When we think of pixel art and web comics, we often think of sprite web comics, where recycled videogame sprites and backgrounds are employed to convey bizarre stories. It would be wrong however to place Diesel Sweeties in this category. R. Stevens’s artwork shares more similarities with original Pixel Art (made without the use of licensed characters) and Graphic Art than the standard sprite comic.
At over a thousand pages (and counting), Diesel Sweeties is a lengthy, well-developed web comic dealing with relationships. While it can be humorous at times, everything that goes on in Diesel Sweeties revolves somehow around the two main characters – Clango, the sweet and ‘safe’ robot boyfriend, and Maura, his ex-porn star, alcoholic girlfriend. Yes, it does sound like some kind of twisted joke, but the relationship between a robot and an ex-porn star. There are other (often interchangeable) couples within the story too, and the relationships play out like a bizarre pixilated soap opera. But these interactions and relationships with family, friends, pets, and not-so-inanimate objects serve to drive the story and humor along.
Through the medium of Pixel Art, R. Stevens has created a strip that is visually simplistic. For most of us hitting the thirty-something mark, these images are appealing in a way because they refer back to a time when video game graphics weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. So there is a bit of nostalgia associated with these images composed of flat blocks of color. Sure, the characters in Diesel Sweeties don’t change their poses much from the ¾ head profile position they’re often placed in. But Stevens does take advantage of the medium by creating amazingly expressive facial expressions for his characters that reflect their moods accurately. Certain strips also use animation to bring movement to the panels. Characters also change wardrobe often, and there are some scenes where the base template for characters change, such as the scenes where Clango’s taken a hit, Maura’s gone on a bender, or when characters get into costume.
The writing in Diesel Sweeties isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny, but it will bring a smile to your face, and possible a giggle or two. It’s interesting to note that the non-human cast members serve more often as the source of comedy whenever they interact with their fellow human cast mates. However, some of the wittiest lines come as the result of dialog between the non-human characters. Pop culture references creep into the strip from time to time, but they never become the subject of a parody storyline.
There are mini story arcs, (such as the Eve / Red Robot plot and the Lil’ Sis dating Metal Steve story) that develop the characters as the storyline progresses, however stand–alone strips also appear throughout the course of Diesel Sweeties. At times it feels like a flow-chart is in order to track the relationships and links between characters in the story. There’s Lil’ Sis, Maura’s younger sibling, who changes partners as often as she changes her wardrobe, although at least three of her relationships, with Eve, Metal Steve, and then Red Robot last longer than two pages. There is the aforementioned Eve, who partners off with Red Robot, then Lil’ Sis, then Charles. Indie Rocker Pete pairs off briefly with Lil’ Sis at one point, then with Pale Sue. Electron Mike makes the painful mistake of fooling around with an inebriated Maura. Red Robot pairs off with Eve, then attempts to ‘get it on’ with various Mac computers and objects before getting into his second robot-human relationship with Lil’ Sis.
And then we come back to Clango and Maura.
There is more to the relationship between these two characters than just sex. Clango, who is generally good-natured and always ready to crack a joke at the strangest times, really is devoted to Maura. He gets hit on by other women, yet stay with Maura, even though she says (and does) horrible things to him at times. Clango gets jealous when one of Maura’s ex-boyfriends comes calling, and also become irate when Electron Mike tries to move in on her. He even goes so far as to ask her if she would ever marry him. He’s the good guy you know who keeps entering into long-term relationships with damaged partners, yet sticks it out anyways for love. While on the surface Maura seems to not care much about Clango at various times during the strip, there is clearly love and affection on her part (beyond the sex) for Clango. Over the course of the strip, she defends her relationship with him whenever her sister brings it into question, gives up her wealth to bring happiness back to Clango when Red Robot demands a ransom for Clango’s cat (even though she tossed the cat out in the first place), and exhibits jealousy when other women come calling for Clango. But she also does some unbelievably callous things during the relationship. While she has no justification for behaving that way, it’s in the nature of her character to do so. She’s a human being, and filled with flaws. It’s no surprise when her jealousy and alcoholism is what ultimately damages her relationship with Clango.
It might, after reading all of this, seem questionable whether or not Diesel Sweeties falls into the ‘comedy’ category. What really make the humor is R. Stevens’ ability to mix both drama and humor within the panels of each comic. In this way it shares similarities with other relationship-driven stories like Strangers in Paradise and Love and Rockets, two print comics that mix both humor and serious subject matter within their stories. Diesel Sweeties is peppered with witty retorts, bemused sarcasm, and enlightened commentary on relationships in general so that there are never any truly low points. That mixture is what really makes Diesel Sweeties so appealing and readable – no matter what happens to the characters, you’re guaranteed something sharp and witty to balance it out every time.