherent storylines (for the most part) gets huge crosslinkage and penetration in casual groups. Irregular Webcomic is pretty much gag-a-day as well, in similar subject matter, but largely follows the storylines of its different themes.

Interesting to consider....

Comment from: lark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 4:30 PM

What someone needs to do is make a gag-a-day-webcomic that follows the storylines of other storyline webcomics.

No, wait, that's a terrible idea.

(And it may be that Kris Straub already thought of it.)

Comment from: lark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 4:36 PM

Er, to amend that: which is not to say I thought Checkerboard Nightmare was a terrible idea. In fact, I sometimes think I enjoyed it more than his storyline-based Starslip Crisis.

So, that's a point in favor of gag-a-day. Damn me.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 5:01 PM

Checkerboard Nightmare was more about webcomickers and the webcomic industry than about the webcomics themselves. (As I remember; it's been a while since I read through it.)

An up-to-the-minute (figuratively) gag strip about the storylines themselves could be pretty funny. It'd take some serious chops to pull off, though.

Comment from: Zach Weiner [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 27, 2008 12:25 AM

Having done both gag a day and story based (and mixtures), it's been my experience that story-based has stronger loyalty, while gag-a-day has faster growth.

If I had to engineer a comic to grow fast, it would be fairly abstract in art style, few words, with topical gag-a-day strips pertaining to a group with a strong blog presence. Abstract art and few words make it easy to read, topical means you regularly produce linkbait, and a strong blog presence improves loyalty while exploiting the linkbait.

I think my own comic has some of these qualities, but I tend to steer away from topical stuff. That said, the few times I have gone there (say, with an evolution joke or a joke involving superheroes) I've gotten medium to large traffic surges.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 27, 2008 8:23 AM

Maybe it's the video game geek in me, but I always though that, between the amount of detail, the amount of colors, and the size of the pixels, that Stevens was shooting for a 16-bit graphics style (and given the 8-bit era ended in 1991, anything from the mid-nineties would be 16-bit or proto-32-bit).

Comment from: TasteMyHouse [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 27, 2008 8:41 AM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beg_the_question#Modern_usage_controversy


I dont care how you use it, as long as you know.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 27, 2008 1:59 PM

The modern usage is both the more common usage and, looking at the phrase, the more reasonable given modern understandings of English. The earlier, 'circular reasoning' definition is at best idiosyncratic, owing to more British idiom than American.

Which is to say I'm going to continue to use it the way I'm currently use it. :)

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 27, 2008 8:38 PM

I bet you didn't think this series was going to degenerate into arguments about grammar and colloquial phrases! Well, not this quickly, anyway.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 1, 2008 1:40 AM

That's the best, most succinct defense of the modern usage I've heard. You've won me over, at least.

Comment from: roninkakuhito [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 17, 2008 11:07 PM

Way late to the conversation, but I'd say that XKCD is at its best in the story line comics. Black Hat's continuing story, the recent mother-daughter hacker story, that sort of thing. Arguably the loud sex story. (That one is less storyish than Black Hat's actions.)

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