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Ted Rall answers questions about Diesel Sweeties

After the heated discussion last week regarding the launch of Rich Stevens’ Diesel Sweeties webcomic into print syndication, I asked if Ted Rall, who acquired DS for United Media, if he’d be willing to respond to any questions from you readers about DS. I’d like to thank Ted for participating in the dialog on this blog.

Here are the questions and answers.

Q1. The webcomic is a bit edgy. I imagine that some of that edginess will need to be sanitized for the papers (some of the details about romancing a robot, for example). Do you feel that editing or toning down DS will take away what made it interesting in the first place?

One of the interesting aspects of this strip is the fact that its online iteration will continue parallel to syndication of its print version. Long-time “Diesel Sweeties” fans will find characters and the general vision of the strip completely congruent. Nevertheless the version that will appear in daily newspapers is separate and distinct. Not only is Richard Stevens being respectful of the taste conventions of family newspapers, the different size specs of daily comics requires adjustments to format and reproduction, among other concerns.

I think of the print and webcomic versions as different animals-related, to be sure, yet discrete. Richard seems energized by the challenges of working within the parameters of print, and it shows. Adaptation does not have to equal blandification! Of course, curious readers may judge for themselves after January 8.

Q2. Will fans of DS be disappointed in the changes for paper version?

I hope not! There’s no way to know how everyone will react, but I’m guessing most of the fans be amazed at how good it is. I suspect that they’ll will be excited to see one of their favorite strips appear alongside great comics like “Dilbert” and “Doonesbury.” This is the first launch of a webcomic into print syndication. Webcomics have arrived. Newspapers are reaching out younger readers by embracing this strip. In the end, what matters is whether a strip is consistently funny. “Diesel Sweeties” is.

The fact that we’re having this discussion proves that this launch is exciting.

Q3. What makes one webcomic (or a comic that’s running in a few newspapers but not syndicated) stand out?

It’s not about where a strip runs or doesn’t run, online or otherwise. When a submission crosses my desk at United Media, I don’t look at its client list or other supporting material-I skip straight to the first sample strip. I read them straight through, as would a newspaper editor or reader.

There are a lot of good webcomics. What elevates “Diesel Sweeties” is the universality of its concerns: love, insecurity, and friendship, all filtered through the irony and affection for popular culture that many of us to feign detachment. Richard is a professional cartoonist, having honed his craft over six years of experience. His writing and artwork work well together. As I said above, the web-only nature of “Diesel Sweeties” neither decreased nor improved its odds of be considered. We look for great comics. “Diesel Sweeties” is great.

Q4. Do syndicate editors routinely look at webcomics? Do you do a lot of scouting? What is your criteria?

I am constantly looking for new comics. I read submissions that come by mail and I surf the Web because so many artists post their work online.

As Keith Haring told me in the 1980s, if I knew The Key to Success I would sell it and quit working. As far as I know there is no formula for a good comic strip; you know one when you read it. Sometimes demographics play a role. Other strips rely on characters, or one-off gags, or serve a niche. Generally it’s safe to say that writing is the most important component; a poorly written strip can’t be salvaged by beautiful artwork. Attractive artwork is certainly helpful and desirable-it’s best to have both components–but what’s really important is that the drawing works with the subject matter. Hal Foster’s line work is astonishing and was great for “Prince Valiant,” but Scott Adams’ drawing better evokes cubicle hell than Foster’s could.

Q5. Are you concerned that sprite art will turn mainstream comics readers off? My feeling is that these comics are limited to a niche audience appeal, rather than a mass audience appeal. Do you have research that says otherwise?

In syndication the idea is always to appeal to a broad audience of readers. “Diesel Sweeties” is a great-looking strip. Period. You’ll be amazed, especially by the full-color Sundays. Far from being a concern, Richard’s artwork is an asset that works with the (ahem) robotic subject matter.

