The Chris Onstad Interview

Posted by on April 16th, 2010 at 12:02 AM


Death by Tofutti Cuties, ©2003 Chris Onstad.


Originally published in The Comics Journal #277, July 2006.


Chris Onstad may well be the funniest cartoonist currently working in English-language comics today. His sort-of-weekdaily strip, Achewood, concerns the trials and tribulations of a group of small anthropomorphic animals and stuffed toys, living in an often surreal world hidden under the fringes of our own. That’s an insufficient description, alas — Achewood is a continuity strip, heavily dependent upon character and situation, and thus one can no more accurately describe it without detailing the relationships between various characters than one can jump into the strip and get much of the humor without reading back into the archives a ways. Like moving to a new town, you need to wander around Achewood‘s environs to get a feel for the place. Once you do, however, you might not want to leave again.

If the strip is something of an acquired taste, however, it hasn’t hampered the success of its creator. Achewood has developed a considerable and devoted following of readers, which in turn has allowed Onstad (aided by his business-savvy wife) to develop a profitable business out of the sale of self-published collections, T-shirts, and even such esoteric products as a cookbook and a brand of hot sauce. As a result, he’s one of a small but growing number of “webcomics” creators — a term that Onstad despises — who no longer need a day job to subsidize their cartooning efforts.

The following interview was conducted by phone in early April 2006, as Onstad was concluding what has turned out to be his most popular story arc to date, the Great Outdoor Fight (“Three Days, Three Acres, 3000 Men”). The interview was transcribed by Kristy Valenti and Laura Lancaster, and copy-edited by the participants and Michael Dean.

— Dirk Deppey


DIRK DEPPEY: When were you in college, you worked as an editor for Stanford University’s humor magazine, The Stanford Chaparral. Did you write for it as well as an edit?

CHRIS ONSTAD: Oh yeah, for an operation like that, it’s usually run by a good core crew of about five people, who end up writing the 20 to 30 pieces which are in the magazine.

DEPPEY: Did you do comics for it as well?

ONSTAD: Very crude, early efforts. I’d never cartooned at all before, so I just sort of imitated things and started to develop my own — none too successful, none very popular.

DEPPEY: What led you to believe that you could draw comics?

ONSTAD: When I saw David Rees’s My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable — you know what I’m talking about, the clip-art thing — I was like, “This guy’s just drawing with clip art in Quark, you know? I could do that.” For me, it’s always been more about the writing and I think that’s pretty evident when you take a look at the strips themselves, they’re copy-and-pasted vector art that’s modified so that I can have characters, instead of a black-and-white illustration of a kung-fu guy three times in a row.

So I saw that, and I thought, “That’s kind of funny; I could probably do that.” I’d always written more textual pieces rather than visual pieces but, you know, one day I just started. Over time I guess I’ve developed this style that works well and people seem into it.

DEPPEY: What did the experience at Stanford teach you about creating humor?

ONSTAD: Either you have it or you don’t, honestly. Humor writing is such a mysterious thing. It’s not taught anywhere. The only places that develop it are these college magazines. It’s such a mysterious trade, humor writing.

DEPPEY: Do you find yourself influenced by other comics, or do you draw more from written humor, or TV and movies, things like that?

ONSTAD: Oh God, influences, that’s always a beastly one for me to try to tackle because obviously you’ve been surrounded by influences your whole life. I grew up listening to Bill Cosby and Steve Martin albums that were my dad’s, and watching Newhart and reading the Top-10 list books by the Letterman staff. Stuff like that seems most obvious to me in terms of my influences.


Click image for larger version. The dos and don’ts of strip-club ettiquette, ©2002 Chris Onstad.


DEPPEY: Achewood is centered around an underground society of pets and stuffed animals, and it comes complete with its own culture and hidden cities. How developed was that concept in your imagination when you started to strip?

ONSTAD: When I started the strip I didn’t have any of that. It’s evolved somewhat. It used to be that all these characters were trapped in a house and no one could see them, and that got real boring, really quick. So I had to set up this underground, which is like their subterranean parallel universe, so that they can more fully live out realistic lives — you know, going shopping, going to the bookstore, traveling, meeting other people, getting around the world. I mean, if the whole universe had to happen inside of one fictitious house, that would’ve died after three months.

DEPPEY: You’ve mentioned that you don’t follow comics at all, do you study comics to see how they work or is it just more of a matter of…

ONSTAD: No, I’m really not that analytical or professional about it. You know, I read The Far Side and Bloom County when I was a kid. Sometimes if I’m trying to figure out how to draw action or emotion I’ll do a Google image search to see if there are any Batman illustrations that do a good job showing a guy jumping over a building if I need to show, like, a leg moving a certain way. But that’s just technical.

DEPPEY: You’ve stated in interviews that you don’t plan ahead in your strips and that improvisation plays an important role. Is there a downside to this strategy? Do you find yourself running into dead ends that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you had thought about it like two weeks ago?

ONSTAD: No, you can write your way out of anything. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve abruptly ended arcs with unresolved issues — but I firmly believe that a good writer can talk their way out of a corner.

DEPPEY: We’re burning through my questions awfully quick here. [Laughter.] You keep weblogs for all your major characters. Is it difficult to keep them distinct enough from the strips that visitors need not read them in order to enjoy Achewood as a comic?

ONSTAD: I’ve always been very careful to make sure that you didn’t need to read those to know what was happening in a strip. One thing that always has killed my interest in big-story comics is that you needed a couple of months to ramp up into them. You know, there was no payoff every day. So, I like the blogs because I can develop the characters so much more richly with just textual writing than I can in a day-by-day comic strip. I don’t think casual readers have the patience for it, but for the serious fans, it’s there. The universe is full and the characters are complete, if they want to do the reading. Achewood is a daily strip, I want to have something there for a new reader to appreciate every single time. I don’t like ending without some sort of clever line or a gag, or at least some sort of active development.

DEPPEY: Achewood is notorious for being a strip that requires you to go back and actually read through the archives to get a feel for the humor. It’s very character-based, and consequently it’s one of those strips that a lot of people recommend, but it’s got a certain amount of resistance to it because people will just look one strip and go [in a whiny voice], “I don’t get it.”

ONSTAD: Well there are certain strips that stand alone better than others. Some of them don’t take any familiarity to appreciate whatsoever. But you know, writing a standard gag strip like that every day just isn’t appealing, I don’t know, you look through the newspaper and that’s what guys are trying to do with their stuff, but they’re just so burned out and bored, and there’s nothing they can do that’s original. Their characters are two-dimensional because they always have to go for a “laff.” And they try to keep it all clean and everything and they end up with nothing.


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