The Half Light: Where Have You Gone, Chris Onstad?

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I am not, nor have I ever been, a comic-strip guy. At those moment in youth when passions are discovered, I found sports and detective books and dinosaurs and, weirdly enough, the Civil War. I mention this not because I consider it a badge of honor or because I look down on the culture, but only to show that I’m a hard sell when it comes to comics. It’s not my scene.

My Gmail search function tells me that I discovered the web comic Achewood while sitting at the desk of my soul-killing office job in August 2006. It doesn’t say how; I guess we can attribute that to the frantic Internet search for the next source of entertainment that will let us forget ourselves for minutes at a time. (Internet is the new alcohol.) But discover it I did, and before long I was singing its praises to my friends. Most of them would never get on board, which might be part of the reason why Chris Onstad, the strip’s author, eventually “quit” the gig, and why Achewood has faded into a slow death over the past two years.

I’m chiefly interested in talking about Onstad himself, a living symbol of the hazards of writing for the Internet, but first let’s talk a bit about Achewood. The strip centers on a group of stuffed animals and cats who live in a suburban town somewhere on the West Coast. At first, Onstad made a half-hearted attempt to show how the stuffed animals co-exist in a world of humans (they went limp in the presence of humans, like the Toy Story cast, if I remember correctly…and if I don’t remember correctly, it doesn’t matter), but soon he jettisoned the explanations and began to treat Achewood as a separate human-free universe. The first strip, posted on October 1, 2001, introduced us to a small otter named Philippe, an old scholarly bear named Cornelius, and another bear of Romanian descent named Teodor. There are three panels, and in the first two Cornelius and Teodor are discussing the difficulty of figuring out how to use a drum machine. Cornelius wonders about the instruction manual, and Teodor responds, “Philippe is standing on it.” In panel three, a smiling, innocent otter is in a corner, standing on the manual. And that’s it.

Eleven years later, I still don’t get it, but my guess is that I’m not supposed to. As a non-sequitur, it’s a brilliant introduction to Achewood, whose tone fluctuates between hilarious, surreal, inexplicable, melancholic, beautiful, and absurd. I was enthralled in 2006 as I caught up on five years worth of strips. I laughed a lot, and even when I wasn’t laughing, I felt artistically satisfied in a way that I’ve never associated with a comic other than Calvin & Hobbes. Onstad was clearly a genius, someone steeped in literature and Americana, who brought disparate elements of history and culture into his Achewood world.

(Tangent: One of my favorite obscure moments comes from 2004 when a minor feline character named Emeril describes an encounter with another cat, and says, “He did grab hine heart and make terrible oaths upon it!” In the meta-text to the strip, Onstad wrote that “Emeril is a Melungeon.” A Melungeon, as it turns out, is a “tri-racial” ethnic group that lived in central Appalachia, while “hine” is an old English pronoun that was used in northern English dialects until the 19th century.)

These are the kinds of esoteric nuggets you learn while reading Achewood, but Onstad is adept at making sure the narrative and the humor get top billing. Tidbits about ethnic dialects, as delightful as they might be to someone like me, never bog down the story. And the story thrived. In time, Onstad came to focus on two cats—a timid depressive with a cynical wit named Roast Beef Kazanzakis, and a crass, entrepreneurial dude’s dude named Ray Smuckles. The old characters remained, new ones were invented, and Onstad wrote blogs in many of their voices. One of those blogs, for the antagonistic vegan cat named Pat, is among the five funniest things I’ve ever read and once got me in trouble at work after it inspired an uncontrollable laughing fit.

As you can tell by my scattered efforts, it’s difficult to describe Achewood. In lieu of continued descriptive stumbling, I would advise you to visit the site and using the “story arc” tool at the bottom to go straight to the Great Outdoor Fight narrative. That is Achewood at its best. Then check out the Cartilage Head arc, which is Achewood at its weirdest. If you’re intrigued, start from the beginning and work your way through the archives. You’ll either love it or you won’t, but if you love it, you’ll probably become obsessed.

