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NYCC: The Achewood Interview

by  in Comic News Comment
NYCC: The Achewood Interview
Cover for The Great Outdoor Fight hardcover collection

People unfamiliar with “Achewood” may wonder why Dark Horse Comics has elected to publish a hardcover collection of a black and white webcomic about talking cats and bears. People who are familiar with the strip chosen as Time Magazine’s Graphic Novel of the Year for 2008 are more likely to ask: “What took so long?” CBR News had a chance to speak with Achewood’s creator and guiding force, Chris Onstad, about his digital phenomenon.

How long have you been developing Achewood? Obviously, the strip started online in 2001, but was it something that had been bopping about in your head for years? 
Chris Onstad: Since early September 2001 – we launched on October 1, 2001. I don’t have precise memories of how it started, but I sketched out a few of my wife’s stuffed animals and started putting odd turns of phrase from my sketchbooks and bar napkins in their mouths. I was a graphic designer, so I had a copy of Adobe Illustrator kicking around. That’s still how I draw the whole thing. I even use some artwork from back then.

At what point in Achewood’s life did you realize “Hey – I can make a living doing this!”?CB: About a year in I spent two hundred and thirty dollars on a few dozen t-shirts and started offering them online. To my surprise, they started selling right away, and that was the Eureka moment. Realizing that people were cool with spending money on goods – who knew? – it still amazes me to be a “business,” even though we have a full-time warehouse guy and truckloads of orders going out each week. Truckloads – I mean that. My warehouse guy has a truck almost identical to the one Michael J. Fox gets at the end of Back to the Future. When he pulls up in the morning, I can’t help but set my teeth and think of Huey Lewis. Here I am, a grown man, but I see a certain truck and all I can think is, “Gotta get BACK in tie-aye-aye-aym!”

Generally speaking, Achewood’s a humor strip, but you’re not shy about making your characters – and readers – somewhat uncomfortable from time to time. How does a strip like, say, “To their dismay, this happens.” or the Cartilage Head series come about?CB: Those are the rare strips that are art- and mood-driven, rather than being all about maintaining the energy of the dialogue. I just start drawing those, like with Cartilage Head, and don’t plan on getting a laugh, or plan anything, really, and hope that I can make it worth the readers’ time. They’ve been willing to follow me down the rabbit hole before, with good results — that’s how the Great Outdoor Fight story came into being. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure readers would have the patience for it, but they did, and now it will be the first of our works to see actual print!

One of the many strips to be featured in The Great Outdoor Fight hardcover collection

In 2004 you announced a deal with Checker Publishing that eventually fell through due to creative differences. Why did it take this long for another book deal with a publisher? Were you pretty much content to continue solely with the self-published collections until Dark Horse made you the perfect offer? 
CB: We didn’t pursue a deal aggressively. I’m lazy, and I’m sure somewhere in there I was afraid to be rejected all the way down the line. Eventually Achewood started to get enough of a following that a few publishers contacted me about a book deal, and we wound up fitting really well with Dark Horse. It’s been fantastic working with them – a top-notch outfit.  

At one point, you stated that the internet was where Achewood belonged and that print was not your ultimate goal with the strip. Here you are, with a Dark Horse Comics deal, 8 self-published collections, a cookbook and several other books. Have you changed your mind, or do you view all of those as secondary to their internet counterparts? 
CB: My ultimate goal was not to be picked up by a newspaper – never. We can run in university papers and alternative weeklies but have no place in your major metro. I have absolutely nothing against print — I have everything against dumbing down content for editors. We skipped newspapers and went straight to book form, which is probably not something your old-world comic strip does.  

Several years ago you started syndicating Achewood out to various college newspapers and the like – is this program still in existence? 
CB: Here and there, but I don’t have a proper administrative program in place yet. We will soon, because there is growing demand. 
I seem to recall finding out at some point there are a few strips that actually have been re-written by you after they’ve been published online. Is there an easy way for readers to access both versions of these “easter eggs”? 
I’ve probably rewritten under six, and not significantly. There is only one that readers can see both versions of; it’s not like those old versions of Excel that have the hidden flight simulator – they simply just don’t exist any more. It’s the Geometry one from 2002. For the most part, strips I altered after posting were altered because I thought the originals were not up to standards, and so I don’t offer them, because I hate them to pieces.  

In Achewood, folks know how to get their violence on

What are your thoughts on webcomics as a whole? Have they grown over the years or pretty much remained the same? 
CB: How many newspaper strips were truly great? The Far Side, and some people get weepy over Calvin and Hobbes, but it’s pretty much been The Far Side. The Far Side was a hit time after time after time. The window of time when it was alive was something we took for granted, and look back upon fondly. So, are there any Far Sides in online comics? No. Nick Gurewich retired and the title is waiting for the next great thing. I follow a couple online strips, like Maakies (Tony is a really fantastic person, despite everything about him), and Slow Wave, but I really can’t think of a pinnacle online strip that delivers like The Far Side.     
For the most part, webcomics consist of a website with a strip that’s updated a few times a week, a forum of some sort and possibly a store, but the Achewood site is far more than that with a searchable dialogue database, embeddable strips, character blogs and more. 
CB: We grow Achewood into new online media technologies like water spreading into cracked cement — that is to say, slowly. We’re testing out some microblog tools, have our own discussion forum software that filters out degeneracy, and are about to launch a more sophisticated store based on the latest programming tools. The searchable dialogue database is one of my absolute favorite things – it was developed by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, another top fellow. I heard that he was nearly seven feet tall. It’s amazing that his fingers can even use a human keyboard. Maybe he has one that is about 30% bigger…I don’t know.   
Phillipe doesn’t seem to be running this time around and Ray dropped out before he even publicly announced his candidacy – will another Achewood resident step into the presidential race? 
CB: No. I flirt with topicality as little as possible, and only want to touch on things like politics in a generalized fashion. I hate making comics with a shelf life. I did a strip about the 2004 Vice Presidential debate, and who’s going to remember John Edwards in four years? I mean, unless he explodes and some of his exploded body gets on Michael Jackson, that’s a dead strip, right there.

Animated Achewood – is this something you’d like to see happen? 

Cartilage Head does his thing, creeping Ray out hella bad

CB: Absolutely. Comics are such an information-poor medium. I’d love to add the voices I hear for them, the richer timing opportunities, music, the longer format of an animated short or feature. It can be so much more than speech bubbles and stationary drawings of an Escalade, with lines that hint that the Escalade is moving.

Would it be something you’d like to see remain an online offering, like the strip, or does that not really matter to you?CB: I’d rather it were in prime time, reaching the most people, of course!

What was your reaction when you found out about Time naming Achewood their Graphic Novel of the Year? Did they call you, send you an email? A telegram?CB: One of their editors emailed me to arrange a call. It sounds like they officially do that for every category winner. It’s been a real feather in our cap, and I can trace the strongest publisher interest to that award.

This year, you have a new fancy hardcover coming out, Achewood was named Time’s Graphic Novel of the Year, and 2008’s not even halfway over – how are you going to maintain this sort of momentum?. 
CB: By putting out content that I think is worth peoples’ time, as often as I can.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Independent Comics forum.

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