Achewood isn’t really the sort of comic I normally review. There’s no overarching story to speak of and even within the short tales it does contain, narrative is not its foremost concern.
But still Achewood stands out for me. Through a clever combination of dialog and characterisation it worked in delivering a sense of a culture and time in a way few comics ever achieve. It is also notable as one of the few web comics gaining recognition in main stream media, including receiving top position in Time magazines ‘Top 10 Graphic Novels’ of 2007.
Achewood’s sense of humour is fairly particular, so it won’t appeal to everyone. I also found that I tended to burn out on it – most comics I binge read but I always found that with Achewood I enjoyed it more in smaller doses. But even if it’s not for you I still think it’s worth looking at, if only from the perspective of seeing what’s possible in the great diversity of web comics.
The characters and comic concept
Conceptually, Achewood is a comedic, non-serious slice of life comic, following the sometimes every-day, and sometimes not so every day, lives of the inhabitants of a neighbourhood in the fictional town of Achewood. Except they’re teddy bears, cats, toy otters, robots and other non-human creatures who live in the ‘underground’, a world that exists below, in, and around ours.
The sense of humour in Achewood varies between the surreal, low-brow, absurdist or sometimes just plain silly. Despite being fundamentally a “funny” comic it also explores quite a number of serious issues around relationships, depression, poverty and substance abuse.
That whole ‘underground’ concept doesn’t get explored overly, for the most part it’s largely ignored except for occasional mention or reference.
Beyond all that, the concept of Achewood is for the most part ill-defined. Sometimes there are episode like story lines, sometimes standalone gag-a-day style strips, and sometimes it’s just a slice of life style comic with ad-hoc moments from people’s lives that don’t connect with anything in particular.
The cast of Achewood is diverse and the focal characters shift over time so I’m not going to try to cover every character, just those who take a lion share of the strips.
Early on the main contenders are a group of creatures that live in the authors house, and are in fact based on a number of stuffed toy animals that’s he owns. They are Cornelius, an older, distinguished gentlemen teddy bear, Téodor, a middle aged teddy bear, and Phillipe, a five year old child toy otter, who has been inexplicably entrusted into their care. Lyle, a stuffed tiger, also shares the house with them but lives quite apart, drinking, engaging in criminal activities and spending stretches in jail.
Later, though still fairly early on in the comics overall life, the comic introduces two cats, Ray Smuckles and Roast Beef, who to a large extent then become the main characters of the comic.
Ray is an only child, came from one the richest families (though single parented) in the town. Spoilt, charismatic, Ray is a semi self-appointed community leader, visionary and entrepreneur.
Roast Beef came from an impoverished family and difficult home circumstances. A computer programmer, he suffers from low self-esteem and depression.
Roast Beef and Ray’s relationship is often the focus of the comic. The friendship is complicated, at the best of times it enables Roast Beef to forget himself while cracking jokes and talking nonsense with Ray. He also helps to ground Ray, who can think an awful lot of himself. Then at other times their relationship is more reminiscent of co-enablers who allow each other to perpetuate the more self-destructive elements of their characters.
The characters all have an extremely clear and well defined “voice”. When reading the comic I can literally hear them in my head, complete with accent and inflection.
It’s worth mentioning that all the main characters are male. There are characters who are females, and one of them borders on being a main character, but they’re never the principal character of a story-line, and rarely even for a strip. The stories are therefore for the most part very male in aspect, the way guys talk, interact, the jokes they make and the stupid things they do. I don’t say this really as a good or bad thing, it’s just what Achewood is.
The stories in Achewood are strange, rambling affairs; sometimes without any proper ending or conclusions. As mentioned above the stories are completely non-serious; characters fly to the moon, die, resurrect, or become millionaires overnight. Achewood gets away with this because for the most part the stories are just platforms for the characters to be themselves.
It’s the dialogue and the characters you read Achewood for. The writer achieves this feeling of perceiving another culture, or at least a sub-culture, in a way very few other comics have achieved. It becomes like a group of friends who have known each other so long and have so many in-jokes and references that they can communicate without making a lick of sense to anyone else. Achewood makes you feel a part of a group like that, with all the good and bad that goes with it.
Mostly black and white, the art of Achewood is very simple but cleverly used. A tilt of the head of the character can convey a feeling or express an emotion as clearly as a more detailed picture.
Author, publishing and timeline
The author, Chris Onstad, resides in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A and attended Stanford University. Chris no longer publishes web comics but has worked various writing jobs, often in the food industry, and then founded the soft drink company Portland Soda Works.
Hard copy editions of Achewood used to be available via the shop link on the main page but seem to have run out. You can still download e-book versions of the comics, as well as some books written ‘by’ characters from the comic, via an ‘Honor Club’ where you can pay a suggested amount. Three volumes of Achewood were also published by Dark Horse Comics which you can locate here.
Produced for nearly 13 years, though with some significant gaps in the last two, Achewood had an impressive run. Still it was starting to run out of steam and material so it was probably the right decision for it to come to a close when it did. It is remembered fondly.