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It's hard to explain Chris Onstad's webcomic Achewood to those who don't already obsessively haunt achewood.com, waiting for a new strip or in-character blog entry. In the beginning, Achewood was primarily an unrelated succession of dryly raunchy jokes, delivered by cutesy characters based on Onstad's wife's stuffed animals. Gradually, Onstad has built a detailed world around the personalities of his assorted cartoon cats, bears, and robots, and has used their ever-expanding funny-animal universe to make observations about heretofore unexplored aspects of our own culture, like the advantages of being a breast man (you get to order off a special menu at Taco Bell), the problem with random product-promoting contests (you might get an unexpected call from INXS), or the proper amount to spend to make up for a terrible injury (about $600). Onstad recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his strip's origins, his comic sensibility, and making a living without leaving the house.
The A.V. Club: You've said that you don't consider yourself a "comics person" per se. Are you talking about now, or throughout your life?
Chris Onstad: Throughout my life. I had the average little set of comics that kids have, you know: a few old Peanuts collections, a few Garfield books. But I wasn't a Batman type of guy, or a Marvel action guy. Throughout my life, I've never followed a comic any more than, like, picking up the new Acme Novelty Library every time one comes out. I'm not the sort who goes to stores or follows the industry.
AVC: Did you doodle a lot when you were a kid?
CO: Yeah, I liked to draw and sketch, but I knew that I didn't have the touch. You know how when you see what an artist has drawn, and you can see they have beautiful lines and concept and form? I knew I didn't have that. Although I did like to try. I guess that's one reason I like to draw on the computer so much. I can use character templates, and they always look really consistent. The character doesn't look like a completely different entity from panel to panel.
AVC: How did you end up doing a webcomic when you weren't really into comics?
CO: Let's see I was working in, I guess what you would call "high tech," in about 2000, 2001, and I was kind of bored by it. I was basically just doing design and printing out brochures and things like that. On my lunch breaks, I'd doodle and draw and write down the funny little bits of dialogue or plays-on-words that pop into your head when you're just driving around. We all have a funny idea now and then, but I'd jot it down. And sometimes at night I'd set them to little character drawings I'd made of my wife's stuffed animals, and I started getting good feedback from friends. I mean, I'd been working in humor writing since about '93, when I started at the Stanford Chaparral, which is Stanford's humor magazine. So I already knew a little bit and had my own opinions about how to write comedy or how to get a laugh out of people. The tiniest positive feedback is enough to get you going.
AVC: Would you call yourself a comedy snob?
CO: I wouldn't call myself a snob. Well, okay, maybe. [Laughs.]
AVC: What did you think was funny when you were coming of age?
CO: When I was coming of age, my favorite stuff was Monty Python, British comedy, The Young Ones but actually, I'm a comedy glutton. I'd laugh at The Cosby Show. I'd laugh at commercials. Just really lowbrow stuff. I'm all over the map, I think. I'll laugh at Larry The Cable Guy.
AVC: Does Achewood make you laugh?
CO: I don't put it up unless I've had an honest laugh at some point during the writing. I may not get that laugh translated perfectly into the strip—although that's my highest goal—but yeah, in the few times that I don't put up a strip that makes me laugh, I'm generally trying to do a strip that is supposed to be exactly the opposite. A strip that is supposed to be disturbing or wrenching or otherwise intellectually provocative.
AVC: Let's consider a particularly good one, from the "SaniTaco" series. It's such a weird idea to start with, and then the joke is so inspired. Were you still chuckling to yourself for days afterward?
CO: With that strip, yeah, it's very visual. I'll read something like that and go, "Oh God, my big punchline, my big thing that I worked all day for, was a middle finger going up. That's no good."
AVC: Well, the punchline is really the dialogue before the last panel.
CO: Yeah, I don't always put the punchline or the best bit of writing at the end. And sometimes it's hard for me to release a strip like that, but I know at this point, that's my style. I try make it worth reading every day, even if you don't get the big chuckle at the end, or you don't get it right away, or you don't think there's anything to "get." That's pretty much Achewood's thing, and it's got a pretty loyal fan base.
AVC: Do you keep a notebook of ideas, or do you sit down when it's time to do the strip and just panic for several hours until something comes up?
