Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review #24: The Internet in Book Form

Achewood, Volume 2: Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar

Writer: Chris Onstad
Artist: Chris Onstad
Published: Dark Horse, 2009

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we turn away from the traditionally printed comic to take a look at the wacky world of the webcomic!

I started getting into webcomics years ago, and let me tell you, it's a jungle out there. According to Wikipedia, there are close to 40, 000 webcomics being published! I have waded through a small chunk of these, leaving a some by the wayside, but taking a handful of favourites with me. As previously mentioned, Achewood is one of those chosen few.

Achewood follows the lives of a bunch of anthropomorphic stuffed animals. We have the bears, Téodor and Cornelius; Lyle the tiger; and Philippe the young otter pup. Then Todd Todd Todd Todd Todd T. Squirrel [yes, that is his full name] is introduced. Some robots are thrown in for some reason. A group of cool cats [Ray, Roast Beef, and Pat], AKA, “the dirtiest dudes in town”, is added later to what eventually becomes a fairly large cast. And what a cast! These characters are so well-developed that even the one-dimensional characters are thoroughly engrossing...but I will get to that later.

The “Volume 2” in the title is a little misleading, as it collects strips from Achewood's debut in October of 2001 to May of 2002, making it actually a precursor to “Volume 1”, which features a later story arc [the Great Outdoor Fight]. Slight confusions aside, what I will be looking at is basically the birth and infancy of Achewood. [edit: publisher Dark Horse's Volume 1 differs from Onstad's self-published Volume 1... not sure why. ]

The comic starts off as a simple, three-panel series of one-offs, without any real visible continuity. Slowly, writer/artist Chris Onstad starts doing four-panel and six-panel strips and we begin to see the characters' personalities forming. It's like watching a baby take its first steps, and it kind of fits into how Onstad came up with these characters in the first place. He basically gave life to stuffed animals he had laying around his house and the first strips are how I imagine newly-living stuffed animals might act.... confused by drum machines, trying alcohol, exploring the Internet, discovering what a clitoris is, and attempting to order pizza without freaking out the pizza delivery guy.

At first they all sleep together in a bed at Onstad's house, then they become actual roommates to Onstad, who makes the odd appearance [from no higher than shoulders-down]. Eventually the Achewood Underground is created. A fictional town that exists beneath Achewood, California, the Underground is home to all sorts of “animals with human behaviour”. This allows for the animals to go about their business and not freak out the human population above. Onstad's friends all get their own homes [a mansion for Ray, who, despite being a moron, has a surprising ability to make money], and the comic gains yet greater intricacy.

Onstad provides commentary and several pages of comic-less stories featuring how he came to “meet” some of the characters. He is quite the skilled writer, capable of being subtle, hilarious, poignant and  disturbing, often within the same comic.

The two earliest examples of an actual story arc are the “Todd has a van” plot and the “Téodor wants to meet Penny” plot. Both don't seem significant, but are defining moments in Todd/Téodor history: Todd as a self-destructive-yet-seemingly-immortal [I think he's died... 3 times now?][granted, multiple characters in Achewood have died and returned to life] asshole and Téodor as a lovelorn romantic who is the victim of his own over-analysis. Also, there is foreshadowing to the question of Téodor's sexuality [I believe he is bisexual, as it is hinted that he's had a gay experience in a storyline from a couple of years ago].

The character development of this strip is dumbfounding in its depth. It is actually like they have lives of their own. Téodor started off as the central character, but after awhile it became clear that the cats were taking over. Then, Pat fell to the wayside and Ray and Roast Beef became the heart and mind [respectively] of Achewood. Each character even has specific speech mannerisms, especially Ray and Roast Beef. After a particularly long Achewood binge, I will find myself all emulating those dudes' hella fine ways with words, dogg. The clinically depressed Beef's unassertive dialogue is shown in a smaller font than the rest of the cast, usually without punctuation. It is these small touches that make Achewood into a true work of art. Achewood is a redwood among shrubs in the forest of webcomics.

Anyway, I could write about Achewood for ages.

This book is awesome. Although you can check out the archive yourself here: ARCHIVE! [I kept getting an error message trying to access the archive, so you can begin at the beginning here if you so wish: FIRST STRIP!], the commentary that Onstad provides for his strips adds insight into their creation and is often just as funny as the strips themselves. Highly recommended if you want to get into Achewood, and anyone with a soul should want to get into Achewood.

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