Welcome to the world of Achewood Court...
October 29, 2013 7:06 AM   Subscribe

"For a decade and more, every waking hour of my life involved Achewood, trying to make Achewood great, trying to repeatedly find that elusive twist or beat or turn of phrase that defined it, to raise the bar I felt I'd set, every goddamned day..."
Here comes a special boy: 'Achewood' is back, but TV isn't ready - The Verge on Achewood's recent revival, the animated incarnation, and Onstad's personal struggles.
posted by griphus (55 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am still convinced that Achewood is the webcomic equivalent of Mornington Crescent.
posted by Decani at 7:15 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I feel bad for Onstad, as the comic is still probably my favorite webcomic ever, but the "sizzle reel" for the animation made me cringe so hard my neck went behind my sternum like a turtle.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


It amazes me that adult swim passed on both this and Dr. McNinja.
posted by thecaddy at 7:22 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hopefully the animated series not getting picked up will lead to Onstad revisioning it somehow. I mentioned it in the animation FPP, but a 62 Achewood Court show about Teodor, Lyle, Philippe, Mr. Bear, et. al, would be a lot more welcome than a show focusing on Ray and Beef.
posted by griphus at 7:27 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


And by "I mentioned" I mean Navelgazer mentioned it and I agreed.
posted by griphus at 7:28 AM on October 29, 2013


Ray seems like he's been (at least temporarily) written out of the strip in its latest come-back, with a lot of focus on Teodor's house and occasionally Beef. At the start of his first hiatus, Onstad mentioned that he felt like he was stuck in a creative rut, so maybe moving away from Ray was an effort to get past that.

Regarding the Verge article, I thought the test footage was rough, but that was mostly because the voices hadn't been locked down. I could see the animated series working on Netflix, I wonder if Onstad has shopped it to them yet.
posted by codacorolla at 7:42 AM on October 29, 2013


Q-q-q-quit fuckin' j-j-j-j-jerkin' us around, Onstad!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:44 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


It must be exhausting to continually do something good that you love.

(That is not snark. I seriously can't imagine.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It must be exhausting to continually do something good that you love.

To put it mildly. Or, as Onstaad himself puts it: "For a decade and more, every waking hour of my life involved Achewood, trying to make Achewood great, trying to repeatedly find that elusive twist or beat or turn of phrase that defined it, to raise the bar I felt I'd set, every goddamned day. It was insanely stressful. It was backbreaking, and income was always uncertain, and barely adequate at the best of times. It destroyed my marriage, my health, and what might have been some kind of security had I chosen a standard career."

It's good to hear that he's now got his priorities in order, both in his life and his cartooning career. Maybe the challenge of producing an animated version will bolster his creativity. Creating the web's answer to Krazy Kat can't be an easy job.

For my part, I don't need an Achewood TV show as long as Onstaad is updating the comic regularly and occasionally writing in his characters' blogs. Roast Beef and Nice Pete have new entries, so maybe we'll hear from Pat, Molly, and all the rest again.
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wish someone would create a device that would alter the Achewood cartoon characters' voices into those that the user hears in his or her head.
posted by Dr-Baa at 8:05 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Onstad's own Beef voice is actually pretty close to what I had imagined. Philipe's not bad, either. Ray needs to be taken down a notch. The accent's right, but a little dash of John DiMaggio would help.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:12 AM on October 29, 2013


Oh man. Somehow that Buddy Holly song is perfect.
posted by nevercalm at 8:20 AM on October 29, 2013


I don't know if anybody's been watching it, but Brad Neely's China, IL is on its second season, and just this week hit what definitely felt like a creative breakthrough. My roommates and I were laughing so hard that there was some literal rolling on the floor going on.

Onstad is maybe the only other creative comic writer online I know whose voice is as clear and as unique as Neely's. I think that, given a good set of actors, it could work as something special. I even liked the approach to animation that was used in the demo reel. But the voices have GOT to be better than what Onstad had for that reel, because yikes.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:20 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The voices were really only part of the problem. There were also issues with timing, pacing, writing, and overall the fact that it mostly only works if you're already familiar with Achewood, and you're engaged with it because you know the characters and there's a certain je ne sais quoi in seeing them move around and talk, even if the voices aren't right.

But I can't imagine what it would be like to watch that reel if you're coming into it blind. I seriously doubt most people would come away from it excited to watch a half-hour version of it.

