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Chris Onstad on His Return to the Uncanny ‘Achewood’ [Interview]

For some, Chris Onstad’s Achewood has always been a bit of an odd duck. A webcomic starring a series of quirky anthropomorphic characters based on stuffed animals, Achewood has been a hilarious and often surreal journey with a cast of characters that includes depressed cats, painfully earnest otters and coke-addled squirrels. At least until March 2011, when Onstad announced that he was going on indefinite hiatus from the strip after almost ten years at the drawing board. Now, nine months later, Onstad has returned. He spoke with ComicsAlliance about why he stepped away from Achewood, what he plans to do differently now that he’s back, and how his voluntary tip jar model of compensation that has allowed him to make an unlikely living for over a decade.

Chris Onstad: So you have questions?

ComicsAlliance: Well, you went away, and then you came back. I think something that a lot of people are curious about why, on both ends. What made you want to take a hiatus?

CO: I’d been going at pretty much full steam for about nine years, and that all the comics, the blog writing… There are more blogs than comics, and I really like to do those. Prose is really what I personally enjoy. There’s a f**kload of content out there, because I was always under the gun. Every second where I’m not writing, I’m not making enough money to live. It’s a weird job and I have no benefits, so I’ve got to make make make. And that was also peppered with the public demand the internet, which 24/7, 365 days a year. So if you take six hours off, someone’s going to be like, “What the f**k’s the matter with this guy?” So that constant pressure, it accrued very slowly to the point where I was like, A) I think I’ve written pretty everything I know about over the course of 3,000 installments of comics or stories or other varieties of things I did. Merchandise, speeches, personalizations, paintings, freelance gigs. I was like, I don’t want to repeat anything, and I think I’m burned out. I’d be wondering if I was burned out for a very long time. When it got to the point where every night for a month I’d sit at the computer and say, “I want to be anywhere but here,” I knew it was time to take a break.CA: In terms of that final breaking point, was there a single moment when you knew, or was it something more gradual?

CO: The single moment lasted about two months. Where I like, “I don’t care if the money’s not coming in. F**k 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.

CA: Did that stress come primarily from the nature of working on the Internet, where there are no real hours or boundaries?

CO: Everyone knows that you’re online, because everyone’s online on time. Everybody knows if they send me a request that I got it and read it immediately, even if it takes me weeks to get back to them. I don’t know; it’s still something I haven’t figured out how to deal with. But I took all this time off just to sort of depressurize and gather new stories.

CA: By living?

CO: By living. Because if you sit at your desk and write all day, what are you going to write about? Sitting at your desk and writing? When you think you’re making stuff up in fiction, it’s really all autobiographical otherwise you wouldn’t even think of it. You wouldn’t know to write down. Hmm. That’s a big thought that could use some fleshing out. Finally I embraced the face that — I quit, but I’m tabling this until further notice. I have to, for my own sanity. So there was hate mail for a while. Actually, I just recently got my first hate mail since I got back to work. I was like, what took you so long?

CA: Hate mail about your new strips, or about the fact that you’d come back?

CO: Both. I don’t know, I almost don’t want to bother dissecting why people do this. This guy writes me and is like, “I don’t see why you bothered coming back. You’re just trying to be as cool as you used to be, and it’s not working. Why do you hate your readers?” My internal instinct was, “Oh, it’s been a while since I had to deal with this.” And I’ve been telling everyone that I’ve gotten immune to being hurt or offended or even internalizing this sort of thing after ten years, but it never really goes away no matter how hard-hearted I am. But it had been a while, so maybe my guard was down a little bit. I’ve reasoned through it consciously a lot of times, that I’m just one guy with one sensibility, and it won’t work with everybody. So I’m going to piss people off. Now personally, I don’t get mad at R.E.M. for making an album I don’t like, and I don’t send them hate mail. I just listen to something else. But there’s always that percentage of people who have to write to you and tell you that they hate you, which may not have happened in the days of ink and stamps.

CA: Well, mostly it just took longer. It was less immediate. I think there’s a hurdle of time and energy to writing hate mail that was much high higher back in the day, and now it involves far less effort. More people do it because it’s so easy and instantaneous.

CO: It’s a great medium for the non-confrontational, frustrated, maladjusted sociopath. It’s like, ideally suited. You don’t have to see anyone to do it, and your words have this sort of permanent authority.

CA: And the distance between you and the person you are trying to attack is so much narrower. They’re just one click away, so you get the satisfaction of knowing that the blow actually landed in something like real time. I find the really chronic haters really baffling, though, because I genuinely do not understand why someone would come to a comic like yours or a website like mine every day just to say that they don’t like it. It’s like watching an animal perform some elaborate ritual of aggression on a nature channel. Like, I get what they are trying to communicate but I still don’t really understand why they’re doing it.

