As a comics critic, I hate Chris Onstad’s Achewood. As a comics reader, I love it—it’s by far my favorite web comic, and one of my favorite comic strips or comics of any kind…hell, maybe one of my favorite pieces of current fiction of any medium.
The reason part of me hates it and part of me loves it is the same. It’s such a unique strip, there’s nothing really even remotely like it, which, obviously, can make it really hard to explain to others, or talk about at all.
There are a lot of conceptual hurdles that can make entry into the world of Achewood kind of hard, hurdles I struggled with the first few times I tried reading it, until someone eventually advised to just pick a story arc from the archives and start reading—within a dozen or so strips, you should start to not only get it, but dig it. And Onstad is so accomplished at world building that the longer the strip goes on, the more you read of it, the more you get to know the surprisingly dynamic and versatile characters, the better it gets.
Those hurdles? Who are all these crazy anthropomorphic animals, and what species are they exactly? Are they anthropomorphic animals living in an animal-scaled world, or a human-scaled world? Why don’t squirrels have pupils? How is it that four such divergent characters as Mr. Cornelius Bear, Lyle, Teodor and Phillipe are roommates?
Achewood Vol. 2: Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar (Dark Horse Comics) is the book that the Caleb who once struggled with such things could have used to answer such questions.
This hardcover collects the very first Achewood strips—the first few years’ worth, actually—including the alt text comments as fine print beneath each, and annotations by Onstad for the vast majority of the strips.
It starts off with five chapters of a prose piece entitled “A History of Achewood.” There’s a prologue in which Onstad writes, in first person, about sharing a couple of beverages with his neighbors, Ray and Roast Beef, and then each following chapter introduces a different Achewood character, and how they came into the lives of Onstad and his wife.
This is what the anal retentive, obsessive compulsive, overly demanding reader in me was anxious about all this time! How these various animals and/or stuffed/animals-come-to-life came to share a house together (Phillipe landed at the Onstads due to a eBay accident gone wrong, and had to stay on to a lack of funds for proper otter shipping across country; the others landed there through the Onstads letting rooms out to help make ends meet).
It’s no secret that when it comes to comic stripping, Onstad’s not exactly Walt Kelly in the drawing department, and that Achewood’s great strength lies in the richness of the characters and Onstad’s way with plot and dialogue. So it should come as no surprise that the prose is as effective as it is. I honestly enjoyed these sections as much as the comics, not only due to the questions answered aspect, but because the characters have been so well-defined through the strips that they survive the move to a non-visual medium easily (If you’ve ever read any of the blogs Onstad maintains in the voices of his various characters, you already know this).
The strips section opens with the introduction of the cats Ray, Pat and Roast Beef into the strip, which is where Onstad believes Achewood became Achewood (and this volume bears that out), and includes the story arc “The Party,” which is where the characters and their relationships with one another really begin to solidify.
After a healthy chunk of the post-cats Achewood, the back of the book includes a section entitled “Before We Were Achewood—The Early Experiments,” and these are the pre-cats strips.
They’re kind of remarkable in that they look and in some ways read so similarly to what ultimately would follow, but the premise is much more traditional. Phillipe, Teodor, Cornelius and Lyle are stuffed animals who apparently come to life when their human housemates aren’t around, and they get into gag-based hijinx. Most of these are three-panel strips, with the occasional four or six-panel one. And despite the occasional bit of almost opaque absurdity or tangent into the sort of humor that would make daily newspaper editors nervous (Lie Bot’s first “saddest thing in the world” strip, for example), it’s not hard to imagine this version of Achewood appearing in a newspaper.
So pre-Achewood Achewood, the first few year’s worth of strips, the history of the characters and how they came to be together…that all sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to see in Achewood Vol. 1, not Vol. 2, right?
Well Dark Horse started publishing Achewood with The Great Outdoor Fight, a story arc slightly modified to become a standalone graphic novel. And that really is the best way to start reading Achewood—one story arc at a time and, once you’re hooked, starting over and reading them all straight through. So Dark Horse is actually replicating the ideal Achewood reading experience, I think.
If you still haven’t jumped on board, get to it. Now there’s a book that can and will answer any questions you may have.