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Love and Robots

Patrick Schabe

Due to the uniquely democratic nature of comics, the medium has been praised for helping to create national identities, a space for archetypal storytelling, and even a shared language of words and images.

Richard Stevens III

Comics in all their various guises have always been a strange meeting of mediums. Located at the intersection between art, illustration, editorializing and literature, comics have been used to make political commentary, tell stories, explore the realms of imagination, depict adventure, and perhaps most importantly, to get a laugh. No matter what the content, however, for the great majority of comics history the form has relied on print. The printing press allowed comics to transcend the boundaries of space that limited art, allowing exact reproductions to widely circulate and wind up in the hands of people from all walks of life, regardless of social and geographical location.

Due to the uniquely democratic nature of comics, the medium has been praised for helping to create national identities, a space for archetypal storytelling, and even a shared language of words and images. Academic analysts of comics have gone as far as to say that while fine art may mark the cutting edge developments of intellectuals and elites, if you want to find how the common man lives and thinks, look to the comics. And of course, we all have our personal connection to comics, be it to strips like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, books like Spider Man or Superman, or the refined doodles of the New Yorker. Reflecting the intertextuality of contemporary popular culture, comics have also crossed over into other media forms as well, most notably radio, television and the movies.

So with the advent of the public Internet in the 1990s, it is no great surprise that comics made their own transition to the new medium. In fact, the Internet provided an inherently visual medium that allowed for cheap and easy publishing and has a vast potential audience. The lure became an irresistible magnet for amateur artists and writers, and in the space of less than a decade, a massive "webcomic" boom was in full-swing. It is estimated that today, each day, there are thousands of amateur comic creators working and publishing on the Internet.

To get an insider's perspective on the webcomic phenomenon, PopMatters spoke to Richard Stevens III, better known to fans as "rstevens", creator of the Diesel Sweeties comic strip. Although a great amount of variety exists in webcomics, most use the panel format that is commonly associated with newspaper comic strips, and Stevens' work is no exception. For the past two years, Diesel Sweeties has emerged from its origins as an occasional strip to become a fully serialized work published five days a week, Monday through Friday. Set in a world in which autonomous robots live alongside humans, Diesel Sweeties is centered around the relationship between robot Clango Cyclotron and his human girlfriend, retired porn star Maura Glee.

Stevens elaborates, "It started out as a pretty simple 'mixed-up romance' kind of strip, but evolved into something else pretty much without any real solid plans on my part. The core was originally the Clango / Maura relationship. For the first couple months you could pretty much sum it up as: 'He's a Robot! She's an Ex-Porn Star! Oh, how wacky!'"

However, as with all good serials, the comic quickly evolved into a complete world full of unique, off-beat characters. The human characters include Maura's sister, an un-named, oversexed girl who simply goes by Lil' Sis; the world's biggest indie rock poseur, Indie Rock Pete; a shy, heavy metal-loving virgin named Metal Steve; and Eve, a hip and tough woman Stevens included after running a contest to create a new character from amongst his readers. Other robots in the strip include Red Robot #C-63, a human-crushing robot who Stevens borrowed as a character from his pal Sam Brown's Exploding Dog comics, and Menace-11, an even more, well, menacing robot bent on human destruction and who also happens to be gay. Then there are the cameo characters like Roger the Cat, Johnny Toaster, and Grandpa, an ancient Macintosh computer whose exact model number remains a mystery oft-debated by the strip's followers.

"I think it started getting interesting when I got confident enough to work more on the secondary characters like Maura's Lil' Sis, Metal Steve and Indie Rock Pete," Stevens says. "These guys are more like amalgams of real people I've known (and parts of me) than straight-up cartoon characters. They're generally a lot less positive than Maura and Clango, and as such can pull off a lot more insults and fights. They're really fun to write. I guess the strip as it stands now is a semi-realistic look at romance and fairly smart people acting kind of dumb."

Like any of the good contemporary comics online or in newspapers, Diesel Sweeties strips are driven by a combination of character-based storytelling and humorous observations from popular culture. In its way, the strip's nature as a webcomic determines the type of humor found in its panels. It is edgy in the sense that it's influenced by a lot of youth culture, and jokes can range from simple observations about sexuality and relationships to hip-hop culture, insider music references, computers, Internet life, and, of course, other comics. Unlike the majority of webcomics, however, Diesel Sweeties is most immediately noticeable for its design aesthetic. In a style that recalls the earliest days of bitmapped images from MacPaint and old low-resolution video games, Diesel Sweeties is intentionally pixellated, each panel drawn in small blocks of color. On the surface the style looks simple, even archaic, but in fact it's a very deliberate and careful drawing process that invokes both an old-school computer art nostalgia and an awareness that these comics are the product of the digital age.