CO: Sometimes I use a clever mental trick to get around it. There’s a guy that ride the #20 [bus] on Burnside [Street in Portland] at 5 o’clock every day. He’s like 18, 6’8, 400 lbs, greasy hair. You know the type. He’s got his four-foot tall “yes man” with him, and he’s always holding forth on robots and how they’re eventually going to control us. And he’s got a list, just like the priest in The Princess Bride. [laughs] I don’t have to make these things up. He has boundless, complex theories about robots and how they’ll use our blood in the future. And why it’ll actually be very ineffectual for them to keep us around for various menial tasks. He’ll say something and then his little yes man will say, “Hmm, yeah! I never thoughts about that! Right!” Their voices project over the whole bus as you’re riding with them for like, 30 blocks, and everyone else is just making uncomfortable eye contact with each other. But that’s the sort of person who sends me hate mail.

CA: That’s what you think about.

CO: It’s what I’m trying to teach myself. If you do something, if you write something and 99 people love it and praise it, but one person hates it, you’re only going to remember that one person. I think that’s a trait most people have, to internalize bad feedback. So I got back to work, and there was this huge rush of people being like, “Oh, thank god you’re back! I really missed reading [Achewood].” I was like oh, thank you, that really means a lot to me. Something that really encouraged me to get back to work was thinking about the people who were happy about it. You and I have just spent about five minutes talking about hate mail and people who are afraid of robots, but the point is that 99% of the people who bother to read it do because they like it.

CA: Since you’ve returned to Achewood, you’ve been tending towards some larger format strips.

CO: He’s basically giving into his hallucinations… The format is big because I’m picturing it as a book-length story as opposed to a daily. I used to write a daily, self-contained concept or laugh, but that was always so frustrating. It’s frustrating to work inside six little boxes, because as a writer, you can’t put enough in there to say what you want. It’s a skill, but it’s just not the only skill I want to exercise. So now I’m doing a long format thing where every day is an installment. And it may not make you laugh and buy a t-shirt, but I’m doing it, so f**k off. This is what’s been done, and if someone finds it and likes it, then I’m glad to have you. But if you hate that Achewood is different the goofy little gag-a-day thing it used to be, well, I’m a different person than I used to be.

CA: Plus, those hundreds of older comics that were written that way? They’re still there.

CO: They’re still there! I’m not going to give you the same little pellet day after f**king day, because even though that’s what comics are archetypally supposed to be.

CA: Talking about it as a pellet makes me think about Skinnerian behavioral conditioning, where they’d give these pellets to birds on certain schedules to get them to do just the craziest things.

CO: You can electrocute them, and they’ll still pick it up.

CA: So are you writing for the trade, as they say in mainstream comics? Are you thinking about the comic in terms of the final collection as you’re writing?

CO: I’m thinking of it as a gift to myself to finally be able to do a long-term story that doesn’t have to have a big payoff in every last panel.

CA: The Great Outdoor Fight was one of your most popular story arcs, and seemed much more oriented towards the long-term story. Did you feel like you have to have those payoffs in every panel when you were writing that as well?

CO: I wanted every script to have complete entertainment value, which is why some of the [comics] are three rows, and some are nine. Because sometimes it just took longer to find that. That was really exciting to do, kind of like a wormhole in space and time that occurred creatively. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it started to feel like a story. I was like, oh, I’m going to take this seriously. Oh, I wonder who wins or if they win or what happens at the end? I had all these different endings thought up. And then I knew when I had the right one because I felt it. I surprised myself. You know, to move ahead with something when you surprise yourself by having a stronger than usual emotional reaction to it. You’re like, that makes me feel a lot. I’m gonna do that, so fuck what everybody else says. This is me; this is my heart, and I’m doing this. And it felt great, and I got a big response to it.

CA: Your recent comics have also been exploring some surreal, dream-like places, with Ray going into a coma and exploring this strange alternate world.

CO: I’m trying to show what it’s like to have a real hallucination. It’s a challenge and it takes time. It’s not a punchline-driven thing. Even to someone who has or hasn’t had their mind do that to them, I want it to ring honest. Because we all dream. Dreams are sort of like this, because it’s something that’s occurring that wasn’t real. There’s this story called “The Uncanny” by E.T.A. Hoffman. It’s one of the introductory texts for literary theory and deconstructionism. It’s about a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a robot. He doesn’t know that at first, but he just comes to have this “uncanny” or off feeling about her. Something’s not right; I’m not getting something here. My brain is picking at this puzzle that I can’t quite solve. I kind of want to create that feeling of familiar discomfort. I think that would be a really awesome achievement. I don’t know if I’m getting it at all, but I’m enjoying the process of laying out what I remember as honestly as possible.

