Ask Chris #259: How I Learned To Love ‘Achewood’
Q: What in the world is so great about Achewood? I've tried it a couple times , and it's always seemed average at best. -- @DylanJBurnett
A: Believe it or not, Dylan, there was a time when I was just like you. Much as I love it now, Chris Onstad's Achewood didn't click with me the first time I read it, or the second. Or the third or fourth, for that matter, and every time one of my friends would respond to a joke about Airwolf or the Smiths with a link to the strip, I'd wonder why anyone liked this comic about the weird dog running around in his underwear.
Then one day it just clicked. It might have been when I finally realized that Ray was a cat who was running around in his underwear, and it might have been when I finally sat down to read a complete story, but it all fell into place, and I came away firmly standing behind the idea that The Great Outdoor Fight is the single best comic of the 21st century.
The thing about Achewood is that unless you sit down and actually read it --- and unless you know exactly where you ought to start with it --- it's actually a pretty hard sell. On paper, it sounds ludicrous to the point of being mystifying: It's a comic strip about a bunch of stuffed animals, except that it's actually about two cats, except that they're usually just treated as though they're people. One of them is a hip hop record executive with a seemingly unlimited amount of money who is terrified of diabetes and loves Braveheart, and the other is his best friend from high school who has crippling depression and married a dead Welsh woman from the 17th century after she came back to life and worked at Taco Bell.
See? I haven't even gotten to Todd yet and already this sounds like a fever dream.
Even the format is daunting --- the individual strips vary in length, and the stories go from long-form narratives to non-sequitur interruptions to character-driven gags without much warning, often in the span of a single story. And the plots of those stories are just as hard to describe.
Great Outdoor Fight is a story about best friends, about legacy, about fathers and sons and about trying to live up to the shadow of someone you've never known and eventually deciding that finding your own path and forging your own friendships is more important than anything else in the world. It's also a story that opens with a meth-head squirrel trying to get a cat to help him found a business selling fake testicles that you can put on your phone, and where the major emotional turning point of the story involves a country music singer getting his face ripped off.
And that's just the major stories. There are others that sound even weirder: Ray challenges the president of Williams-Sonoma to a live lesbian erotica-writing competition while wearing elephant costumes, causing Roast Beef to be murdered by a specter of death that plays the musical saw. Todd the meth-squirrel gets trapped in a text-based adventure with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. And, of course, my personal favorite, a five year-old gets sad when his family gets a new couch and ends up almost dying in a garbage dump before the aforementioned rich cat saves him by buying Airwolf on a secret version of eBay.
There might be some appeal in how weird it sounds, but there's definitely a way to describe it that doesn't make it sound good --- and to be perfectly honest, it's not exactly flawless. There are some regrettable characters from early in the comic's run (lookin' at you here, Ultra Peanut), and Achewood isn't exactly great about gender representation, either. There's only one woman in the main cast, and while Molly's got a lot of interesting character traits --- like, say, dying in a shipwreck in 1676 and meeting her future husband in heaven --- she's most often used as a way to set up and reflect elements of Roast Beef's character rather than her own.
Also, one of the main characters is named Roast Beef. That can be pretty hard to get past.
Even if you do get past all that, it's a surprisingly difficult comic to start reading. The temptation with virtually every webcomic --- especially one that's so notably character-driven --- is to start at the beginning, but with Achewood, that doesn't really work. The early strips about the stuffed animals goofing around the Onstad household are about as far removed from what Achewood would become that they're barely worth checking out, to the point where the printed collections not only didn't start with them, but put them in as an appendix to Volume 2.
And yet, if you click on the link that takes you to the first comic, that's what you're going to get, and while it's tempting to just dive in at random, there's so much continuity and character work that builds on itself that it's pretty easy to get lost. I mean, how can you really enjoy the later era Achewood strips if you don't know about Ray's fetish for sitting on cakes?
What I'm getting at here is that it's a very hard strip to start with, so if you've been having difficulty getting into it, that's not necessarily on you. The thing is, it's worth it.
Despite its flaws, Achewood has what might be the greatest character work in comics. The people --- well, cats, but for all intents and purposes, people --- in the strip are realized in a way that's not only thorough and subtle in a way that seems effortless, but also complete. Once you read enough of those strips, characters like Ray and Beef don't feel like characters, they feel like people that you know. There's a depth there that comes through in these strips that got its hooks into me like few things that I've ever read.
That, I think, is the main appeal of The Great Outdoor Fight, and the reason that when it came time to put the series into print, it was the first story that was collected. It's not just that it's long enough to fill a book, but because it's the single most revelatory story about the characters in Achewood's long history. And, in a lot of ways, it's Achewood in its purest form.
It starts off with a joke --- the one I mentioned before about ChatSacks, the TruckNutz for your phone --- and then quickly spins into something bigger. The idea at the core of the story, that there's an annual fight between three thousand men on a lawless fenced-in farm somewhere outside Bakersfield - held on Valentine's Day, no less - is ridiculous on an almost superheroic scale, but the story that plays out is a very personal one. It's about what Ray wants, and what Roast Beef wants, about the approval of a father and the happiness that you can get by just being near someone who's destined for greatness. it is, in other words, a great story - and one that's relatively self contained if you can get past the thing where everyone's a cat.
The thing is, it's not the only one. It's the most notable, sure, and the easiest to get into, but there are other stories that have just as much impact. The only problem is that they build on each other, sometimes going back for years. "Philippe's Journey Home" is one of the most emotional stories that I've ever read, the kind of story where you're almost afraid to see how it ends, and when it does, the relief that you feel is crushing.
But again, it only works if you've been through years of having Philippe around, reading the newspapers that Roast Beef helps him put together or seeing him react to Lie-Bot's Saddest Things. Which, fortunately, is something very easy to do.
In the end, Achewood is one of those things that you have to kind of force yourself to get through, at least for a little while, and if you do that and it still doesn't work, then it's entirely possible that it's just not for you. But if you're like me, then there's going to be a moment where it all falls into place, where you realize that Roast Beef and Ray have become closer to a couple of knuckleheads from back in the day than they are to cartoon cats that occasionally drive around in an Escalade, and then you'll find yourself killing time by hitting that Random Strip button over and over. And that's when you'll realize that Ray buying Airwolf makes perfect sense, and is in fact the best moment in comics for at least three years in either direction.
I'll tell you right now, though: You're never going to figure out Cartilage Head.