"I was really obsessed with computer icons at the time I was developing the strip. I tried a bunch of not-terribly-successful styles before landing upon this one pretty much by accident. I really liked the pixels because they said something of the goofy mechanical men and made me really nostalgic for computers I had when I was growing up. They also (not coincidentally) make for very small file downloads. I use practically no bandwidth for the amount of pages I push out," Stevens explains.

This idea that the Internet grants comics a greater capacity to explore formatting that goes beyond the page is certainly in evidence throughout the world of webcomics. Considerations of bandwidth aside, comics can use the Internet's boundaries and technical capabilities as a part of the artist's palette. Some comics stick with the hand-drawn art, scanning in the images and laying them out on the page but otherwise maintaining the traditions of non-Internet comics (Exploitation Now). Others use computer applications to color their drawings, or even create them from scratch like Diesel Sweeties, or exploit features that only the Internet can provide (When I Am King). Still others use animation programs like Flash to create moving comics that cross the boundaries between strips and cartoons (Broken Saints). "The freely available full-color is one big advantage in favor of the Internet. The "infinite canvas" that lets you make long, scrolling works is a bonus. The limited use of animation can be neat," says Stevens.

Webcomics also offer the benefit of instant feedback by way of message boards, forums, and email. Not only do you get to find out who your audience is, but you get feedback on what they like -- and especially what they don't. In addition, these outlets allow readers to form a community, centered around the strip, but also autonomous. These communities can be a well-spring of ideas and they can also offer artists a chance to collect ideas, and consumers, for merchandising.

"Messageboards and communities are the currency with which most of us online comics people are paid," Stevens explains. "My board is often the biggest reward I get for doing a strip every day. I've met tons of people on there, learned a hell of a lot and gotten a lot of free stuff. Not to mention the fact that having a lively discussion allows you to meet your readership and get a better perspective on why these particular people like your work. It's really gratifying."

However, Stevens warns, there can be drawbacks to the creative freedom of the Internet, "The larger challenge online is that since you never go to press and you're never really 'done' it's easy for a lot of people to just put up what I would consider the 'first drafts' of their comics. I spent two months doing character design and playing with names and styles until I had a 1.0 release of DS, and frankly, I still had -- have! -- a lot of growing and changing to do to the strip."

Such concerns have led many to reject webcomics out of hand as sophomoric and worthless. Indeed, for every great, funny webcomic on the Internet that features great writing and great art, there are hundreds of webcomics that are sloppy, poorly written and/or poorly drawn. Without a screening process such as submitting to a syndicate, as happens with newspapers, or submitting ideas to editors at comic book publishing companies, the level of quality in webcomics can range from the sublime to the downright awful.

Comics pundit Scott McCloud, famous for his critically acclaimed Zot! series and analytical book Understanding Comics, has taken this rejection of webcomics to task, both in his sequel book Reinventing Comics and through his online presence. McCloud's advocacy of the Internet as the greatest thing to happen to an otherwise stale industry sparked a hailstorm of backlash against McCloud, most notably in the form of Fantagraphics Books co-owner Gary Groth's indictment of McCloud in the pages of Comics Journal (check out this article from Salon.com for more detailed information). The comic book industry has seen webcomics as something of a threat, and with good reason. With lagging sales and a dwindling market, the Internet seems like the new kid on the block waiting to bury the proud tradition of comic books.

But as Stevens will tell you, webcomics are hardly a cash cow for their creators. Unlike a hard number of book sales, Stevens relies on tracking systems to count the number of visits to his site. Currently he logs about 9,000-10,000 people who visit his site daily, with about 20,000-25,000 visiting his site more than once a month. For an amateur artist, these are impressive numbers (still about ¼ of the readership of the largest webcomics like Sinfest and Penny Arcade), but they don't necessarily translate into dollars.

"You make money [in webcomics] by making people interested in your well being," Stevens jokes. "The little money I've made so far is simply through staying small and doing what I think are pretty damn nice t-shirts. I'm hoping to start making a little more off the Clango Club fan club [a dues club that includes a monthly mailer with stickers and newsletter] and the first week of memberships is really promising. I've made back what I spent on my stickers already, so we're almost there. My goal for the next six months is to make it a lot easier and cheaper for people to get DS stuff, hopefully helping me sell more and get banned from some schools. Anyone know where I can get a mailing list of comic-friendly record stores?"

One of the differences between webcomics and comic books that arguments like Groth's seem to miss is a variation in demographics. Simply put, webcomics reach a wide berth of people, many of whom have never been comic book readers. "I've yet to find an un-represented group [of webcomic readers]. There are tons of college and high schoolers, as you might expect. What seems really different than a traditional comic book market is the sheer number of female readers. I'd guess at least 1/4 to 1/3 of my readers are female. That makes me really proud, because the whole reason I put my stuff online was to try and push myself on a group bigger than the traditional comics market," Stevens notes.