Personally, I consider Achewood one of the greatest works of art of the last decade. Time Magazine agreed with me, to some extent, when they named it Graphic Novel of the Year in 2007. It’s a treasure trove of humor written by a man with a keen sense of the multi-faceted human condition, and it was a big tragedy to me when he decided to slow down. Starting in late 2009, I noticed the gap between strips widening. By 2010, they were coming once a week instead of once every two days, and by the end of that year the pace was down to twice a month. In February 2011, Onstad announced an indefinite hiatus, and though he returned in November and has been updating sporadically ever since, it’s no longer a regular strip. The last update came on June 20, more than four months ago.

So, what happened? In an interview with Comic Alliance earlier this year, Onstad spoke about how writing the strip had affected his life, and when he realized he was losing steam:

“The single moment lasted about two months. Where I like, ‘I don’t care if the money’s not coming in. Fuck it. I’m not going to kill myself anymore.’ Like, it literally does start to kill you. Your blood pressure’s up. You eat poorly. You don’t sleep. You’re stressed out and angry about everything. You’re not enjoying life. It’s not supposed to be that way.”

At the time of his hiatus, he expressed a similar sentiment in a blog post to his fans:

“I’m also trying to gently withdraw from life as a semi-public figure, impossible as that sounds given my medium. I just don’t feel suited to it. It’s very bad for your head (well, my head, anyway) to be intensely praised and intensely hated by a decade’s worth of strangers.”

When he returned, he expressed a similar thought in more extreme terms in an interview with Vice, when he was asked if the strip ever gave him panic attacks: “Always. It has made me proud, fascinated, and satisfied, but also paralyzingly anxious and morbidly depressed. For a regular person to have the speculum of public entitlement visit every word that falls from their lips is not a fate I would wish upon anyone but the most hidebound parking control officer.”

Around the time all this happened, Onstad went through a divorce, suffered from what sounds like a low-grade depression (he writes often about depression in the strip through the Roast Beef character), and lost his enthusiasm for Achewood. In short, he burned out.

But was burnout an unavoidable problem? In that same blog post, he lamented the speed of the online world and the affect it had on his art: “One thing that’s always made me a bit sad is how Internet presentation seems to devalue content.” And this might be the central problem with the medium of online comics…or online anything, really. I’ve talked about Onstad a lot with other Achewood fans, and the term “art,” at least in its most serious form, has never been used to describe his work. Which is a shame, because Onstad is most definitely an artist. But the fact that his work appears on a website, subject to instant reaction from commenters who are not always the most thoughtful or intelligent consumers, and who, in fact, might be asshole 15-year-olds, reduces the impact and perception of the work.

Onstad even had to ask for donations through a Paypal link, and though this is a perfectly valid way to be recompensed for the free content he provides, I can’t help but think it must have felt more degrading than a traditional pay model. And I wonder—if Achewood had existed in a less tumultuous forum, could Onstad have escaped the plague of burnout and allowed his art to reach a zenith? It’s clear that certain segments of his audience didn’t deserve the quality they were getting, but I’m not sure that’s a new problem; instead, the problem seems to stem from a lack of separation between artist and audience. But then again, could Achewood exist anywhere other than the Internet? Maybe—and here I risk the stupid insensitivity native to the asshole 15-year-olds—Onstad just wasn’t tough enough. More likely, though, the emotional and financial rewards were never as great as they should have been, and he just lost a sense of purpose.

Today, Onstad works as a food critic for the Portland Mercury, a weekly newspaper. His talent for prose is equal to his talent as a comic-strip artist, and my guess is that he’s much happier in his new role. Still, the occasional Achewood strip that surfaces seems to indicate some lingering regret, or a sense of a project unfulfilled. It’s unsettling, in a way; you get the sense that he can never leave, but can also never fully return. For me, the story is personal. As someone who writes online in a much less visible form and is subject to the same mass of unqualified critics, I don’t like what Onstad’s career arc says about the possibility of maintaining my sanity over a long period. And as a fan of great art, I hate that Achewood had to succumb to the Internet’s destructive forces.

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