In 2001, Chris Onstad created a webcomic whose quirky characters and off-beat sense of humor struck a resonant chord with the public. His small but devoted fan base grew, and Onstad rose to internet stardom, riding a wave a critical praise. His cast of cartoon cats and alcoholic, weed-smoking teddy bears captured our hearts with antics and mannerisms at times more human than realistic characters could express.
But no more. After a months-long hiatus, interrupted only by a brief, illusory promise of his imminent return to comicing, Onstad has officially renounced his crown. Effectively immediate, he is no longer writing Achewood in any active, regular format.
Onstad composed a letter to his fans on his blog detailing his reasons for retiring. It may come as no surprise that his sudden fame caused the aspiring writer no small amount of stress. Achewood had become his full time job, and the pressure of constantly keeping the strip fresh eventually got to him.
I can’t help but think of the first cast of Saturday Night Live. The program began as an antithetical approach to the prevailing culture and values of the day, intensely subversive with humor as its vehicle. Eventually the show gained immense popularity, and thus the cast became that which they hated most: mainstream pop culture.
The original SNL cast made it seven years before quitting, and Onstad has been making Achewood for ten. So one can understand his fear: he doesn’t want to become so popular that he ends up playing the same tired song at nauseum for an unappreciative audience.
Speaking of unappreciative audiences, Onstad cites the voluminous hatemail he’s received over the years. As Achewood’s popularity increased, and it became more visible to the public at large, the negative reaction to it inevitably increased as well. And for a comic as outre, self-referential, and downright insulting to the establishment as Achewood, a teeming mass of incandescent hate is bound to develop.
But “unappreciative” is not limited to dislike. Sometimes the problem is fans who like, and want, too much. As Achewood has progressed, the average length of a strip has grown from three or four panels to nearly a dozen — and for a Mon-Wed-Fri strip, the task laid before the artist is daunting indeed. Delays inevitably happen. And then the fans, so used to an endless torrent of free entertainment, assume that Onstad’s sole reason for delay was the personal torment of them and only them.
Nothing irks an artist more than a letter from a rabid fan demanding content as if art were a commodity to be churned out in a series of Rube-Goldberg-like conveyor belts and pulleys. What the casual fan doesn’t realize is that art doesn’t simply spring to the mind unbidden and from thence to the page with little actual effort on the part of the artist. The truth is that men like Onstad labor obsessively over their creations, constantly revising, sometimes scrapping a whole day’s worth of work in a single burst of self-loathing. If Onstad’s comics were good at all, it was the result of agonizing self-scrutiny on his part. And when he receives mountains of hate mail after missing a day’s update, his desire to continue inevitably drops.
I’ve spent this whole post so far defending Onstad, but it would be disingenuous of me not to offer some criticism to balance things out. As a fan of the comic, I can’t help but express my regret at the lack of updates over the past months. The Mon-Wed-Fri format slowly broke down, until we were lucky to get one comic a week. And then, in January, updates stopped altogether. Questions were asked. The F5 key was hit repeatedly. And then, like a terminal cancer patient, acceptance set in, a grim realization of the fate in store for us. There would be no more Achewood.
And yet in this interim between the effective end of Achewood and the official posting by Onstad, his readership was left wondering: had he died? Had he given up? Is he still writing comics, but only for a secret cabal which I’m not a part of? Onstad did his readers a disservice by not being more forthcoming. Even something as simple as “Sorry guys, midlife crisis, no more comics for a while,” would have been nice. But instead we got nothing but shattered dreams.
Still, I understand Onstad’s reasons, and I’m grateful that he’s finally given us an explanation. But I still feel that, unlike the early days of Saturday Night Live, there is more of Achewood’s story to be told. Achewood may have started as a simple sketch comedy, with one-off jokes prevailing over dreaded continuity. But it’s grown into more than that. The ongoing struggles of Roast Beef Kazenzakis and Raymond Quentin Smuckles and the myriad other dysfunctional characters continue to hold my attention. Even though I know on an intellectual level that Téodor and Mr. Bear aren’t real, I care about them as if they were. And you, Mr. Onstad, brilliant artist that you are, YOU made me care about them.
So my message to Achewood’s readership is “be patient.” If you must send mail, send praise. Give the man his space, and be secure in the belief that one day he’ll recover his sanity and continue to amuse you. And to Mr. Onstad, my message is this: Please don’t give up. You rock, man. And I for one would love to read more of your comics.