"I personally consider any comic a success if more than two people can read and enjoy it. Using that system, I'm really happy with my work and what I've managed to get done so far. I've got some business goals for the strip and the site though. I'm hoping like hell that the goodies I sell will add up to enough to pay my basic bills and allow me to drop my job in favor of more comics and some freelance design work."

That said, success is often difficult to gauge in the world of the Internet, and webcomics are no exception. Stevens has begun to see some of his hard work pay off in more concrete terms. The greatest jumps in readership have come from being linked on sites that feature daily "hot links" to bored and curious surfers, such as www.memepool.com. Recently, however, Stevens made the jump out of the Internet and into another medium.

Earlier this year, Stevens teamed up with friends and fellow webcomic artists Jason Alderman and Jeffrey Rowland (author of the daily webcomic WIGU) to give Stevens' Indie Rock Pete his own mini-series. This co-authored strip took on a life of its own and wound up as a brief write-up in the music magazine Magnet.

"Magnet was a pretty cool surprise, actually. Jonah, a columnist of theirs, just wrote me out of the blue one day and we did an email interview. I've had some really strong traffic in the past month or so since it came out, so I imagine they're a good-sized part of it. I don't have any way to really back that assumption up, but I have gotten a good pile of emails from people who saw me in Magnet. All I know is it was a damn big thrill," says Stevens.

Like all Internet sites, webcomics suffer from lack of exposure as much as anything. With the sheer number of webcomics available, the glut works against many of the artists trying to make a name for themselves and grab a few new readers. Artists like Stevens have relied primarily on word of mouth and links from friends and other webcomics to gain readers. However, some have chosen to band together in a more collectivist fashion that concentrates readers interested in webcomics in one place. The most prominent of these is Keenspot, founded by webcomic artists Chris Crosby (Superosity) and Darren Bluel (Nukees). Keenspot is to the webcomic industry what Marvel or DC has been to the comic book industry.

By offering free advertising and even hosting space to webcomic artists, sites like Keenspot have found a way to keep webcomics from getting lost in the Internet jungle. It's a plan that has met with some success too, as most of the webcomics with the largest audiences are connected to the Keen family -- a group that generates over 40 million combined pageviews a month. In addition, Keenspot has come the closest to realizing Scott McCloud's prediction that webcomics will revolutionize the comic book industry, having launched a print comic book line in July 2001.

Another route has recently been unveiled in the form of Modern Tales, a webcomic subscription site which counts Stevens among its stable of artists. By offering a collection of quality artists on a regular schedule, Modern Tales and its artists hope to gather readers dedicated to webcomics and supporting their creation on a pay basis. With monthly and annual subscriptions available, Modern Tales may be the first step in making webcomics seriously economically viable for the artists, who often see little return for their investment.

Asked about what future Stevens sees for himself through webcomics, he replies, "I see a hell of a lot of future, honestly. I'm a huge comic book fan, far more than I am a comic strip fan these days. I'd love to be making and selling comic books for a living -- not much else would really satisfy me completely. The problem is that the traditional comic-shop market is a little too cloistered for my tastes. I wanted to prove myself in a more expansive, less expensive market before I committed anything to paper, and myself to possible big debts. That's why I chose to go with a web strip before publishing anything on paper."

"I think that taking the time to build a big Internet audience before spending a lot of money is a good move. I figure it can only help comic book sales in the long run if you have a good way to communicate regularly with your readers and can get in front of people who might not traditionally read comic books."

Like the comic strips and comic books before them, webcomics are likely just as indicative of contemporary society. Sometimes they're beautiful, and sometimes they're horrible. They reflect the preoccupations of the Internet age -- sex, technology, science fiction, video games, computers -- but they also continue the long tradition of telling stories about human relationships (even when the characters themselves aren't human). They can be the product of human creativity and skill, or they can be an artistic masturbation meant to fulfill little more than petulant egoism.

Regardless of the impact that webcomics may or may not have on the history of comics into the future, the whole phenomenon of this new medium shows no sign of going away. Where McCloud may be the most correct is in stating that webcomics will help change the way we approach comics as an industry. The DIY nature of webcomics will evolve, as it already has through Keenspot and Modern Tales, into new, pioneering forces which will at the least find new ways to turn comics into a business, much in the way that independent comic book publishers experienced a Renaissance in the 1980s. And as the Internet grows and expands, it may come to embrace and intersect with more and more media, making comics -- and webcomics in particular -- an ever more relevant form of expression.

Or perhaps Stevens sums it up best, saying simply, "I think there are so many webcomics for two reasons: You can't help but make a comic if you like to draw - and there's no cheaper way to get your comics out to the masses -- even if the masses are 5-10 people. I think webcomics are about the most natural mix since I met my sweetheart. People can't not read a good comic if it's put in front of them. It just has to get in front of them."

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