The Chris Onstad Interview

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


A Higher Orbit of Readership


Click image for larger version. ©2003 Chris Onstad.


DEPPEY: Was there a moment when you realized that Achewood was a success? Was there an “A-ha!” moment?

ONSTAD: I always liked it, so I didn’t really need any external validation. It’s been gratifying to see it swell over time. Right now I can tell that we’re getting to be gradually more successful and tipping into a sort of higher orbit of readership. We’re getting better press — you know, we got a little best webcomic award in Nerve, which is some online magazine. We’re getting you guys, now. I can tell that we’re getting further as we go. It’s taken us five years to get any sort of real recognition.

DEPPEY: How well do you know what makes Achewood so popular? Do you follow… [Pauses, looking at his list.] That’s a stupid question. Why am I asking that?

ONSTAD: How do I know what makes Achewood popular?

DEPPEY: It sounded great when I wrote it down.

ONSTAD: [Laughs.] Well yeah, you can say je ne sais quoi or something. But in order for it to be fresh to me, I can’t really know my formula or what makes it work, so I draw a blank on that one, too. I write it until it genuinely makes me laugh or think, and that’s the only time I’ll release it. If it makes me laugh or it makes me feel something, that’s when it goes up. That’s why it’s not a daily comic strip: because you can’t force that every day, it would suck. That’s why so many comic strips are so poor.

DEPPEY: Is the popularity of the strip something that you keep in the back of your mind? I mean do you sit there and follow the hit counts day by day?

ONSTAD: I watch merchandise sales and I track the ads on my blogs. I know generally; I don’t actually fellow my Web traffic, like how many page impressions I have every day. I know it’s in the high five figures, somebody took a look at one of my log files once. So that’s great, but I can’t worry about that. You know, it doesn’t matter to the strip.

DEPPEY: I know the sudden increase in traffic took you by surprise during the Great Outdoor Fight sequence. It actually knocked your server down briefly.

ONSTAD: It did, I was posting in midday one day, and I said, “Hey, it’s going to go up at noon,” and then at noon, 100,000 people were hammering the server and I couldn’t even upload the strip. So that told me yeah, hey, this is really popular.

The interesting thing about this Great Outdoor Fight storyline is that it was the first time I’d really committed a three-month chunk of time to developing a big, traditional proper story, as opposed to just some weird shit that I just sort of trailed off oddly and irresponsibly near the end, and I was enormously gratified to see that people actually cared enough to follow it. Like I was saying, I was always apprehensive in the past to do something that required a lot of reader knowledge of characters and everything.

But I guess because, like the point you made, that Achewood is something that takes a lot to get into, I have a lot of fans who are really into it and who really wanted to follow a big, proper story. It’s brought great critical and commercial success to the site, so I’m pretty jazzed about it. I’m going to take a couple of weeks off now and try to flex the gag muscles again, as it were.

DEPPEY: Do you do any active promotion for the strip? I mean outside of itself.

ONSTAD: No, I don’t buy ads or anything. I just like to see it grow under its own power.


Click image for larger version. A punchline that would never see the light of day in a printed newspaper, ©2003 Chris Onstad.


DEPPEY: The first place I ever heard of Achewood was in center-right political weblogs, like Instapundit and Tim Blair’s blog.

ONSTAD: Yeah, I’ve heard of these guys. Since the very beginning, there’s been like this [in a self-important tone] “blog community,” several communities, and they love their Achewood. I’d never heard of any of these guys, because I don’t really read people diaries, but there’s this guy, James Lileks, do you know him?


ONSTAD: He’s like the biggest blogger on the planet, and he’s a fan and he’s a really nice guy. It was guys like that that sort of got me a lot of my early linkage. So, you know, good. Thank you.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] But you’re not sitting there and reading their blogs on a daily basis?

ONSTAD: No. [Laughter.] Honestly, I’m too busy. I try to keep up with the news, and I have a family, and I write my comics and books and my own 13 blogs, you know? I’m so sick of “content” that by the time I’m done with my ownI can barely stand to look at anyone else’s. I just want to stick my head in a bucket.

DEPPEY: I’ve been buying the books, and I’ve noticed that Achewood doesn’t have any regular shape or length to it’s size; the individual strips can be as long or short as the whim strikes you on a given day. Does that cause you problems when you’re assembling the book compilations?

ONSTAD: Not really. They’re never wider than my template; they’re often just longer. Because I print primarily on the Web, I can change that and I can print in any format I want on a given day. It’s more important to me to be able to give all the ideas proper breathing room and have it be twice as long than to worry about chopping it up and putting it in a book. If the strip is twice as long as usual, I’ll just put the second half of it on the next page. I don’t worry about the flow, as long as it works.

DEPPEY: So you don’t think at all about that when you’re drawing the strips, then?

ONSTAD: It used to constrain me, you’ll notice that up until this year I really tried to work in a format that would fit on a half-page. But then, you know, I’m of the mind now that that’s bullshit and I should just… You know, I’ve got all this free space, no editor is going to say, “That’s not going to fit over Funky Winkerbean, you gotta cut the bottom half off.” I can take two days to develop a strip if I like it. I’m not on a daily schedule. So I no longer worry as much about that as I used to.


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