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Richard Stevens

Open Culture

Richard Stevens, known to many as simply rstevens, has been a major presence in webcomics for the better part of a decade, gaining notoriety through his popular webcomic Diesel Sweeties. In March of this year, he chose to release the entire archive for DS (nearly 2,000 comics) under a CC BY-NC license, opening up a collection of incredibly witty and sharply designed comics to the masses. We recentlly caught up with rstevens to learn more about his comics and work in general, why he chose to use CC, and what kind of effect it has had on Diesel Sweeties.

Can you give our readers some background on who you are and what you do? How long have you been working in the webcomic world? How did you end up there?

I’m a comic book nerd born a few months before Star Wars who studied and taught graphic design, but wound up getting to be a cartoonist. I’m a big Mac fan, even though they’re popular again and I spend most of my time walking around writing or making coffee.

I’ve been doing Diesel Sweeties on the web since early 2000 and it’s been my job since 2002. I did a parallel version for newspapers that ran from 2007-2008.

Diesel Sweeties is by and far your most well-known publication. What does it focus on, generally speaking?

It began as a love story between a robot and a retired porn star, drawn in a video game style to play up my love of tech. It’s since evolved into a big ensemble thing where I get to play with dozens of cultural stereotypes, pop culture, kittens and puns.

I try to write such that you can start reading from most any strip because there’s a couple thousand in the archive! I hate comics that require a degree and footnotes to be enjoyed.

For a while, you produced both web-based and print-based versions of Diesel Sweeties. How did this happen? What were the differences you found in the two mediums? Why did you eventually choose to focus on the webcomic?

DS was originally a web strip, which got picked up for syndication about seven years in. I decided that since I had been making my living off my internet fan base, I shouldn’t risk taking away the version they’d supported all along. I figured syndication would be a fun experiment, but it’d be better to create a separate version rather than taint the original.

The biggest difference between the two is context and the lack thereof. On the web, I can always add alt text, blog posts and links to a comic. That and the generally higher interest level of webcomics fans means a cartoonist can really reach and work with obscure material and odd joke structures.

Working in print was a matter of starting over at zero- you can’t assume anyone knows you, cares about your work or likes what you like. In fact, you can count on quite a few of them being hostile because you took a slot away from their favorite comic!

Being in print was a huge learning experience. I liken it to two years of informal grad school. Triple work for not much pay, but an opportunity to push my limits and learn. I stuck with the web version over the printed one because not only was the internet still paying my bills, it’s generally a more rewarding and immediate environment to work in.

Early last year you decided to release the Diesel Sweeties archive under a CC BY-NC license. Why did you decide to do this? Have you seen anything interesting happen as a result?

I haven’t seen anything really explicit happen, but I have some theories. Releasing PDF archives under a CC license helped me to get newer readers caught up and got DS some coverage among higher-end geek circles. Anything an artist can afford to do that gets a fan more involved is worth it.

A few people I spoke to thought that CC-licensing and releasing free ebooks would hurt me financially, but it hasn’t. I think it frees me from the obligation to some day get every single strip into print, and the kind of person who wants comics on paper isn’t going to settle for screen-reading anyway! In the end, it just felt like a progressive choice.

When you create new material on a constant basis, I don’t think you need to worry about people passing around copies of the old stuff. It’s not like they can pirate or scoop you on something that isn’t done yet.

What is up next for you and Diesel Sweeties? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

What’s next? I’ve just about finished gutting and rebuilding my website and store and I’m spending September doing some promotion and bonus strips to recover some of the traffic that trailed off when I was busy doing 12 comics a week.

After that, I’m going to collect my print strips into one volume and work on some “pilots” for new web comics. I really want to work on new side projects and I’m thinking the best way to do it is to try ’em out in TV season-style chunks.

Posted 09 September 2008