Friday , September 29 2023
Chris Onstad's online strip in a real paper collection...


The subtitle to the introductory collection of Chris Onstad’s Achewood (Checker) strip is “A Momentary Diversion on the Road to the Grave.” This line, which is taken from the Internet comic’s second entry, pretty much does away with any need for working up a pithy reviewer’s summary catch-phrase, so let’s just proceed willy-nilly into the book itself, okay?
“Achewood,” for those unfamiliar with it, is a funny (funnystrange and funnyhahamostathetime) animal strip set in the Achewood Underground, a mysterious and elaborately diagramed neighborhood where live and seemingly stuffed animals intermingle freely, mimicking human behavior in the best Herriman/Kelly fashion. Chief among these (at least in the period covered in this first volume of collected strips) are Téodor Orezscu, one of several bears inhabiting the strip and a habitué of Internet chatrooms; Ray, the thong-wearing roué ringleader of a trio of exceedingly horny party animals; Philippe, the “special boy” otter; a hipster poet squirrel named Todd plus a robot called Lie Bot, who (in some of the early installments’ funniest moments) continually tells the rest of the cast elaborate untruths which they credulously accept. Took me much of the book before I learned what Philippe’s species was (for the longest time, I thought he was a phallus with flippers – hey, this is a strip where a French fry rides around in a roller skate!), but Onstad pretty quickly establishes the personalities of each “Achewood” regular.
The comic runs on the Internet (, but for those of you like me plagued with too slow a connection to peruse a passel of strips in one sitting, the print collection is a godsend. Onstad’s style, characters and way of pacing a joke can take some getting used to, I’ve discovered, and it helps to read at least a good week’s worth of entries in one sitting. His gags can run the gamut from funny to puzzling, which the cartoonist himself freely acknowledges in a note accompanying a three-panel punchline-free sequence featuring three bears playing Scrabble. “I’d like to think that this strip is a litmus test that determines whether you actually ‘get’ Achewood or not, but it isn’t,” Onstad writes about the Scrabble episode. “It’s just a weird little cartoon that I made on my computer. I get a lot of annoying email about it to this day.”

The other advantage of a collection like this, of course, is that when you come across a strip that just makes you go “huh?”, you can skip ahead to the next funnier one. Like the strip where the untrustworthy Lie Bot tells Philippe that Osama bin Laden has snuck into the U.S. and “can pop up anywhere.” When the otter foolishly asks the robot if the terrorist could be in the computer, the bot replies, “No, only good people can hide in computers.” The final panel shows the aftermath of this conversation: a dreaming Philippe carrying on an Internet one-on-one with Magnum P.I. (“Hurry, Philippe! We need to save the princess! Get on this pony!”)
Onstad’s art is bare bones and not always up to his story aspirations. (In one early strip, the crew attempts to drive to Las Vegas in a ’58 Mercedes Benz, the cartoonist notes that he didn’t draw the car properly: “. . .it looks like a VW Beetle or Morris Miner.”) But it suits his deadpan style and the strip’s ongoing low-key contrast between the childhood conventions of funny animal comics and the reprobate behaviors of many of the Achewood denizens. (Mustachioed bear Lyle upon greeting the day sober: “Why can’t I wake up with the gin already in me?”)
Untempered by the limitations of commercial newspaper stripwork, the cartoonist frequently shows his characters indulging in non-family safe behavior, as when Téodor is involved to a child’s party to demonstrate his facility with truly filthy (blacked out) swear words to a group of amused kids. But unlike the lookit-me-lookit-me tactics of a work like, say, Millar & Williams’ The Unfunnies, the antics in “Achewood” proceed from more believable impulses (pursuit of pleasure, one-upmanship, pack behavior), not just the writer’s desire to shock. Ever aware of their own mortality (the French fry buys it; the ghost of a “‘sploded” squirrel haunts the strip, and in one memorable moment, a distressed Philippe learns that his widowed ma is remarrying), the Achewooders race about dizzily in their comic desire to be diverted. (In this, they’re not much different from the Okeefenokee Swampers.) The results are frequently more risible than they have a right to be (even if the book contains at least five too many “haha, you’re gay” disses). For all its whimsical excesses and occasionally oblique in-jokes, “Achewood” stomps all over what passes for the mainstream funny papers these days.
UPDATE: Since this review was posted, Achewood creator Chris Onstad and publisher Checker Books have reportedly parted ways. Per the Achewood site, a self-published version of this book will available for ordering in time for Christmas, though.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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