Word’s out: Achewood is hilarious. Yet it has flaws. Chris Onstad sometimes stretches for a gag at a character’s expense (Lyle’s man douche, anyone?). Its Illustrator-made art does not grace the eye—at best it gets the job done. Worst of all, Onstad often seems to care not at all about plotting. He can obviously do it, as “The Great Outdoor Fight” shows. Yet he frequently doesn’t bother, digressing at key moments or building expectations only to forget them completely the next day. Strips like the September 17th one are missed chances. As a reader, having expectations dashed with no clear authorial purpose can get old.
Yet the characterization gets better and better. Ray Smuckles and his friends seem to have a life outside the strip, that trick of belief comics do best. Thanks to such characters, Achewood stands far beyond all but a handful of web-based comic strips—Penny Arcade, Perry Bible Fellowship—so far as to make the rest appear hopelessly amateur.
The first half of 2007 had a fine run of story arcs. “Mister Band” began the year with a tale of elf metal, Tolkien rap and USB murder. Other arcs fittingly riffed on Internet timewasting, from LoLCats to Nigerian scams. Best of all, a long sequence in which Ray schemed to replace the covers of gay porn DVDs with innocuous titles like “How to Weep the Weepy-Weep Way with Paul Castorzano” led to an extended, hilarious romp. The characters made the humor, reacting as they ended up in increasingly funny and unpredictable situations.
Since that great run, Onstad seems to have lost the thread of his best story yet: Roast Beef’s engagement. The May strips leading to his proposal rank among the most affecting comic strips I have read, with a depth of feeling only reached when the characters have grown along with the readers. Roast Beef, ever melancholy, thinks of marriage as a promise eventually to “sit there and watch the person that matters the most to [him] die.” Popping the question almost crushes him with insecurity and worry over blood diamonds. But he does ask her, and Ray begins planning the reception amid his own fears of losing his best friend. After a month of this exquisite buildup, the strip suddenly falls into one-offs about Lyle’s new glasses and the font Comic Sans. Some of these gags are funny, sure, but not as funny as the wedding reception with these guys will be.
So I am waiting for the current series of lame strips about Todd’s TV show to finish, hoping that Onstad will pick up the wedding story again instead of using minor characters for drug bait. And I think a marriage will keep the strip fresh. After all, no rule states that Achewood and its obscene Web brethren cannot turn into the aesthetic equivalent of a pottymouthed Marmaduke. It is fresh now, but like a frat boy, its humor may not age well. Nonetheless, I think Onstad has a deeper well than most of his peers. After all, he summed up everything I hate about the Bay Area in two words: “Ayurvedic Tapas.” That is the work of an artist.
Also: Achewood afterparty