Achewood, a webcomic launched in 2001, is among the densest works of fiction on the internet. Resting on the mannerisms of a developed cast of complex characters, it later evolved to include blogs, Twitter accounts and even a cookbook. Its creator, Chris Onstad, has given life to every corner of its titular setting through a series of inspired arcs. For Issue #2: Breath, we talked to Chris about Achewood, some of the process behind it and its future.
Below is a sample page from our zine. You can see the complete spread for free at our Patreon, or scroll down for the full interview with Chris Onstad.
How would you summarise the Achewood project as a whole?
Do you know the Winchester Mystery House? Sarah Winchester, the widow of the founder of the Winchester firearms company, believed that she had to continually add on to their mansion in order to accommodate the ghosts of all those killed by the rifles he sold, or some such directive. So, she built this massive, sprawling, nonsensical, non-functional compound in California: no master plan, stairways to nowhere, things of that nature.
Work is supposed to have continued around the clock for thirty-eight years, until she died in 1922. Achewood is a bit like that, I suppose. Huge wings added on at whimsy, rooms for all my ghosts both old and freshly on-boarding, and visitors are welcomed year-round to witness an oddity presented without shame; a warren of neuroses, pleasures, and wonderings on the human condition told through deeply average heroes in situations painfully common and highly absurd.
The fictional location of Achewood is itself as distinctive as the characters within. To what degree has the entire town, as opposed to the characters, dictated the strip’s tone?
The strip is generally set in an aggregate of the towns in which I grew up in central-northern California in the 1970s and 1980s. Ray, one of the mains, is very much an affluent child born at the birth of hip hop culture, a Blackhawk country club poseur with a big, loving heart and a powerful, deeply-hidden genetic secret. Roast Beef, his poor friend “from circumstances,” is every bit the East Bay skatepunk, Dead Kennedys on TDK tapes, every experience beyond subsistence a fascinating treasure, intellectually consuming, yet a thrumming reminder of the better life he quite simply could not ever have.
Was Achewood’s development with the internet (such as the blogs and Twitter accounts) something you did begrudgingly, or were they a welcome creative liberation?
I started the comic in 2001, and from the get-go I found the comic format a struggle. So slow, so inefficient with space. So much cramming and trimming and kerning to make words fit cleanly and evenly into goddamned “bubbles.” When I discovered how easy it was to start a blog in July 2004, the floodgates opened with a fury. I started three or four character blogs in one night, aided by a mysterious, cloudy bottle of rum from a distillery that was wiped out by Katrina. I felt pent rivers racing and hurtling and fighting to get out, and this continued for some years. Twitter, I did that for a little bit, but I always felt like it was just throwing content down a garbage chute. Lifespan of a mayfly, that sort of thing.
This is probably a pretty good time to say I love you! Even if you are racist! (But be sure to change) #LoveYouFriday
— Philippe (@Philippe_Hugs) December 13, 2013
A more precise example of the Internet’s impact on your work is the alt-text; a huge part of strips. How did you perceive their functionality? As a follow on, how conscious were their use in distinguishing Achewood from other webcomics?
I liked the alt-text at first because it was where I’d add the punchline. I mean, there would be an “enough-ness” to the part of the strip you could see, but then if you hovered, you’d discover this easter-egg that was like the author’s last comment on the work, breaking the fourth wall. So in a way the experience was, read the strip, pregnant pause, then get to see into the comic’s ideas from a slightly different perspective. Based on everything I read, offering the alt text easter egg was widely regarded as a unique and differentiating feature of Achewood; to offer an alt text was considered, I think, to be what Achewood did first. But I am humble; we are not talking about inventing the birth control pill, or a ten-cent water purifier, here.
For you, what are the strongest catalysts for humour in your work?
I like the tension created in dialogue between opposed parties. One of my favorite forms is two-man dialogue: snappy, improv-style. As you note, I also enjoy writing multi-part dialogue with characters of starkly opposed argots, constructions, energies. Tension, release. Or, tension, other tension, tension, different tension, knock on the door, leave for a party, repeat.
What tends to act as a starting point for your work, the writing or the artwork? Do you consider one to be more integral to the project?
