The Chris Onstad Interview

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


The Business of Achewood


Click image for larger version. ©2004 Chris Onstad.


DEPPEY: You’ve also mentioned in the past that you syndicate Achewood to several college strips and alt-weeklies. Do you still do that?

ONSTAD: Over time we’ve been in several papers. We’re in the New York Press right now. And I like that program; it’s something that we’ll be able to manage a little better when we get an intern to handle all of our packaging and shipping and stuff because right now, we’re double-booked all the time. There’re tons of programs that we’d love to develop more. But handling all our own fulfillment eats up a lot of time. Plus we have a one-year-old kid, so that naturally makes things a lot more complicated.

DEPPEY: It sounds like you’re just to the point where this is turning into an actual small business as opposed to a self-publishing thing. I don’t know if I’m making that distinction clear. It sounds like you’re six months away from actually having to hire an employee.

ONSTAD: We’ve needed an employee probably since we had the baby, but that’s complicated and expensive. We’ll get an intern of some sort this summer to sort of take up a lot of the overwork, the grunt work and stuff, and teach them how a small business runs so that there’s some benefit to them. But yeah, we’re just about at the breaking point where we have to bring in outside help.

DEPPEY: Given that Achewood is a daily strip and a continuity, is there difficulty in moving that to a weekly format, or are you just very carefully picking and choosing the stand-alone strips?

ONSTAD: Yeah, when we do packages for syndication we send them stand-alones. I have a big master list of all the ones that they start with and that they run through.

DEPPEY: So they’re not going to be seeing the Great Outdoor Fight anytime soon.

ONSTAD: Not unless they buy an enormous package from us. But that would be difficult for any paper to run, because the length varies so much from day to day and so on.

DEPPEY: Do you face any kind of editorial interference? Do you have strips thrown back at you?

ONSTAD: No. If they buy a two-month package, I give them like 26 to choose from, and they choose their eight for their eight weeks. So I don’t get anything thrown back at me, so much as they just make selections based on their needs or their limitations.

DEPPEY: You show a great deal of creativity just in the products that you market. I mean, you’re probably the only cartoonist, with the possible exception of Jim Davis or that guy who does Dilbert —

ONSTAD: Oh man.

DEPPEY:who has a hot sauce. [Onstad laughs.] I don’t know, I suppose there could be a Dilbert hot sauce. Scott Adams does a lot of marketing in India, I understand.

ONSTAD: All you need to do to have your own hot sauce is to spend $200. It’s not a big deal. It’s how I made money. I mean, the strip is like a loss leader. It brings people in, but in order for me to make any money off this, we have 20 shirts we stock, and we’re going to double that for our forecasted 2006. We’ve got six books — I’m just adding two more this week — that we stock, that we self-publish. And we have a huge line of accessories, like bar glasses and skateboards and posters and things. I’m not just slapping our stuff on crap though; it’s really good-quality stuff, because you don’t want that reputation of, “Oh, I got my Achewood bar glasses and they were all broken. The ink came off the second time I washed them.”

DEPPEY: So you’re not just throwing things up on Cafepress and selling them?

ONSTAD: When we first started, I offered a couple shirts on Cafepress, and you realize, “OK, a person won’t spend much more than $18 on a T-shirt.” Well, Cafepress is charging like $15 to produce it, so what the hell’s the point? We quickly started sourcing all the shirts and printing ourselves, and just stocking stuff.

DEPPEY: Of course, that also means that if something stops selling, you wind up with a lot of inventory.

ONSTAD: Naw, everything sells. We haven’t really run into that problem. I mean, a dud of a shirt might take a year to sell out of everything, but so what, you know? It’ll all sell. And you know, you put things on sale if it’s not moving.

DEPPEY: I can think of several webcartoonists offhand, Justine Shaw did a strip called Nowhere Girl a couple of years back that got a lot of acclamation, but as more people started visiting the site, she started having to pay more for bandwidth, and bandwidth seems to be sort of a wall that a lot of cartoonists hit. Have you had any difficulties in dealing with that?