CO: I keep a little notepad in the car, and I'll doodle things and jot down ideas that I like when I'm driving around. But more often than not, I'm You know, my wife takes our daughter from like 3 to 6 every day, and that's my writing time, and I really strive to get the strip done then. And if it doesn't happen, after her bedtime, I try to finish up by midnight. I'm usually successful at that. I keep a couple of big Microsoft Word documents worth of strip ideas, and I'll plow through those if things are dry.
AVC: Is the writing done before you start drawing?
CO: Ninety-nine percent of the time. Sometimes as a generative exercise, I'll draw first and see what comes from it, because I think that can be really productive. But a lot of the time, I'm hesitant to start that way, because what if I draw this stuff and then nothing comes to me, and then it's like 1:30 in the morning and I've got all these useless drawings? I've wasted all afternoon not writing. So yeah, most of the time, it's all writing first and trying to keep the energy alive when I get what I think is a good idea, to the point where I can execute it and block it out and complete it with characters and details and all that sort of thing.
AVC: Is there less pressure because you don't have a deadline per se? Because you can just put a strip up whenever you're done?
CO: Just because my deadline isn't through a big syndicate that's paying, it doesn't mean that there's not the exact same amount of pressure. Because in essence, I have, oh gosh, I don't know, 30 to 60,000 different "syndicates" every day who are waiting for me to put up my work. And if I don't put it up, they're less inclined to support it. So I have to deliver no matter what.
AVC: Does your wife work?
CO: She works in the capacity of running the business side of Achewood. She doesn't have any other jobs or anything like that.
AVC: Was it a hard decision for both of you to dedicate your lives to this?
CO: Well, we transitioned out of the career world gradually over the course of a couple years. She did retail forecasting and planning for a while, which actually plays really well into what we're doing now—which is retail online. So she went from fulltime to contracting, and I went from fulltime to contracting and freelancing here and there. But eventually, it became more important to me to work on our business, because it was generating enough money to where we could scrape by a living, and now we're doing all right. We've taken on a full-time employee with benefits, to handle order fulfillment. We've had that for seven, eight months now, and it was nice to be able to absorb that cost and still maintain some standard of living.
It's really been a linear growth in terms of our revenue and our readership. It's funny, because I always thought, "Ah, the Internet, man! Overnight, you can be a boom sensation and have seven million new readers." But no, not with a niche comic strip. It's kind of a hard sell. The most common thing I see people saying on message boards and Internet blogs is, "I showed it to my friends and they hated it. They don't get it, but I love it." So, you know I don't want to call it an acquired taste, but Achewood has to catch you at the right moment.
AVC: Do you get hooked on reader response? Do you wake up early after you put a new strip up to see what kind of reactions you've gotten?
CO: I used to follow it closely, but then I realized I was doing myself a disservice, because I'd put up a strip, and the first comment would be, "Oh, this is terrible. Achewood hasn't been good in weeks." And I'd go, "Oh, that bastard! Son of a bitch, I've put all day into this, goddamn it." [Laughs.] But you have to realize that it's just like some, you know, 13-year-old boy in Akron, and he doesn't really care, he's just posting some snotty little thing on the Internet. And here I am, 32 years old and getting worked up about it. That's the wrong way to approach it. If anything, I think it's important to read that stuff at first, because you have to develop a thick skin. It's a growth process, and it hurts a little bit, but you have to get used to it, otherwise you'll never make it anywhere. So now, I'll see some negative feedback and go, "Huh. Well fuck you, I'm making a living." [Laughs.]
AVC: Can you get lost in your own head doing a job like this, working at home all day long?
CO: Oh, I've gone through periods where I've totally lost perspective on life. I've gone through mini-Brian Wilson periods, where I won't answer the phone for like weeks at a time. Just afraid of the world, or so focused on what I'm doing that I get superstitious and I won't leave the house. It's dangerous to work by yourself, in your house, alone. I'm lucky I'm married. Otherwise I'd probably have a beard. Sorry if you have a beard. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does having your daughter around help? Give you something else to put your mind on?
CO: Honestly, I feel kind of bad I spend so much time writing. But then again, I'm at home all the time, and we play a lot, and we do bath and bed every night, and we hang out in the afternoon, and I watch her a couple of hours a day so my wife can have a life.