Writing first, always. My “cartoonist’s sketchbooks” are literally just pages of writing. Artwork, blocking, timing, visual composition, was secondary to the quipping, voices, turns of phrase, and general verbal energy about 98% of the time.
In certain interviews, you’ve discussed an early discomfort with your artistic abilities. Now, you create extremely unique artworks largely based on Achewood characters. Even in the strip itself, arcs like the Lash of Thanatos show a huge evolution. How much has this happened naturally, as you work with the universe and characters?
I started writing the comic in 2001, but I didn’t learn how to lose myself in visual art the way I could in writing until some time in 2015 or so, after I stopped writing and picked up oil pastels. When I write I have no plan, but I run at it with my head down and all the confidence in the world (when it’s its best, anyhow). Now when I do artwork, I just prep the board, grab a color, and start moving my hand. I release myself, surrender, and fully trust that what will emerge, will emerge. I find inspiration in what appears: this looks like a bejewelled collar, that looks like a familiar forehead, add some red there, moosh that pea green around until it’s something pretty in the background, etc. What I have learned from the process of releasing my conscious ego before creating is just how irrelevant it is–even poisonous, deadly–to my own creative process.
There never was a plan for anything that happened in Achewood. The Great Outdoor Fight, the catalog’s strongest piece of storytelling — I didn’t even know how that was going to end until the night I wrote the ending. Looking back on work that is generated this way, I see the structures emerge later. To put structures in place from the beginning, and to know what point you want to make before you even sit down, well, I can read about ten seconds of Henry James before I want to shoot hot bolts through stained glass.
Language is incredibly detailed across all of your work. How easy is it for you to enter the mindset of any one character, and use their voice?
Like with any sport, it’s easier to slip into over time. I like to think that Ronda Rousey can just, like, effortlessly go from ordering and paying for her food in line at Carl’s Jr., then swing her legs around in the air and destroy heads and torsos, and leave the room in an expiring heap, then pump some ketchup into a little plastic portion cup, and take her meal to the table when her number is called, and then hit a man so hard in his ribs that doubles over in a spasm of suffocation, and then eat, all while listening to Take Five on her earbuds.
Onomatopoeia has, at times, told the story in place of dialogue. Where does your love for it stem from, and do you think it’s an underrated storytelling device?
That’s a great question. To be honest, I grew up reading a ton of Garfield and Snoopy before anyth…wait. You have jogged this loose. It was absolutely MAD Magazine. Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side Of, things like that.
Is Achewood a lifetime project? If you see a definitive end, how final would you want to leave things?
If life has taught me anything, it’s that pretending to have control over closure, over energy, over anything, is “super dumb.” Maybe audiences like the drama of big declarations of finality or mystery, but if the spirit of Achewood represents anything, it is that nothing is final, and every day that I live, honestly, I learn that surrendering the desire to control life is the surest path to happiness, joy, and, believe it or not, the accrual of security both internally and materially.
What problems did you encounter in attempting to adapt Achewood to other mediums, such as animation?
Not problems. Challenges. Adapting Achewood to mocap animation, working with a large crew of people who both loved and didn’t read Achewood, was a fascinating challenge, and I learned volumes and was so happy. But remember, during the year I tried that, I had never tried it before. What I accomplished as an absolute novice working with massively powerful tools, inside of unfamiliar complex structures, was fantastic. The end-viewer who sees the little clips and thinks, “that doesn’t seem like Achewood as I know it,” is seeing the work of a baby in the medium. Citizen Kane wasn’t Welles‘ first project. It was probably some shitty clip of him pretending to sound like Charlie Chaplin choking on a donut.
What plans are currently on the table, or even just floating around your mind, concerning Achewood? Aside from Achewood, are you currently working on anything?
I am excited to tell you that I can’t tell you about my current Achewood project, but that means there is one, and it’s fairly large, and it’s in a very familiar vein. I should have an announcement by summer.
Achewood’s strips can be read in their entirety at http://achewood.com, which also provides links to all character blogs.
More of Chris Onstads work is available through http://achewoodgallery.wordpress.com!