Thursday, September 03, 2009

Has Achewood Lost It's Groove?

I put the question in the title not because I intend to make a definitive argument either way. I'm torn. It seemed for a bit as if the current storyline, which began with Ray learning the (ahem) ins-and-outs of writing Sapphic erotica and culminated with (another) death of Roast Beef - with Cartilage Head and some wicked Chris Ware pastiches thrown in along the way - was building for something big. Gary Tyrell said we were in for something as big or bigger than the Great Outdoor Fight, perhaps the strip's greatest extended storyline. I was on board, too - it seemed as if the strip was climbing out of its recent doldrums and getting exciting again.

And then - well, I dunno. I'm still on board, obviously. I've been with Achewood since the very beginning - since way back when I saw an ad for the strip in the back pages of the Journal advertising "animals blitzed out of their minds on hooch", or some such immortal ad slogan. Looking back at the archives, the first strip ran on 10/01/01. That was a really weird time in general. It didn't seem to have anything to do with anything, but it hit me right where I live, and since then - no joke - there probably hasn't been 48 hours passed in that entire time when I haven't checked Achewood for updates. I have one of the first printings of the first book Onstad ever put together - a dinky little saddle-stitched affair with a plain white cover and a tiny illustration of Phillipe and Theodore on the cover - "A Momentary Diversion On the Road to the Grave". It even has a little personalized sketch of a sad Roast Beef with indigestion from eating too many nachos and an inscription to my (then) wife and I. I didn't pay for the sketch or inscriptions, but he did them anyway - that's just how Achewood rolled back in the day.

This isn't one of those, "man, your old stuff was better" posts. If there is one thing that has been true of Achewood since its inception, it is that it has gotten steadily better for almost the entirety of its existence. At first it was gag-a-day, then continuity developed, then subplots, larger storylines, epics. A small cast soon ballooned into, what? Hundreds of people slipping in and out? I'm pretty much in the tank as far as you can possibly be for Achewood. It's probably one of the dozen or so great comics of the last decade - not webcomics, comics, period. I truly believe that - it had the potential to be one of the defining works of the current era, and to a large degree it has fulfilled those expectations.

But I was speaking to a friend the other day who pointed out that the strip ain't what it used to be, for a number of reasons. Now again I need to preface this by saying I don't necessarily agree with his criticisms - but now that I've had a couple days to mull them over, I'm not quite sure I disagree with them, either.

The first point is that the strip has struggled to regain its equilibrium after the month-long hiatus coinciding with Onstad's move to Oregon. Now, I am not sure I buy this at all - looking back through the archives, there's some great stuff, including the resolution of the Charlie Smuckles stuck in 18th century Wales plotline, featuring the return of the Magical Realism Mexican textile industry. That brings us up to June and the first stirrings of the current storyline.

The second point is that the strip is having a harder time juggling its cast. In the past, arguably the strip's greatest strength was that there was a surfeit of really good - or at least really funny - characters to draw from. It was typical for extended storylines to be interrupted multiple times in progress by, say, a Theodore gag strip or a Mr. Bear and Lyle conversation, or whatever. You got the idea that these characters were strong enough that just having them around sparked more ideas than could be reasonably contained in any convention storyline, and gratifying tangents multiplied. Usually the best storylines consisted of multiple tangents which fed and informed each other. I see some truth in this criticism, honestly, even if I also acknowledge that it could be merely a blip in the current storyline.

But there's also the third, and perhaps most damning critique. The strip just doesn't come out like it used to. Now, obviously, you've got the caveat that it's free and we shouldn't complain about free. That's a given. But you know, at some point you can feel a cartoonist's enthusiasm start to wane and his attention begin to wander. Is Onstad getting ready to make a move to larger, stand-alone works, the kind of which The Great Outdoor Fight collected edition would serve as a model? Are the longer and longer gaps between strips indicative of diffused attention or impatience?

Again, let's be clear: he's under no compulsion to provide cartoons except for his own volition. I don't have any kind of contract with him regarding a certain level of output - hah! Achewood has never been daily, it's usually been thrice weekly. But lately the gaps are are getting wider. Now, when you look at a strip like this, you have to wonder - is he really trying to become Chris Ware? Because honestly, I don't think that's the best role model for any cartoonist to adopt. I kind of sort of gave up on Chris Ware a while ago - not that he's not a master, obviously he is, but his particular blend of technical mastery and pinched, emotionally astringent subject matter is getting, frankly, stale. I haven't read a new chapter of Rusty Brown in a few years - maybe he's switched it up in the last couple installments. But his work repels me a little bit. I think Onstad has a far better ear for character and emotion than Ware - yeah, I said it. Attempting to replicate Ware's most pained achievements of technical wizardry aren't exactly going to do a lot in terms of the strip's core strengths: character-driven melodrama, anarchic plotting and - when in doubt - raunchy slapstick. I say: move past Chris Ware. It's doing more harm than good.

Honestly? I think there comes a time when a cartoonist needs to shit or get off the pot. Charles Schulz produced a strip every day for fifty goddamn years without so much as an assistant. Now, not everyone has to be Schulz. But the point is that if you're going to be a strip cartoonist of any kind you have to have at least some consistency - it's part of the job description. Nick Gurewitch quit the Perry Bible Fellowship because he just wasn't ready for the grind, and didn't want to be a daily (or even weekly) strip cartoonist. Now, that was a big disappointment for me - PBF was a great strip. Still makes me laugh when I troll the archives, even at strips I've read half a dozen times. But you know what? He didn't want to do the thing to death. We can call him a dilettante - hell, I just did. He will most likely never hit on anything as good as PBF again. Most people are lucky to have one idea that hits half as well as that, and anyone who thinks they can just pull another one out of their pocket is deluded, unfortunate or both - and by the way, how many unsold copies of Stewart the Rat do you think were clogging up Steve Gerber's crawlspace when he died? (Yeah, low blow - but the point is made.)

But Gurewitch knew he didn't want to be - couldn't be - the next Charles Schulz, so he got out of the running. I can respect that. Similarly, Aaron McGruder got sick of making Boondocks strips and cut his losses - and honestly, we knew the end was coming with all the "Huey talks to the TV" strips that were obviously ghosted with the punchlines inserted after the fact. But Boondocks moved to TV, and you know, the funny thing is that as cool as it was to have something in the newspaper that genuinely offended so many stupid people, Boondocks works a lot better as an Adult Swim show than it ever did as a strip. "Return of the King" was one of the best half-hours of TV I've seen this decade. Moving to a new medium was good for the characters. And again, McGruder wasn't in the running to be the next Schulz.

So this is what it comes down to: is Achewood alright? Seriously, I've written all these words but I'm not convinced either way. I think the current storyline is dragging, yes, but that could change in an instant once I see what's on the other side of that exit door. Could be this was all a blip, and the preceding words are just fanboy entitlement jitters. Or it could be that he will announce the end of Achewood as an online strip sometime in the next six months. I just don't know, and the interesting thing is that I think the strip has reached a point - in terms both of the success of the online serial and the success of the printed collections - where these concerns are probably at the forefront of Onstad's mind, too. Maybe it's nothing and these worries are just the product of an overactive imagination. Or maybe The End Is Night.

What do you think?

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