Talking to Cartoonist Rich Stevens About His Comic Strip, ‘Diesel Sweeties’
Rich Stevens’s comic strip Diesel Sweeties is an odd creation. An online strip with pixelated artwork, it features a strange cast of characters including an emotional robot, an ex-pornstar, and various humans, cats, and mechanical devices. He’s also the man behind merchandise including a “Fuck This” ice scraper and a mug “What Do We Want? Coffee. When Do We Want It? I’ll Fucking Cut You!”
Since 2000, he’s been making daily comics for the web about veganism, music, technology, and celebrating and eviscerating hipsters before the term was widely used. He has a new book just out, Bacon is a Vegetable; Coffee is a Vitamin, and I caught up with him recently about what exactly it is that he does.
How do you describe Diesel Sweeties to people?
I used to see it as a romance comic where robots stand in for awkward guys, but I no longer have any sympathy for awkward guys. Think of it as a pixelated Peanuts with dick jokes.
Do you think the strip’s pixelated artwork helps attract readers or turn them off?
Some people really gravitate towards pixel art; some people hate it. They all remember it, though. Most other comic strips with pixel art are just ripped-off game sprites. I originally started using this style of art to make reference to the robot characters, but it’s been a blessing in that it’s all digital and I can focus on editing my writing right up to the end of the process.
Tell me about your new book is Bacon is a Vegetable; Coffee is a Vitamin.
I sat down with a few hundred of my favorite bacon, vegetarian and coffee-themed comics, ripped them to pieces, and reassembled them into a perfectly square book. It’s a distilled version of my gastronomical subconscious over the past decade or so.
Do you have any friends who are vegans? Ones who have read your comic, I mean.
I know tons of vegans. I love vegan food. I attempt to give up meat pretty regularly, but I am a weak person and I live in a country that subsidizes corn so much that it’s easier for me to eat like a king than a peasant. The best negative response I’ve ever gotten to this stuff was having a “Bacon is a Vegetable” banner banned from Suicide Girls many moons ago.
You’ve been doing this for years and made thousands of comics. What’s the appeal of collecting some of them into themed books?
My work is way too scattered and unplanned to collect into complete books and expect a new person to understand it. I figured the entire run is free on the web for the completists. These books are my chance to look for patterns in my own thinking and make cohesive books out of them.
I do my comics for a midnight deadline every weeknight, so they tend to go all over the place depending on what’s on my mind. I love working to deadline. I give myself a few hours every night and follow my gut. I trash a lot of jokes at the last minute. It’s fun.
In assembling the book, and reading all these comics you drew over years, do you have a better sense of your work and what you’ve done? Was there anything that surprised you?
It’s been really weird re-reading stuff. I recognize it all, but half the time I don’t remember it. Really strange feeling. I’m a little embarrassed by how wordy I used to be. It’s a real privilege to be able to tweak old stuff and tighten it up without changing the intent.
I’m curious about the struggle to be funny on a deadline and the daily schedule. It’s something that defines comic strips and how helpful do you think that is, both as far as being funny and also just being creative?
The funny thing about deadlines is that, for me, they’re the opposite of a problem. I’m not comedy gold every day, but I show up every day. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s pure pain. Either way, it has to happen or I don’t get to sleep. I’m a terrible procrastinator, so deadlines are just punctuation for my workdays. Gotta have ’em. I figure I’ve hit more often by swinging daily than I would have if I waited for perfection every time. Sorry about the sports metaphor. I actually hate sports.
You mentioned that you don’t pay much attention to comedy. Why exactly?
I have a horrible case of Autocomplete Disease. My brain can’t help but try to predict the ends of stories and sentences. Makes conversation a really fun game, but watching people do jokes is hard for me. Also, Chris Elliott is really skinny and hot now, and I don’t know if I can live in this world any more.
Is there anything you are paying attention to?
I’m obsessed with fast food menu design and wearable computers lately. Also, really funny people who don’t realize it on Twitter. Okay, maybe I’m also a little in love with Chip Zdarsky.
What is it about sketch comedy that you loathe?
I’ve been mulling this over, and I think it’s because I’m a personality hoarder. I enjoy series over one-offs because you can start to see patterns and growth and deviations from patterns. You can observe a thought process over time and see how the creators and the audience both affected things. I never thought about it, but I guess I don’t like sketches for the same reason I don’t like movies very much: They’re too high stakes and they end too quickly!
It is interesting to hear you talk about comedy and your dislike of sketch comedy. So you think of Diesel Sweeties as these characters and they have continuing stories and concerns and that for you, that’s key. It’s not about just telling jokes.
Yeah! The comic doesn’t really have true “storylines,” but the characters have a continuity. One thing I’ve learned doing this kind of work over a long period of time is that the best characters are really just aspects of my own personality given a face. They’re personality flaws who get to argue and sleep with each other. Creepy!
Do you think of what you do as comedy, or is it something more internal, a kind of self-expression that may be funny but you don’t think of as “comedy” necessarily?
Labels are hard for me. I went to art school and spent the entire time correcting anyone who called me an “artist.” (I wound up doing graphic design because I love words as much as pictures.)
I guess what I do would be defined as “comedy” by most people, but I don’t have any contact with any kind of comedy scene. I’m here to make weird stuff and work out most of my anger by telling jokes. I tell a lot of jokes. I think comedy is the last form of socially acceptable aggression.
Have you decided on what the next few books will be?
The next one is Macs and cats and I’m in the home stretch putting it together right now. I love doing book production. It’s detail-oriented work, but I don’t have to be too creative. This is how I relax.
You live in Western Massachusetts. Is there anything inherently funny about the Pioneer Valley?
There are a lot of funny things here. We’re like training wheels for Portland. Every embarrassing or pain-in-the-assy thing that plays big in PDX gets tested out here first. We practically invented people who only buy mayonnaise from hot yoga practitioners.
Photo credit: XOXO Festival