Welcome to a world where cats routinely die and come back from the dead, where they drink Ketel One and have their own Dear Abby-like advice columns. A world where a 5 year old otter child is making a serious run at the presidency, the Sani-Taco rules supreme, and robots have asses. It’s a magical place that’s visited regularly on the internet by Dave Barry, Tony Millionare and James Kochalka.
Enter the world of Achewood as envisioned by cartoonist, internet pioneer and man about town, Chris Onstad.
4CR – Your stated influences include Garfield, Snoopy and Berkely Breathed’s work, but what sort of professional background did you approach cartooning from? Do you have a writing or art degree, or is this something that you just happened to fall into?
Chris Onstad – I came at it as a graphic designer who was bored making network diagrams for computer companies. In college I?d fallen in with the satire magazine, the Stanford Chaparral, and that?s where I spent most of my undergraduate years. I enjoy writing, and writing humor particularly, but it?s tough to get a gig on Letterman so I fell into doing tech industry whatnot, as I had graduated right at the peak of the dot com bubble in the heart of silicon valley. I was even a ?Research Scientist? at this one lab for a couple years, if you can believe that. I didn?t take a single ?science? class in college. Fancy IT titles and German sports cars were falling from the trees in 1997.
4CR – It’s often said, probably to the point of now being a clich?, that the best characters practically write themselves. Do you find this to be true for any of the Achewood clan?
Chris Onstad – The relationships between the characters that are most opposed personality-wise (Ray and Roast Beef being the prime example in the Achewood universe) are the most fun to write, the ones that flow most freely.
4CR – Achewood tends not to follow any sort of traditional Monday through Friday structure when it comes to the strip and the story arcs, often starting or ending stories mid-week, sometimes dropping a plotline abruptly in favor of something else, then returning to the earlier story at a later date. How far in advance do you plot out the strip, and how rigidly do you tend to stick to your original outlines?
Chris Onstad – I don?t plot at all. It?s a stream of consciousness exercise. It seems to flow together well, so I?m pleased with it over time, but obviously it?s impossible for me to know how it looks to the mind that didn?t write it. There?s probably some logic behind the fact that I am not wealthy, though.
4CR – How much does fan feedback affect the directions of your stories, if it has any effect at all?
Chris Onstad – Any artist/writer is lying if they say it doesn?t pop into their heads once in a while. You get used to it, though. You get used to hate mail and love mail and smart mail and thoughtful mail and kid mail and all of that. You develop a crucial thick skin. I doubt Keith Richards gets pissed off when people say he?s ugly, to him that?s just ambient noise. I?m used to people saying that Achewood is horrible, but I?m also used to people who write in to Ray?s advice column with genuinely traumatic personal problems that they shouldn?t be asking a cartoon cat. They?re all over the board, those Internet users, but you get used to it.
4CR – I know that you say that you don’t have a favorite character, but Ray certainly has become the center of most of the happenings in the Achewood universe. How much of yourself does the reader hear speaking through Ray, either in the strip or in the advice column?
Chris Onstad – I don?t think you can surgically extract the writer from the character, no matter how disparate they may be. I?m not like Ray, I?m introverted and on the quiet side, but I know how extroverted people are because I?ve been around them. It?s fun to write someone who never gets depressed and always sees the huge house party at the end of the tunnel. It?s also interesting to write Roast Beef, who is the polar opposite, and Philippe, who is five. How did I think when I was a kid? Well, let?s see here. I would like to eat a duck or a hamburger for dinner. That?s how I thought.
4CR – Have you ever received an email for Ray’s advice column that was simply too bizarre to use?
Chris Onstad – I can?t address some of the heavier stuff because I?m not a qualified counselor or therapist and I have no business offering advice to those who really need it. If your wicker sofa is rotting, or if you have a stupid haircut, then yes, Ray will shoot off some ideas, but leave the suicide stuff in your Drafts folder, please. Ray is obviously against suicide and will tell you about that much. If you commit suicide, how can you possibly make it to his Friday night party? It doesn?t add up, not in his head. Not to his way of thinking.
4CR – On top of the regular comic strip, you also have Ray’s advice column and you just added 8 new blogs for various Achewood characters as well as your own personal blog. How on earth do you find the time, much less the creative energy, to maintain all of this?