For my whole career, I always said that the best path to making someone laugh is to put up something that honestly made you laugh. Honesty. I was thinking about putting up a piece of paper on my monitor that said “be honest,” so that when you’re f**king around and you’ve lost the plot, you can remember to just be honest about what you’re thinking, because that’s the best way to connect with people. We’re all sitting here saying the same things. We’re trying to achieve goals that don’t mesh with reality, or just trying to get along.

CA: Have you ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell?

CO: Yeah, I really like the way he makes these ideas really accessible in a pop psychology way. They’re sexy ideas too, like, “this is how fame happens.” When I was reading The Tipping Point, I was like, “I wonder if I’m at the tipping point. How can I use this book to tip things to my advantage?”

CA: One of the concepts in Blink was how developing a certain level of expertise requires 10,000 hours of devoted study or practice. And there was an anedote about an art historian who had reached this level, and he was able to simply glance at this ancient Greek statue and just know whether or not it was authentic, in ways that turned out to be more accurate than even the geological analyses about it.

CO: That’s the uncanny. He could tell that something was off about it, even when it was perfect. I’d like to be able to create that feeling in the medium of comics. That’s the first task I assigned to myself coming back. Also, if I can sit down and bang out 2,000 words a day, I could have a novel before long. I’ve always wanted to do that. And that’s where my real passion is, in full-length writing.

CA: Would this be completely outside of Achewood?

CO: It could involve those characters. It might, just because I’m so familiar with the voice. I enjoy writing them and I know what they’re going to do in any given situation. Or, I know that if I put them in a situation I can marshal them through in a way that will ring true to the reader. Honesty is so important in creating art for people. In creating anything.

CA: The voices of your characters are something that people comment on a lot.

CO: How so?

CA: Well, they are so distinct and developed, and they do ring true to people. The vocabulary they each use, and even the different fonts for the different voices.

CO: Yeah, Roast Beef’s font is smaller, and he doesn’t use punctuation. The Ray and Roast Beef characters have their sort of adolescent hip-hop-esque argot that they talk in. It’s a fun, loose way of speaking. And then Mr. Cornelius Bear is a little more genteel. When I think of him, I think of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster sort of stuff. I love that stuff so much. My library has Wodehouse, and Chris Ware, and some obligatory Mark Twain stuff, and I think that’s it. It’s so invigorating. And even though Wodehouse’s stories are pretty much all the same.

CA: There are definitely contexts in literature and really art in general where repetition can be really satisfying.

CO: It is! It’s a repeating format, but the energy is always there. His life for it shines through. How can you not be invigorated listening to Wooster — he doesn’t go to the Jones Pub, he “zips there. Jeeves doesn’t walk into the room, he “shimmers” into the room. That’s wonderful. His love of language and his fluidity… it’s like a fish in water. He never goes to plumb the depths of the heart and soul, but I don’t think about that. It’s a release for me. Great escape. I’m like, now I wish I was wearing tweed and a v-neck sweater and walking around on the grass. I wish I had an old car to drive into town. It always amazes me when people tell me that they see Achewood as an escape, because I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been on this side of it for so long, and I don’t know what it means to escape in there.

CA: When you were talking before about wanting to represent the experience of having hallucinations, are we talking about moments of really going down the rabbit hole in your imagination, or full on visual apparitions?

CO: Well, hallucinations aren’t just visual. They’re all-encompassing. It’s not just like, “I saw that bedspread tie itself in a knot and then run away.” Hallucinations? To me, they’re a lot like dreams, but they occur without you controlling why they happen. Jim Woodring is great, and is one of those people who will honestly admit to you that, “Yeah, my brain’s a little f**ked up.” His comics are sort of a manifestation of his brain. It works for him. He’s a really wonderful guy. He has this big three-story place with big, gothic abbey rope hanging in front of the front door. The rope rings a little bell to let you know that someone’s at the door. One time it rings in the foyer so his wife opens the door, and there’s this little cat there that came in from the road. So they let the cat in, shut the door, and we all go about our night. Then we watched Popeye for two hours. That’s Jim. And he does all of his work based on hallucination. None of it’s set in reality. Uncanny things that make me feel strange happen [in his comics]. That’s why I’ve been buying them for 20 years. Actually, I don’t mean to say “buying.” I mean to say “enjoying.”

CA: You don’t buy his books?

CO: No, I buy them, but that’s not my relationship with them. Money is just a means to get happiness.

CA: There are a lot of people who see that notion very differently, particularly in the context of webcomics or digital comics. Money is often seen as a direct expression of one’s enjoyment.

CO: That’s a really artificial and wrong way to describe the things you enjoy about life, by codifying them in the units of money used to get them. Are you really taking joy in something by counting it out in terms of its monetary value, which is arbitrary? Walk around, have a smoke.

