Interview with Chris Onstad
When Chris Onstad, creator of the award-winning webcomic Achewood, announced an indefinite hiatus in February 2011, readers had little reason to expect a return; like cult favorites Calvin & Hobbes and Bloom County, the strip – and its creator – appeared to have crash-landed right around the ten-year mark. But, much to our delight, a newly divorced (and employed, now as a food writer at the Portland Mercury) Onstad showed up again in November, logging episodes in a surreal new arc. The Believer talked with Onstad about Achewood’s evolution, proceeding from two self-selected strips. - Joseph Martin
BLVR: Why did you choose this first strip?
Chris Onstad: I like it because it’s still an example of linear comic form. It’s not as simple as the initial strips, which were goofy twitches; it’s written to the point where I’d almost call it overwritten. It’s one of the things I always disliked about the format: everything has to be in a bubble and, if it gets overly wordy, it looks like one of those educational or historical comic strips in the back of the Sunday paper, the kind no one ever likes.
BLVR: Achewood has always been a wordy strip. I always wondered: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist? Would that be your self-description?
CO: I like to use “writer/cartoonist.” Obviously, my passion doesn’t lie in the art. I use the art to be expressive, but the writing is always the thing I tweak the most. The art, oftentimes, is something I slapped together at the last minute. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy creating the art sometimes. But more often, it’s in service of the writing. I’ve actually been really enjoying writing the character blogs. I tend to go 1,500, 2,000 words with that stuff because, when you get in the zone with writing, you don’t count words or pages. I just love the flow and the unrestricted freedom of it after focusing ideas into panels for so long.
BLVR: You’ve explicitly admitted to a Chris Ware influence, though. It seems like comics are something you come from.
CO: But he’s like the only guy I read. I’m the worst-versed comics person in comics. I only know me and Chris Ware. I probably draw from an influence of four or five guys that I really like. I don’t like reading comics for the most part because, as a fellow cartoonist, I look and say, “Oh, panel three’s where they took the easy out and four’s a cheap shot and five is rehash of two and six is a shitty ending.” I look at it too analytically because that’s the game I’m in.
BLVR: Later on there’s a bizarro version of this strip’s shtick where Teodor’s latent homosexuality becomes a plot point. What made you go back to that well?
CO: I love the idea of trying to draw out someone’s latent homosexuality, because I see sexuality as a spectrum. I remember reading Pete Townshend say once, “I’m not gay, but I’ve had those impulses.” It’s not unthinkable for everyone to be that way, so let’s explore that idea with this character and see what makes him uncomfortable, how close he’ll get to it. I like putting that tension on [Teodor] because, while he himself is not homosexual, it’s a gray area with humanity. The tension is something to play with.