I try not to use too much kid stuff in the strip, because that really bothers people, and I don't want Achewood to turn into a family strip. I think that's a copout for someone who's been doing one kind of thing, and then they have a kid and everything becomes kid-based. You know, if I want to write a book about parenting on the side, great, but that's not what Achewood is. Achewood is supposed to be an edgy, hip, funny thing about people who are between 20 and 30.
AVC: You have sort of toned back on the toddler updates.
CO: Yeah, I haven't been doing them as often. I mean to, but at this point, it's like, "Geez, how much can I say?" I don't want it to sound cliché, and with so much other stuff to work on, I don't want to spend 10 minutes writing bad sentences. I do intend to keep doing it, though. It's really popular with a lot of readers. Oftentimes, I'll have a friend who loves the strip, and his girlfriend or friend will go, "Oh, you do Achewood? You know, I only read the toddler updates! They're so funny!" And I'm like, "Oh, well, I guess that's a compliment." [Laughs.]
AVC: Maybe it's just sort of humanizing. You have this funny-odd strip, and then just below it, you write about how cute your kid is. Balances things out a little.
CO: Yeah, I would say it is humanizing. No one really knows who I am except for when I do interviews, and I do this strip. It's kind of a brick wall. And then all of the sudden, there's this toddler-update thing, and I guess you get a little more of a glimpse into my life, and you can see that I'm not just some unknowable presence. I'm writing about my kid.
AVC: You didn't put pictures of yourself on your site, or to accompany any of your interviews—until now. Is there a reason for that?
CO: I started off not doing it because I was like, "This isn't about me, it's about the comic." Then there became this cult of secrecy where no one could know what you look like. You don't go to conventions, and you don't put out a PR picture of yourself. I started to like the power of that. Like, "Nobody knows what he looks like!" It builds a sort of legend around you. But I really don't care. Eventually, I'll put a picture of myself somewhere for a book jacket or whatever. For now, I kind of like living in obscurity. I know there are lots of readers in the town where I live, so maybe it's better that people don't know what I look like, so I don't get stopped when I'm out at dinner.
AVC: Speaking of books, whatever became of your big book deal with Checker? And are you working on something else?
CO: I am actually working on a book. First of all, the other book deal fell through because the publisher was sort of in a state of re-deciding what they were interested in publishing, and enough resources weren't going to be devoted to my project, and it just wasn't going to happen in a way I'd be happy with. I have incredibly high production standards, and they sent me a galley that was just so far beneath acceptable that I canceled the project. And the company was in such a state of flux that they were like, "All right, fine, fuck off, we're gonna publish our action-hero stuff."
Since then, I've got all this content I'm talking about with kind of a major publisher. You know the "Great Outdoor Fight" story arc? I'm putting together not quite a graphic novel, but I'm laying it all out as a linear story and adding new content and a ton of writing and background on what The Great Outdoor Fight is, and I'm hoping to publish that as some sort of perfect-bound, color-cover, proper edition. I'm just finishing the writing up for that. I think that will go over really well. Critically, I think, that was our finest hour. It really had a good response from people, which surprised me, because it was the first time I've really asked the audience to have patience, because they weren't one-offs every day or gag strips every day. It was a three-month narrative that really paid off, and I was really pleased, because I was afraid to do it at first.
AVC: When you get a response like that, does it tempt you to do another long narrative? Do you pay attention to what people are clicking on and what they aren't?
CO: Oh, yeah, we follow stats really closely. But paying attention to what people thought of that was a more qualitative thing. Reading blogs and reading e-mail feedback, and seeing how well the Great Outdoor Fight products sold, like the shirts. It was really telling. I am loath to try another project that's exactly like that, because I don't want to do the same thing over again. Maybe for fear of failure. Yeah, probably mostly for fear of failure. And that one really surprised me, because I had no idea what The Great Outdoor Fight was before like the eighth panel of nine in the strip right before it became something. Ray's mom mentioned it, and all of the sudden it was this big legendary thing that everyone knew about.
AVC: What if you drew some cute fuzzy rabbit in the strip one day, and suddenly your hits doubled. Would you feel tempted to include the bunny more often, to drive up traffic?
