Chris Onstad’s webcomic Achewood is generally regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – webcomics ever created. It’s certainly one of the few to have achieved any level of success while being closer in aesthetic to ‘art comics’ than to manga, and while dealing with subjects that have very little to do with the ‘geek’ interests that make up the subject matter of most popular webcomics. While most popular webcomics have to do with transsexual elves playing Playstation games while talking about Star Trek, or something, Achewood, insofar as it is ‘about’ anything, is about male bonding, and masculine friendships.
This, combined with Onstad’s odd aesthetic, can make it very difficult to get into – at its worst the strip can remind one of Kevin Smith at his most puerile, full of jokes about scrota and cruel humour at the expense of Philippe, the youngest character. The art is crude, and often any individual strip is as likely to leave a reader confused, wondering if it was any good or not, as it is to elicit a laugh.
However, the cumulative impact of several strips is impressive, and soon after starting to read through the archive you find yourself reading more, though unsure why. And a while later you realise that you love it, though you still couldn’t explain the appeal.
After a while, I realised that Onstad’s work reminds me, more than anything, of Dave Sim circa Guys (Sim’s own male-bonding story, which I plan to deal with in my next comic-based post), and that was also when I realised that Onstad is one of the first people to take full advantage of the webcomic medium’s potential for a different kind of storytelling – a kind that I’d previously only seen in Sim’s work.
Most comic stories (in Western comics – I know nothing of manga, and it may be that what I’m going to say is par for the course there, or that there’s some underground community of Indonesian cartoonists who’ve been doing what I’m talking about) tend to fall into two groups. They’re either totally self-contained stories, such as Jimmy Corrigan or When The Wind Blows or Transmetropolitan – stories that are a finite (though maybe quite long) length; or they’re what one might call serial fiction – self-contained stories about characters who are supposed to live through all the stories, but with each story essentially its own thing. You can read today’s Garfield strip without ever having read one before, and The Resurrection Of Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t require you to have read Batman: Knightfall.
All these share one characteristic – they’re ‘stories’, with a beginning, middle and end, in a way that doesn’t happen in real life. Even in art comics there’s an imperative to smooth off the rough edges of life – Harvey Pekar’s tiny slices of life still don’t usually contain anything that’s not relevant to the anecdote.
There’s a perfectly reasonable artistic reason for this – if you read a comic and there’s no narrative thread, if there are elements that appear completely irrelevant, then you are probably going to wonder why they’re included. In real life, there are all sorts of loose threads hanging round – telephone calls that are wrong numbers, people you chat to one day and get the email address of, but then lose it before you get back in touch with them, things you meant to do but didn’t get round to. But you can’t include them in a self-contained story without that being the point of the story.
In webcomics though, you can include those elements. Because they’re happening in some approximation of ‘real time’, and because the reader can go back and forwards through the archive at her own pace to find out if something’s a narrative strand or just a random occurence, you can build up a picture of an actual real life, loose ends included, without sacrificing narrative momentum or coherence.
Dave Sim managed something like this with Cerebus, which shares a number of other similarities with Achewood, because he had nearly 30 years worth of story to play with and knew so in advance, because he was self-publishing, and because he made sure right from the beginning that every single issue of his 300-issue narrative would remain permanently in print. In other words, because he was taking the same publishing strategy as webcomics.
But most webcomics still think in terms of fixed story ‘arcs’ with a beginning, middle and end, or in terms of single gag strips. The Order Of The Stick, for example, actually has ‘freeze panels’ at the end of every story ‘arc’ for the trade paperbacks. Achewood, more than any other that I know of, completely ignores conventional narrative structure in favour of ongoing, stream-of-consciousness rambling that manages to sum up what real people’s lives are actually like – even when those ‘real people’ are stuffed animals and robots.
The Great Outdoor Fight epitomises this – it’s simply a chunk of Roast Beef and Ray’s life, albeit one in which something important happens (they win The Great Outdoor Fight). There’s a definite narrative there – one of the longest Onstad has attempted – but there’s only a middle. It begins in media res with something that has little connection to the rest of the story (Todd asking Ray for six million dollars to start a company to make fake dog-penises to hang on the back of cars) and ends in mid-conversation at the victory party. It’s actually like following two people’s lives through a chunk of time – just a chunk of time in which something extraordinary happens.
I’ve talked mostly about the formal qualities of Achewood, but the book itself, The Great Outdoor Fight is quite a wonderful little thing in itself. As well as the story (which has been re-edited and reformatted to flow better as a continuous narrative, while leaving the original daily strips intact on the website) there’s a history of the fight itself from the 1920s on, profiles of some of the most famous winners, excerpts from a Great Outdoor Fight themed cookery book, a glossary of fight terms, and blog posts by some of the characters. All of this adds to the creation of an entire complex, dirty, messy real world – the profiles of the winners, in particular, are beautiful things in themselves, little perfect short-story miniatures told in just over a page of text each.
The Great Outdoor Fight, like Achewood as a whole, is violent, funny, at times confusing, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming. Just like life itself.