Chris Onstad – Writing is much faster than cartooning. Cartooning is hard. Blocking out momentum and dialogue frame-by-frame is hard. It?s highly constricting to always work in that tiny format. Just jumping into a voice and working through a few hundred loose words is pie and jam, pastrami and swiss. I enjoy the new ?blogs? very much; they allow me to develop characters much more thoroughly and rapidly than six panels a day ever could. I don?t know why I started writing the blogs, I think it had something to do with this new kind of mysterious cloudy rum, but since I did I?ve never regretted it. It?s a wonderful way to get into character.
4CR – You’ve stated in the past that the internet is where Achewood should be and that print is not your ultimate goal. However, at this point, you have 3 collections of Achewood strips (and a cookbook), and I assume more are forthcoming. Do you still feel that the internet is ultimately the perfect place for Achewood, or has your PoV shifted on that somewhat? Do you get a different sort of satisfaction from being able to hold a book of your creation in your hands than you do when you look at it online?
Chris Onstad – Print or online, I don?t care. That?s my opinion this evening. I want people to laugh and I want to make a living providing that. That?s the perverse pathology at the center of this.
4CR – Has all of the current hubbub about Scott Kurtz self-syndicating PVP in the near future caused you to toy with the idea about getting Achewood into the papers? It seems like it would be a perfect fit for a college paper or alternative weekly or something along those lines.
Chris Onstad – We?ve been developing a syndication program for the college and alternative weekly format. You should hopefully see offerings along these lines in fall of 2004 or winter 2005. We?ve already been published in several of these types of papers, and have been received with the requisite ?I love this comec [sic] strip!? as well as ?cancel this offensive comic, immediately! It is hurtful against several concepts!? We?re used to that kind of whatnot from various outraged protectors of the private personal universe we all seem to share when someone?s mad.
4CR – Are there any plans to collect the color Serializer.net strips in a printed format at some point?
Chris Onstad – No, but there is a good chance they?ll be worked into the books I?ve got coming out through Checker Book Publishing Group starting in Nov. 2004. We just inked a three-book deal, with huge international distribution. We?re very excited to be working with them.
4CR – How did the Checker Books deal come about? Did they approach you with bags of cash in hand, or did you go to them?
Chris Onstad – They approached us one day while we were diligently trying to create Achewood. It was a lovely offer, and as I sat in my robe and typed my answer to them, a bird alighted in a tree and sang a wonderful song. The song was the ring on my attorney?s cell phone, and things looked good to him. See you at Christmas with lots of new material in my leaky bag!
4CR – What will the difference be in the collections from Checker Books and the ones already available on achewood.com? Will they reprint those books differently, or will Checker simply be picking up where the original collections left off?
Chris Onstad – The Checker collections will feature lots of new material, in addition to the strips. It?ll be well worth picking up if you?re a fan.
4CR – What was it like when you found out that James Kochalka was a fan of the strip? Was it just kind of a cool rush, or did you all of a sudden know you’d “arrived”?
Chris Onstad – Hey, James is a really nice guy, but I won?t consider myself to have ?arrived? until I?m mimosa-a-mimosa with Debra Messing, discussing the finer points of my thick mediterranean curls.
4CR – You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re reworking finished strips all the time, generally soon after you’ve posted it. Have you ever considered leaving both versions of the changed strips available to the public, or offering a Bootleg Achewood print collection or something along those lines?
Chris Onstad – Well, not all the time. One in fifty, maybe, I?ll wake up and change a line or two. That?s a luxury of the medium. Sometimes I like both versions (http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=06132002 – see that and the variation linked to above the strip) and keep both. Other times I change it because I don?t like it and want to improve it. Doing five Sunday-sized strips a week is tough bolts and sometimes I?m not done with it within the suggested 24-hour strip generation parameter.
4CR – Last year, you said that there was a screenplay, video game and more Achewood related items in the works. Has there been any progress made on any of those fronts? Can we expect to see an Achewood animated series on HBO’s fall season list?
Chris Onstad – Projects of that size take time to mature. Check back in a while, the best babies take the longest to come out of their mommies. I think any doctor would tell you that.
4CR – Seeing as 4CR is traditionally a comic book site, are there any comic books or comic book creators whose work you particularly enjoy?
Chris Onstad – What you?d expect. Chris Ware, Jim Woodring, Tony Millionaire, Sam Henderson, Al Columbia, Jesse Reklaw. Good fellows, to a man.