ONSTAD: Man, if you can’t handle $50 a month for bandwidth, you’re a chump. [Laughter.] No, we’ve never worried about that. But we’re making sales and it’s part of the business plan: You’ve got to pay for hosting.

DEPPEY: Oh sure, yeah.

ONSTAD: You can’t argue with that. Just like paying shipping on an order, people have to pay shipping. It’s nonnegotiable.


Click image for larger version. Nice Pete, Achewood’s resident serial killer, holds forth. ©2003 Chris Onstad.


DEPPEY: Could you see yourself doing Achewood if you didn’t have the Web? Could you see yourself trying to publish comics the way…?

ONSTAD: No, no. I’d be a graphic designer, in advertising or something like that probably. Or I would have finally have taken my youthful energy and gone and spent my five years making photocopies in Hollywood until I had a writing job. I have a lot of friends down there from the Chappie, the humor magazine I was on. A lot of the guys actually have started to feed down into the television, entertainment and the film industry. So, I’ve seen how that goes, and it’s just as hard a road as what I’ve done. Maybe I could have done that, but I probably would have stayed up here in Silicon Valley, the path of least resistance.

DEPPEY: Despite the amount of work, I mean, you don’t have a lot of supervisors sitting over your head or anything.

ONSTAD: No. Just my wife. [Deppey laughs.] She makes sure I develop products on a fairly aggressive schedule. I mean, obviously, I want there to be products out too, but it’s like left brain/right brain: I’ll sit around and I’ll like something, and she’ll make sure that I actually get it to market. So it’s a really a great combination.

You know that guy in Pulp Fiction who’s played by Harvey Keitel; I think his name is Wolfe? He’s the guy who solves problems? That’s like what her job is. She did that for the retail industry for a long time. She knows exactly how to run a business, especially a retail business, selling things like we sell, so I develop the stuff and she figures out how to bring it to market — how many to buy, how to ship it most efficiently, etc.

DEPPEY: Did you actually have to convince her that webcomics could be a reasonable way to earn a living before you seriously dug into Achewood?

ONSTAD: You know, first of all, I never think of it as a “webcomic.” It’s comics. It’s a comic strip. This webcomics thing I think is a major stumbling block for a lot of people where they go, “Oh, well those all suck.”

And I go, “Like printed comics don’t?”

It’s just a way of reading it. You know, I have books out there, you can buy a book if you want to read it. Then it’s not a webcomic. It doesn’t take advantage of the Web, except of terms of distribution.

So anyway, I didn’t have to — no, she was always on board. She liked it, is the thing. We had similar senses of humor, and she liked it. She was like, “Oh, well, yeah. Keep doing that.” At the beginning, I was freelancing and doing all sorts of other things to make money, but —

DEPPEY: So it wasn’t like you were just jumping up and saying, “OK, I’m quitting the job today.”

ONSTAD: No, I got laid off. I didn’t have to make any decisions. [Laughter.]

DEPPEY: We can laugh about that now.

ONSTAD: Oh, I was laughing about it at the time. I was so fucking tired of drawing business-card templates for this company I was at. I was like, “Oh, you’re going to lay me off and give me three months’ severance? Great!” Happiest day of my life. It was my birthday, actually.

DEPPEY: There’s actually the beginnings of a movement among people working in print comics now to start moving their stuff over to the Web and just abandoning the monthly book format.

ONSTAD: Well, that way, everyone can see it and your production costs go way down.

DEPPEY: Yeah. But it also has to do with just how miserable the market for comic books is these days.

ONSTAD: Yeah, I don’t know anything about print comics, other than the Acme stuff. To me, that is the paragon of the trade, the stuff that Chris Ware makes.


ONSTAD: So, love that, don’t know anything else about the rest of it. I don’t know if that helps or hurts.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] Well, I mean, even the fact that you’re totally indifferent to it but still making a nice living in comics is kind of instructive to our readership, I suspect.

ONSTAD: Maybe that’s the only way. I see a lot of this stuff, and it’s like, most of the time the vibe I get from comics is: somebody knows how to draw really well, and is also really emotional. Like, there’s this self-absorbed emo stuff that some high-school kid listening to Belle and Sebastian is drawing when he gets home from school.


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