CA: Well, I think it’s different if you’re saying that the way you articulate your enjoyment of something is by financially supporting it. Instead of buying versus enjoying, some people might frame it as buying versus illegally downloading something.

CO: That’s sort of a new concept for people. It really struck me — you know the band Vampire Weekend? My friend was like, “Hey, have you heard of them? Let me play you this track of theirs on MySpace!” I listened to it and thought, wow, these kids really did their homework. They sounded like African new wave mod Simon and Garfunkel stuff. And my friend said, “I’m actually going to buy this album!” Then the lightbulb went off, like, oh shit — that’s what people do with Achewood. They say, I’ll buy your merchandise both because I like it and because I want to support the art in my own small way.

CA: I’d say that’s the general model for webcomics in general, yeah?

CO: The best way to make money in webcomics is both to be really good and to find your audience and take donations. I make all my money off donations. I can do commissioned art here and there when I want to, but I don’t have any shame in saying that my tip jar is how I make most of my money because it’s just one way to describe getting paid for what you do. Because it’s elective is all the more fascinating. We ran a merchandise arm for about 60-80 products for six or seven years, and it sucked. It’s f**king annoying; it’s a hassle. Customer service is awful. Merchandise can be a drag. If I sell a t-shirt and make $3.50 off a $25 purchase, that’s wildly inefficient. If I take a donation from that person, they’ll probably give $5, $10, $50, $100 just for the sake of being a patron and saying thank you. And if only .05% of the people that read my stuff do that, that’s still enough for one guy to have a decent life, you know?

CA: Well, I think that’s more powerful to people, in a certain way. This accommodates sincerity.

CO: That’s a good way to put it. People will actually support you if you’re being honest and doing something you and they like. It doesn’t have to be attached to anything. They can come and go as they place. I don’t know if it’s a new model that people are evolving into of electively paying for something that they enjoy online just for the sake of realizing that they wouldn’t exist without that.

There’s another story I wanted to tell you… My neighbor when I lived in the Northeast. My neighbor Dan was a commercial photographer, and he saved up all his money and quit so that he could test out the 10,000-hour theory.

CA: What did discipline did he decide to study?

CO: Golf. Right away, that takes people aback like, you’ve got to be kidding. He’s up to something like 2,200 hours now. You can read his blog at Thedanplan.com, and it’s snowballed into a really successful thing for him. He’s been in Sports Illustrated, the Golf Channel, ESPN. Joel Stein came out an interviewed him for Time. He gets free advice from sports psychologists who coach NASA astronauts on how to deal with the pressures of space travel, because they’re fascinated that he’s actually doing this. He’s working with the actual professor, Dr. Ericsson, who coined the 10,000 hour bit. And he like, “You’re the only person actually doing this, that’s documenting it and taking it seriously.” Dan stays in business both through his savings, because he’s really savvy with money, and through donations. He gets like $20 or $100 a day from the ether, from golfers who get into it. But this is a guy who really lives a frugal life. He doesn’t like going out to shows; he doesn’t drink.

CO: Have you ever had chartreuse?

CA: I haven’t.

[orders a glass of chartreuse]

CO: It’s a bit of an odd duck.

CA: It’s very green.

CO: There are something on the order of 150 herbs that go into this. At any given time there are only three monks that know the recipe, and each of them only know a third of the recipe.

CA: Why?

CO: So that no one else can make it.

CA: There’s a fundamental economic notion behind that in that I think you see in that, this idea that the withholding of something is what gives it value.

CO: It’s job security. No one else can do what I do. That’s one of the nice things about my job. It’s not like someone is going to take it over when I’m gone, or fire me.

CA: Well, it’s also part of what makes the webcomic model so interesting, because it runs totally counter to that. That’s why I think it eludes a lot of people, because they don’t understand how you can offer your content for free and still make money. They don’t get how it can work unless you withhold it for payment, and that’s what separates the old model from the new.

CO: Well, webcomics can’t [work] without the product for payment, because otherwise no one would read them. No one’s going to read Octopus Pie or Goats or whatever if they don’t know what it is. It takes a long time to fall in love with something enough, to pay for it.

CA: I think that’s the uphill battle that you see so many monthly comics and particularly indie comics facing. I also think that sort of old-model thinking — that ignorance about the Web model is a lot of what motivates the thinking behind SOPA too.

CO: They’re using the old Metallica model of pay up front or you don’t get it. But there’s a new paradigm: use the free advertising, and the money will follow. It’s a very dangerous concept to people who are used to the old [paradigm]. I’m sure my parents still can’t believe that people pay me enough to live on with me just saying, “pay if you want.” But people do.

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