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A Short Interview With R Stevens On Diesel Sweeties' Newspaper Syndication Deal
posted September 7, 2006
 

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I know almost nothing about the cartoonist R Stevens beyond the fact that earlier this week a version of Stevens' on-line Diesel Sweeties became the latest offering from United Media for syndication to your local newspaper. I enjoyed our e-mail exchange, which I swear I asked for before I read some fine interviews elsewhere with the understandably in-demand webcomics artist. I hope this has new information for those of you out there interested in this story.

I'm fascinated by any cartoonist making this degree of career shift, and the fact that the contract allows Stevens to continue publishing a version of Diesel Sweeties on-line and to serve essentially as the new feature's first licensor as a way to extend the existing merchandise program, make this a very interesting news story. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: What's the reaction been like among your friends, family and fellow professionals to your being syndicated? Have you received any of those, "You're rich now!" reactions yet?

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R. STEVENS: I have and it's weird -- I actually haven't taken in any money from it yet! There's some development money for my time on the way, but it's not like signing to a record label and getting a check for a million dollars. It's all going to come down to how well papers react to the strip and if I'm able to do a good job. At the moment, the only one who's made any money is my very competent lawyer.

SPURGEON: Has it sunk in for you personally?

STEVENS: It's still sinking in, but mostly it's just my excitement over doing Sundays. I was a paperboy as a kid and would read Calvin and Hobbes before going out to do my route, whether or not I'd gotten up on time that day.

SPURGEON: The lead-up time seems really tight to me, particularly as you came to United through Ted Rall rather than through their development program. How far ahead do you need to contractually be on the strip when the strip starts? How far ahead do you plan on being by January?

STEVENS: I need to be about a month ahead, just like everybody else. I plan to be that far ahead at a minimum, hopefully a few weeks further along. I get to do improv comedy on my site five times a week, so I think I can act like a grown-up and work ahead on the paper stuff.

SPURGEON: Will you be working with an editor at all? Will Ted work with you?

STEVENS: Ted is mostly here to get us new folks up and running -- and it's been great to talk with someone who has more editorial experience than I do. Six years of comics and there's still a ridiculous amount to learn. I should be switching to a new editor as soon as my rubber training pants come off.

SPURGEON: What do you anticipate that relationship being like beyond their making sure you don't slip in anything naughty?

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STEVENS: I haven't really noticed a huge amount of editorial pressure so far. I know mostly what lines to toe. When I push too far, they let me know and I pull it back or shunt the joke to my notes for web strips. I've had a grand total of three words that I've had to change so far and I got to do the rewrites myself.

I think you have to remember that when you're doing a strip for a paper, you're doing it for a paper. It's not my newspaper, I'm not the center of the universe. If I feel like I really need to draw on- camera robot sex, it goes on my website.

What I consider weird is that everyone's making a big deal out of it. It's really only a big deal if other webcartoonists now have a shot at this end of the business. I'll start to cheer when there's ten people with deals like this. The more the merrier.

SPURGEON: When does the salesforce go out with your packet to actively sell the feature? Are you designing the packet that newspaper editors see, or will you at least have input?

STEVENS: I got to help with the packets, sketching some layouts and doing the artwork. I went to school to be a graphic designer, so this was my first time on the "not setting all the type and doing the detail work" side of the equation. I think they did a great job and I actually learned to let go a little bit. I hope they let me steal some spare folders because I ripped my Trapper Keeper.

SPURGEON: Have you talked to the sales people yet? Do you have a bead on how they're going to sell DS?

STEVENS: The sales guys should be out and about in a couple weeks. I'm going to the sales meeting next week to meet them and answer questions. Not sure how I feel about traveling into New York on 9-11, but it'll be nice to get out of my apartment for a day or two.

SPURGEON: As I understand your deal, you're essentially grandfathering in your product work by sort of redefining it as licensing the strip to yourself. Does the syndicate participate in any of that profit at all? Are you looking forward to seeing your work licensed out if the strip is successful?

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STEVENS: I think you understand correctly. I wasn't going to take any deal that meant I couldn't keep doing my job and being self-employed. I don't like being completely dependent on someone else to pay my rent. They take a very small percentage of my sales if they send me traffic. It's pretty fair in my book.

I would be lying to you if I said I did not like the idea of making toys, but to be honest, I've got no clue if there's going to be a market for more merchandise. If there is, I have some rights to approve it and I'm going to push like a motherfucker to make sure it's good. We'll see how it all works out in the cart as soon as the horse learns to walk.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you about formatting. What Sunday format does United offer? Are you doing two versions? What do you think of the format(s) thus far?

STEVENS: I'm doing the big, standard Sunday format for now and it was fun as hell to make my stuff work in those familiar proportions. It felt like I finally made a "real" comic. That said, I'm going to try to work as far ahead as possible on the Sundays and if possible make some reformatted "one piece" versions of each one. We'll see what people want.

SPURGEON: Are you responsible for a disposable panel? How has that been as far as adjustments go?

STEVENS: I am actually doing the long disposable panels so far. I have a lot of nostalgia for the weird jokes and art you can get away with on those. I'm probably going to also have the side title panel with either unique or rotating art for those who want that format.

Computers! What can't they do?

SPURGEON: On the dailies, are you doing your own coloring for those papers that run color dailies? I think a lot of strips do their own Sundays but have the service bureaus provide coloring on their dailies. For that matter, does providing a black and white change the way you work?

STEVEN: I'm working primarily in black and white on the dailies so far. I intend to color them all myself. It was really fun to reformulate my art for black & white -- I adjusted a lot of character details and contrast levels to make these suckers readable no matter how dirty the press.

SPURGEON: How hard was it to get the syndicate to let you keep doing your on-line strip? Did they articulate their major concern -- were they afraid you'd become late, for instance, or that the more mature content might reflect poorly on their offering? How did you win that fight?

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STEVENS: I think we both won that "fight." They've got a cartoonist who is not gonna become a resentful pressure-cooker of rage, I've got a really cool chance to get my work some more exposure.

UFS wanted to be sure that I wasn't making two similar but unrelated comics of the same name. I intend to make it so that whichever strip you read, you can follow it and move on to another one without getting too confused. Kind of the opposite of Ultimate Spider-Man versus Marvel Age Spider-Man versus Marvel Knights Spider-Man versus "Married Guy In Armor Too Stupid To Keep His Mask On Iron Spider-Man Version X1".

While I'm off-topic, what kind of weird world do we live in when the only Marvel books you can follow without a GPS and a personal assistant are NEXTWAVE and Runaways?

I miss you, Spidey. Please come home.

SPURGEON: Is there any one strip you'd like to replace in the papers that carry you?

STEVENS: Yeah, any one that's done by uncredited assistants. This is the best job in the world. Farming it out to interns and taking all the credit is bullshit.

Aside from that, every single strip out there is somebody's baby. In an ideal world, there'd be room for everyone and I wouldn't displace any of them. You know, kind of like the Internet.

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The Diesel Sweeties Site
United Media's Comics.com

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