Technology has long been a factor in the evolution of newspaper comics. I still miss the Sunday comics pages of my youth, off register with all those visible dot matrices. Improved printing and production permits comics with a broader color palate, increased range of saturation and gradients, none of which were available to cartoonists one or two generations ago. Drawing has become more abstract and stylized. Letratone and Duoshade are dead, having given way to Photoshopped color and shading. Some strips rely entirely on clip art, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Cartoons are always changing. I suspect that ten or twenty years hence comics will look different than they do today, and that readers will continue to respond favorably to those that make them laugh and think.

Q6. Did you approach Rich or did he submit his feature for your consideration? If you made the initial contact with Rich, will that be the normal acquisition process for United Media in the future – going out and recruiting talent rather than waiting for a submission?

I found “Diesel Sweeties” while looking for strips for “Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists,” the anthology of interviews with and cartoons by webcartoonists I edited. That’s how I met Richard. When I started at United I was asked to find a strip that was ready for syndication; Richard’s was on my short list. I called him and asked him if he was interested in developing a print version of his strip. He said yes without hesitation.

The answer to the latter half of your question is “both.” I will continue to search for new talent. And I will continue to look at submissions. My parochial tastes are irrelevant. If a submission that I think would sell to newspapers crosses my desk, I will sign it.

Community Comments

#1 Fokjulle
December/20/2006
@ 2:47 pm

A robot romance is edgy?

Or maybe I suppose it is quite edgy, when you consider that today, in 1958, this could be seen as a bit too progressive for society.

#2 kevin
December/20/2006
@ 6:15 pm

I think he was referring to the specifics involved with robot copulation. He didn’t mean romance, he meant “romance.”

#3 Rich
December/20/2006
@ 8:59 pm

Wow! Thanks to Alan and Ted for a very informative interview. Best of luck with the new strip! Nice to get a glimpse of how this all comes about.

#4 Mike Peterson
December/21/2006
@ 6:39 am

Just to quibble: “Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet” made the leap from web to print syndication about five years ago, after four or five years as a web comic. It didn’t succeed, but I think the main problem was toning it down for a print audience. I wish Peter HAD kept a parallel HSOTI going on the web, but the edginess was a lot of its charm and the print version just didn’t gain the traction it needed.

#5 Rob
December/21/2006
@ 7:06 am

Duuude.
If Ted’s be responsible for picking the new comics at Universal, he really needs to be replace.

#6 Alan Gardner
December/21/2006
@ 7:09 am

Duuude. Ted works for United Media-not Universal, and it’s waaaaaaay to early to talk about whether he’s failing at his job.

#7 Rob
December/21/2006
@ 7:23 am

Sorry Duuuuudde.
I ment United and typed Universal. Mea Culpa.

I’ll give Ted till noon today.

#8 Dan
December/21/2006
@ 8:14 am

Thank you Rob, for saying what, I’m sure, everyone that sees this comic will.

Maybe, with your your infinite knowledge of what people want, you can take Ted’s job, since I’m sure you could do so much better.

In all seriousness, until you actually see what comes out next month from Rich, you really have nothing to say.

At least wait a month, yeesh.

#9 josh
December/21/2006
@ 10:00 am

Thanks, Alan and Ted. A lot of what makes a comic successful is that it evokes a strong reaction from its audience. Whether that reaction be outraged, joyous, or something in between, it is infinitely better than indifference. It’s what keeps the comics alive.

#10 Mooncity
December/21/2006
@ 12:09 pm

I’d also like to chime in and say it was extra-way-cool for Ted Rall to respond to some of our questions, and for Alan helping make that happen.

Thanks!

#11 Carly
December/21/2006
@ 8:18 pm

Really great, informative interview! Thank you to you both!

#12 Rkmilholland
December/22/2006
@ 2:10 pm

Very cool indeed.

Hey, Ted – how about givin’ the rest of us webcomics a look?

#13 tyrell
January/13/2007
@ 10:00 am

ive seen strips come and go but diesel sweeties is truely a great comic stip sence garfeild hit the papers.

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