The ease with which one can self-publish almost anything on the internet these days has led to a deluge of comics washing over the web. Most are not very good, more often than not ranging in the bad-to-awful category, but there are a few bright lights. One of the strongest by far is Achewood. The Achewood world encompasses a throng of anthropomorphic animals who inhabit Achewood Estates. The comic centers on long-time friends Ray Smuckles, an ebullient, preternaturally happy fellow whose sartorial choices include a thong and Gucci sunglasses, and Roast Beef Kazenzakis, a depressed coder. The supporting cast includes a five-year-old otter, a Jack Daniels imbibing tiger, a perpetually pissed vegan cat, and a tooth-pick shanking squirrel. For the past four years Achewood's creator, Chris Onstad, has been leading his characters on a wide array of unpredictable adventures that have included trips to the moon, heaven, hell, and Taco Bell, among other places. The absurd is not uncommon in Achewood, as evidenced by, among other things, Trent Reznor's Volvo of Despair, which had the effect of depressing all its passengers. Day after day Achewood entertains with its plot twists and direction, of which Onstad lets the characters and humor dictate, surprising himself with how things turn out. Onstad has created one of the most literate, readable, humorous, and enjoyable strips to be featured in any medium. The following interview was conducted via emai in September of 2005.
How did Achewood come to be?
I'd always wanted to write satire/comedy, but fell into the Ridiculously Easy and Disproportionately Compensated Internet Job trap right out of college. When the bubble burst, I found that I'd been doing this little comic strip for a few months, so I took my Ridiculously Disproportionate Severance Package, Considering The General Non-Hardship I'd Endured, and spent some time fleshing it out. We started to sell a few shirts and books and the rest is history. Extremely recent history, but bona-fide history nonetheless, as we are now documented at both Wikipedia and Urbandictionary. We're the sort of history that could be wiped off the face of the earth with a strong magnet, I suppose. Not exactly Hammurabi's stele, but there you go.
What's a typical day like for you?
We turn the nuts and bolts of the business during the day: shipping, packing, managing inventory and orders, vendor visits, customer service, maybe some product development and prototyping. After that we'll shop and I'll cook us some dinner while my wife watches the baby. I'll sit down to write and cartoon anywhere from nine 'til two in the morning -- I can't write three words in a row during the day, but at night when things quiet down I can focus on voices and storylines.
Can you walk us through how an idea becomes a strip?
I'll either experiment with a bit of dialogue until I like the timing and resolution, or a concept will pop into my head with a few panels that suggest themselves and I'll try to build around that. The main thing I want to do when I make a strip is work up dialogue that flows freely and of its own energy, without extraneous words. Speech bubbles are both disciplining and maddening that way. It's one of the reasons I love writing the character blogs: they're completely free-form, in that I don't have to spend all night thinking of a synonym for "mendacious" that is equally esoteric, three letters long and, most importantly, doesn't make the line wrap.
How do you feel about using the "alt text" on the comics?
I enjoy the way it can extend a joke, and when readers discover the "Easter egg" they tend to go back and re-read everything, so it's like getting to experience every strip twice, in two different ways, the second time with a disembodied narrator.
How do you approach the story arcs? Is any of it planned ahead of time?
No planning. Never. I'd hate that. I want to see where it goes each day, like a reader would.
How do you have time to update the strip, write for all the blogs, answer Ray's Place questions, and run all the mail-order stuff?
I do strips about four days a week, try to update most of the blogs on the weekends, and do Ray's Place maybe once a month, so the creative work is fairly well spread out. Product development happens during the nine-to-five, as does shipping/handling and customer service. I try to get through all my reader mail once a month but it has become more difficult to keep up over time. I apologize to anyone who deserves a response and hasn't gotten one.
Why did you decide to create blogs for the characters?
Like I said above, six-to-fifteen panels a day is still a glacially slow environment for developing meaningful characters. By giving each major character a blog (I think there are eleven in all) I quickly realized that I could fill in tons of back story that wouldn't have fit well in comic format, and I'd never have to draw a single god damned speech bubble.
I have to ask about Pat. His blog entries are definitely my favorite. How do you get into the state of mind to write for him?
I'll take something that I notice during any given day, like getting a couple of crusty-brown ruined eggs at a breakfast restaurant, and then try to go beyond the initial disappointment and imagine what a real asshole would have thought and done. First of all, the asshole would have been a holier-than-thou vegan, ordered something horrendous that can never be made well in the first place, written his complaints around the rim of the plate with a dry-erase marker which he carries for that purpose, left no tip, thought he'd done the restaurant a big favor, and then written a blog about it. I don't act like Pat in life, and I don't think like him, but that's what getting into voice is all about.
Which character is the most fun to write for and why?
Probably Ray, because he has unlimited means, a free mouth, no shame, good luck, and an almost unbreakable sense of optimism. It's fun to send a personality like that into new territories. However, without foils like Roast Beef and Téodor, you'd eventually get tired of hearing about him finding money on the way home from getting blasted and laid, so they're also pleasurable to write.
Which character is the closest to your own personality?
I'd rather continue to enjoy the speculation.
Your breadth of knowledge in regards to Ray's Place is pretty astounding. How are you able to answer questions on such a varying array of topics?
I have not checked, but I think that most of what Ray says does not bear careful scrutiny. He has fun with it, you know? He can do that, because he has a pretty good disclaimer.
Who are your influences?
Hard for me to say. The reader would likely be a better judge. I think the only cultural touchstone I even have right now is “Molto Mario.”
What goals do you have for Achewood?
I'd like to see the creative work professionally compiled and published, and I'd like to adapt the Achewood universe to a more dynamic medium, such as television or film. Comics artists are so limited in terms of the number of senses they can work with.
In the past there was talk of an Achewood video game, a movie script, and books (aside from the self-published versions). What's the status on these and are there any other projects currently in the works for Achewood?
Can't say at the moment! Sorry. We're thick in the middle of gearing up for Christmas right now and have all kinds of great things in the works for our readers.
What's your opinion on web comics vs. print?
My opinion is that you have absolutely terrible chances of seeing something you like in either medium. Try cable, or marijuana.
Are there any TV shows/movies that you really like?
I haven't seen anything that tops Mr. Show. The BBC faux-science series “Look Around You” by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz (http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy /lookaroundyou) is also brilliant and bears the time you should spend searching it out.
What would readers be surprised to learn about you?
Probably anything at all. I try to keep my life private and separate from the strip. Even my blog is in a character voice. Most of this interview is an outrageous lie, also, albeit an ingeniously bland one.
What do your friends and family think of your cartooning career?
They always suspected I'd make my life a lot harder than it had to be.
Where did your interest in cooking come from?
Up until I met my wife I'd made my share of blackened quesadillas and fried eggs on canned chili, but had never attempted to better my skills. When I met Liz, who was essentially vegetarian at the time, and I the opposite, we needed to do a lot of experimenting to make our shared meals work. She cooked me my first risottos and pastas, and showed me how to make them, and once I saw how easy it could be to make great food it was off to the races. Every weekend we'd spend Saturday and Sunday morning collecting and reading cookbooks, and watching cooking shows, and then around three head out to Andronico's or the like for the crab or mushrooms or
biletta ton priatta or what have you. Those were the simple days of wine and garlic, boy howdy, as the poets used to say.
How is fatherhood treating you?
It's the greatest kick in the side of the head you'll ever get. Having a little baby light up and smile just because you walked into the room is better than heroin, and involves only a slightly higher number of pants-soiling incidents.
What's been the most satisfying thing about doing Achewood?
Being able to sit around and cry and throw up at all hours of the day without middle-management shooting me disapproving looks.