CO: I try not to whore out like that. There's a fine line between giving the people what they want, and doing what you want. Like, if I drew a new character that people really liked and responded to, it might inspire me to write more for that character, and hopefully I would have created that character in the first place because I had a concrete idea of what its personality was and what its voice was. I think that's what people are drawn to a lot of the time in Achewood—the very distinct character voices that you can rely on day-to-day to be themselves and to be entertaining in their own way.
AVC: Do you find that you have to get into character to think in the characters' voices, or do they just talk to you throughout the day?
CO: I can get into a character's voice pretty much immediately if I know I'm going to use a certain character. I don't have to spend time getting into character, because I've done so much writing and development for each character. Most of the big ones have their own blogs. So, I've fleshed them out pretty thoroughly at this point.
AVC: Here's an example. In a recent strip, Philippe wrote about how noisy the neighbors were being at night. Was that based on something that was actually happening to you at the time? And how did you decide that you wanted to write about it as Philippe instead of, say, Pat?
CO: Okay, yeah, that really happened. I live next to a house of renters, and the landlord has the absolute worst taste in people to rent his house out to. This time, it was drum-and-bass computer freaks who would always be up until 4 a.m. with their bump-bump-bump window-shaking and all that right next to my daughter's room. And after like five years of this, I'd had enough. I went totally Gordon Ramsay and went out and said "fuck" about 38 times to the guy, who was standing in his driveway banging dresser drawers around in the back of a truck. And, oh my God, it was so It was like therapy. It felt like I floating when I was done. It was like I killed this guy with my words. Destroyed him down to his fat little sneakers. I went back in the house and I felt fantastic.
How did it end up being written up by my most innocent little baby character? [Laughs.] How did I decide to write that in his voice? I guess intellectually, you could look at it and say I was trying to get as far away as possible from the nasty adult situation that it was, and sort of be cute about it through the cute eyes of a little boy.
AVC: Is that really true, or is it just a reasonable answer?
CO: Well, I just thought of that. I really don't know why I did it. I also write like 13 character blogs, and while they aren't consistently updated, at certain times I'm in a certain mood to write a certain way, and I have 13 different channels I can jump into, depending on how I feel.
AVC: You cover a broad range of topics within the blogs and in the strip, from food to music to a large number of other things. How much of your day is spent just taking stuff in—reading and watching TV and doing all the things you need to stay informed?
CO: You know, I'm a totally average person. I think we all see so much every day and notice so many odd little things. Just walking down the Main Street in your town, you'll see somebody with a gimp leg that gets you thinking, or you'll see a new restaurant closing after two weeks, and it'll make you sad. There's so much that everyone takes in every day. It's just, I have a channel to write it in where it entertains enough people that I feel like it's worth doing. We all could do that. It just happens to be my job, which is great. [Laughs.]
AVC: You don't necessarily follow other webcomics, do you?
CO: I follow The Perry Bible Fellowship, which is weekly, so it's not too hard to follow. That is probably the best comic online or anywhere right now. It's absolutely brilliant. And I think he's probably well on his way to being discovered. He's actually got a book in the works. And Tony Millionaire of Maakies has been a really nice supporter of Achewood for a long time, and I really like his work. But in terms of comics proper, like I said earlier, I got into the Acme Novelty Library probably when it started, around '94 or something like that. That, as everyone knows, is the paramount work in the field.
AVC: You mentioned how you started the strip and it wasn't necessarily an overnight success, but now you've reached the point where you and two other people—or three, counting your child—can live off of it. Do you think that's representative of the way the Internet is overtaking print? Because if you'd wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, you probably wouldn't have had that kind of success.
CO: We were only capable of doing it because we were financially stable before I started. I got laid off and I got a severance package, and I started doing this, and pretty soon we started selling merchandise. And I was gigging freelance design and whatnot for a while. Obviously more and more people can make their living off the Web. I think a lot of the cartoonists that operate in the same stratosphere as me are making their full living off of it. I don't know how many people with families and employees are doing it, but I know that the guys from Penny Arcade have an absolutely enormous empire, with something like nine or 12 employees. There are numerous examples of people who are making a living. But God, I'm doing it in the middle of Silicon Valley, the most expensive place in America. [Laughs]. We're barely getting by. If I was living in Phoenix or Des Moines or some place, God, we'd be kings.