Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 23: Diesel Sweeties

Suppose you know someone who is the living embodiment of a stereotype. That person is, unsurprisingly, wrapped up in any number of personal issues, to the extent of being nonfunctional. Suppose everyone else you know is that same level of difficult and emotionally handicapped. Suppose that some of these people are sentient robots. This is the cast of Diesel Sweeties.

Diesel Sweeties is a gag-a-day comic about some robots, some humans, and the complex web of feelings that connects them all. There is continuity, and there are some long-running storylines, but for the most part each installment stands on its own. There are only a handful of developments I wouldn’t want spoiled if I were reading it for the first time, so I won’t mention any of them here. For the most part, though, worrying about spoilers is irrelevant to the enjoyment of this comic.

The characters are each their own unique bundle of messed-up. The general madness of the Diesel Sweeties population comes through subtly at first, then insinuates itself until it begins to feel normal. When the baseline is so far away as to be invisible, it’s easy to forget that there is a baseline at all. Then eventually you’re friends with (or even sleeping with) a murderous machine with the stated goal of crushing all humans, and it doesn’t really strike you as something to be questioned.

Please note that Red Robot #C-63 is an outlier, and most robots are not this violent.

Most of the cast can seem two-dimensional at first, but over time, as we get to see more aspects of their personalities, they become quite well-developed. They still behave in ways that seem ridiculous, but one can see how this behavior originates in their personal issues and dysfunctional relationships with one another. Read enough Diesel Sweeties, and you could witness the deconstruction of a stereotype by the development of a believable character with all the necessary mental hang-ups to express that stereotype fully.

All that happens gradually and in the background, though. The focus, from strip to strip, is on the jokes. Only in looking at the combined weight and shifts in self-awareness of the characters over time and over hundreds of punchlines does a pattern start to shine through. Each installment, taken on its own merits, delivers a joke that is easy to understand on its own and does not require the weight of all other Diesel Sweeties content to make an impact. Even when the characters do act off-kilter, it can come off as an attempt at being ironic or just putting on an act for the sake of snarking around with the other characters.

Noting the deeper internal struggles of each character and the development of such struggles over time is just an added bonus.

These characters love joking with each other, even if their senses of humor don’t always align. They take delight in anticipating others’ double entendres (see the first comic example in this post) and in one-upping another’s punchline. Humor is probably the most important element to disguising each character’s dysfunctionality. Exaggerated character traits are played up for laughs, and it takes a while to realize how deeply ingrained they actually are.

The misleading lack of depth that characters seem to have upon initial viewing is prevalent in their names. Even when characters have established full names, some character names remain nicknames that impose a simplistic label upon them. Indie Rock Pete and Metal Steve are rarely referred to without their epithets, and Lil’ Sis is always Lil’ Sis even when her older sister is nowhere to be seen. (Lil’ Sis is not a stereotype, but a label implying that the character’s relevance is only in her relationship to another character, when Lil’ Sis is an established character in her own right with her own personality and her own relationships to the other characters.)

The Diesel Sweeties format is simple yet versatile. When the format is shaken up in some way, it is often subtle but usually rewarding to those who notice. Color changes in the background may correspond to the mood of the characters, the implication of a joke, or may work together to paint a larger picture. Keep an eye out as you read.

On a less fundamental scale, the format of the jokes and typical dialogue patterns of the comic is emphasized and poked fun at on occasion, such as when the characters cease talking as they normally would and start fitting themselves into the format of other media.

Much of the comic is concerned with sex--it’s prevalent not only in characters’ discussions and interactions, but also, in some cases, their careers. One of the main characters is a sometimes-retired porn star, with all the dignity and maturity that entails (read: none at all). (This is not a dig at real-life porn stars, about whom I know nothing and cannot afford to make assumptions.)

The general dysfunction that applies to the rest of the characters’ lives is still in effect when it comes to sexual matters. They usually can’t resist the chance to make a joke rather than having an honest discussion, and the jokes themselves often wrap up an uncomfortable truth in disguise as a punchline.

One of my favorite parts of Diesel Sweeties is seeing the characters get all dressed up for Halloween every year. We get to see some fun costume designs, some insight into the characters based on their costume choices, and some jokes that couldn’t be told outside the context of Halloween. And today is the first day of October, so Halloween is quite a bit on my mind just now.

Astute readers may recognize the costume in this comic.

For a while, Diesel Sweeties was syndicated and available in the form of a newspaper comic strip. The newspaper version ran concurrently with the web version, and while it wasn’t running in any newspapers near me, I kept track of it at comics.com (which is now gocomics.com), the place to read newspaper comics without buying a newspaper. That online archive is no longer available, but those comics are currently being put up at the Diesel Sweeties website, one week at a time. If you enjoy reading Diesel Sweeties, then the syndicated version offers you more Diesel Sweeties to read!

With Diesel Sweeties, you get a lot of jokes, a lot of irony and pretension, and if you look closely enough, some insight into what those things mean about a person, or even about society at large. These characters operate by their own rules, and it’s fun to look into a setting where the standards of behavior are so particular. Above all, Diesel Sweeties is a reliable place to find something new to laugh at on a regular basis.

Diesel Sweeties is written and drawn by Richard Stevens III, and updates on Mondays through Fridays. I recommend it to people who like to read comics ironically.

Note that, after a certain point in the archive, each installment has a title. This title is visible in the browser tab, or as mouseover text. After a certain later point, the titles are present as part of the comic image. Reading the titles is not necessary to appreciating the comic, but they usually add a little something.

Next Entry: Oglaf (Warning: NSFW)

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