Where’s Chris Onstad? (UPDATED with answer)

On March 16, the administrator of a Facebook fan community called “Achewood: A Momentary Distraction on the Road to the Grave,” posted a terse update, the first time in over a month anything had been written on the page: “The hiatus is hella lame!” A few dozen people chimed in to agree, with comments like “In limbo, thinking about the back of a van” and “oh uh yeah.” To an outsider, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible, which only added to the tragedy: the best humorist in the country has been essentially AWOL for months, and no one has noticed except Internet people.

When Chris Onstad began the online comic strip “Achewood” in the fall of 2001, it was little more than a hastily illustrated collection of private jokes and surreal punch lines, more a project to share with friends and family than something with the potential to become one of the best works of American fiction since the end of the Cold War. Yet that’s exactly what it became over 10 years, as Onstad’s cast of anthropomorphic, frequently drunk animals evolved into characters so rich and dynamic they’d be the envy of any of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” crowd.

Webcomics have a signal-to-noise ratio roughly equivalent to their in-print cousins: a handful of greats, a significant percentage of perfectly good stuff that you forget about immediately after reading it, and a huge amount of work so bad it routinely makes you regret that the hippies smuggled the First Amendment into the Constitution. This was even truer when “Achewood” began, a time when roughly 80 percent of all webcomics were about elves having sex with each other.

But thanks to an extraordinary imagination and a remarkable facility with language, Onstad gradually built the strip into a can’t-miss appointment several times a week. Hilarious one-off gags pivoting on vivid, self-made slang traded off with ambitious, multi-week story arcs that had all the power of great literature. Before long, “Achewood” was a burgeoning empire, with T-shirts, mouse pads, and branded hot sauce for sale, along with growing attention from segments of the media not normally interested in online culture.

This came at a time of explosive creativity for the strip, which soon came to seem like too small a frame to hold all of Onstad’s ideas. He started blogs for his major characters, and juggled their distinctive voices with seeming effortlessness; he published a fanzine done in the voice of the character Roast Beef; he published two short novels written in the voice of psychotic West Virginian serial killer Nice Pete. It was so much more than a comic strip by now; it was a fictional universe, with a growing legion of rabid devotees. In 2007, Time Magazine named it the best graphic novel of the year, even though it was not, in fact, a graphic novel: a testament to how far beyond his peers Onstad was working.

The strip seemed to reach a peak in 2008; there were features in the New Yorker and GQ, and Roast Beef, who had become the moral center of “Achewood,” got married to his longtime girlfriend Molly in one of the funniest and most moving arcs of all. Dark Horse brought out a hardcover collection of strips about an annual pugilistic custom in the “Achewood” universe called the Great Outdoor Fight, and there was talk of an animated series on Adult Swim. The world was Onstad’s for the taking which, with the depressing cliche logic of real life, meant that this is when things began to fall apart.

Onstad and his family moved from Silicon Valley to Portland, Oregon, causing a disruption in regular posting of the strip that never really got resolved. The Achewood online shop, with its gorgeous Great Outdoor Fight posters and pint glasses for fictional pubs with names like The Dude And Catastrophe, closed, then reopened with less merchandise, then closed again. The character blogs fell into disuse, release dates on further Dark Horse books were pushed back, and Onstad became scarce in the mainstream media outlets that had been featuring him as online comics’ resident comic genius.

Perhaps worst of all, the flagship itself began to take on water. “Achewood” had been updated as often as four times a week in the past, but throughout 2009 that dropped to twice a week, and then once a week. Fans grumbled, and Onstad launched a pay-only premium content site that included essays written in the voice of various characters and other features. In 2010, production of the strip dropped to once a week at best, and the summer featured perhaps the grimmest story arc in the strip’s history, a bloody, violent, and largely humorless narrative centering around Nice Pete’s torture of the character Teodor. Even the style of artwork was different for the arc, indicating how distinctive it was.

Onstad never resolved that storyline, abruptly shifting to one-off strips that in the second half of 2010 began appearing at the rate of once or twice a month. The number of views per strip dropped, and fans began posting half-imploring, half-bitching notes on Achewood’s official Facebook page.

At the same time, Onstad began posting PDFs of his “chap books” in the premium content site. Essentially sketch books, they’re short on jokes and long on pictures of old mix tapes, drawings of “King of the Hill” characters and pages where Onstad writes things like “The child cried and cried” over and over. Fans began speculating openly that the depression he had so ably depicted in Roast Beef was now plaguing him.

After months of speculation, Onstad suddenly reappeared with a Feb. 20 cartoon, only his second of 2011. It featured his characters griping about the long layoff in strips and obliquely referring to problems in Onstad’s life, before promising a renewal of sorts: the alt text embedded in the strip said, hopefully, “Alright, let’s try this again. Hello!” In comments on the strip, fans exulted: Onstad was back, all was right with the world.

“It’s nice to have you back, Onstad,” one of them wrote. “Fuck yes,” went another comment. “Now we straight up need to get Teodor out of Nice Pete’s van,” another wrote, expectantly. “Onstad, you have been missed.”

Since then, nothing.

No new strip, no message about “the hiatus,” Teodor is still bleeding and naked in the back of Nice Pete’s van. The last update to the premium content site was Feb. 26; another chap book, with photo of an old Cure tape, a note from a stripper complete with lipstick kiss print, and a remark perhaps aimed at the legion of online gripers complaining about the lack of new strips: “The more we develop Internet communications technology, the faster we look dumber, meaner, and more self-centered to each other.”

It’s been nearly a month, and no sign of Onstad. “Achewood”‘s Facebook page is a theater of aggrievement, with comments running to the likes of “Onstad. whatthefuck. we hope you are well and the cat is all right and all that but we have come to count on you.”

If he hears his readers, or cares, Onstad is keeping it to himself. Whatever has driven him from his remarkable creation is apparently not going to play out on message boards and social networking walls. But it would be a shame if the loss of “Achewood” is mourned only by legions of young men who identify with the character Ray Smuckles despite being more like the maladroit Roast Beef. Chris Onstad is a powerful and original voice in American literature, and his silence is a genuine loss for our culture. He is one of very few contemporary writers who has been able to make me laugh and to care about the lives of fictional characters. I miss him very much, and hope that he’s OK.

UPDATE

I’ve long known that I have psychic powers, and today here is proof: Not one hour after I posted this, Onstad broke his long silence and explained (sort of) the hiatus, adding that it will continue indefinitely. Here ’tis: http://s.assetbar.com/one_asset?b=S~cfd4f5a32442ff25864a8357965235a41&a=S~846

(V. Charm)

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