This is why I found the article's tone to be off: The writer seems puzzled that no big networks were willing to give money to a notoriously unreliable guy with a webcomic and a baffling sizzle reel that barely even simmers.

If Onstad wants to get into animation, I certainly don't think it's beyond him to do so, and to come up with a cartoon that's watchable and engaging, but it really needs to be something built from the ground up. Achewood is a comic, and it's a very good comic, and you can't really just rip it from that medium and graft it onto another.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:20 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Chris Onstad is on my list of "People I Don't Know Personally But Still Worry About From Time To Time." I'm glad he's feeling better these days.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:21 AM on October 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


I wish they'd gone hand-drawn for the animation. The xtranormal-style CG just kills the pacing.
posted by Iridic at 8:43 AM on October 29, 2013


The animated Achewood works better than I'd expected; I'm pleasantly surprised. I think Philippe was miscast, however - the voice comes across as very definitely feminine. I imagine Philippe as sounding more like BMO, though a little more hyper and with an American accent.

I'm also weirdly thrown off by the mouth movements when the characters talk - the large space in the upper lip, and how the lower lip has to travel quite some distance to close the mouth. It's faithful to Onstad's character design, which works absolutely fine in the comic; the alternative would likely involve changing everyone's faces in an obvious and jarring way. Just one of the many small things that makes translating a strip into an animated cartoon difficult.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:44 AM on October 29, 2013


Chris Onstad is clearly very talented in several ways and I like Achewood very very much, but I agree with Famous Monster (or FAMOUS MONSTER?).

I just remember Bill Watterson talking about how an animated Calvin and Hobbes would be a bad idea because all of a sudden the voice you hear in your head for each character is replaced by some definitive version of a voice. This problem would be compounded in Achewood's case, because Onstad has such a gift for writing dialogue. Each of his characters has a very distinct cadence and idiolect, so the voices readers hear in their heads are probably very well-formed (and thus all the more likely to clash with voice actors' performances).

It's also true that the sizzle reel probably seems baffling and unappealing to people not already familiar with the world of the comic. I don't think it would win many new fans. For example, the episode where Roast Beef gives 'birth' to Philippe's birthday present - it's a delightful comic, but a weirdly paced and generally off-putting animated short.

I'm sure Onstad could do something wonderful with an entirely new project—especially since he already burned out on Achewood once. I want the guy to succeed and feel fulfilled.
posted by erlking at 8:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wish they'd gone hand-drawn for the animation.

I don't like it very much either, but it reads a lot like the attempt at making Achewood a television show is less artistic fulfillment and exploring a new medium, and more Onstad trying to somehow make a living off Achewood that isn't the incredibly self-destructive way he lived off of it when it was a daily strip. Maybe I'm wrong, but there's something a sense of desperation about the attempt to get the show made.
posted by griphus at 8:51 AM on October 29, 2013


Er, the point being that hand-drawn animation would be far, far more expensive a product to pitch and therefore wouldn't work with what I suspect is the goal of having the show produced.
posted by griphus at 8:52 AM on October 29, 2013


Fact: Achewood is one of the most American things to be produced in living memory. You can't set it anyplace but the Palto Alto suburbia it was born in.
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, just one thing, put out in the aether: Phillipie's inner voice should sound like Jean Shepard, that is all.
posted by The Whelk at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Every time I read Achewood, I practically bite my lip with regret that I didn't start reading it when I was a kid and was reading much worse webcomics and much worse stuff in general. I hope Onstad finds a way to make a solid living from it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:41 AM on October 29, 2013


Maybe I'm wrong, but there's something a sense of desperation about the attempt to get the show made.

I could see it. And I understand, if that's what's going on, but it doesn't make me like the reel any more.

Presenting Ray as the star seems like a misstep; having him introduce himself and narrate the story seems like another, and then dropping the narration seems like a third -- because now the idea's not only dubious, but half-assed. It makes sense in a way, because Ray is indeed the broadest and most charismatic character in the comic, but I feel like he has to be seen through Beef or Teodor's eyes until we get to know him better (and, yes, to some extent, I think this could be done in a five-minute clip). The way that everyone around Ray admires him and degenerates him and lives off of him and underestimates him and ultimately loves him would be a better clue to how we should interact with a character who, in isolation and at a first glance, reads as a fairly standard humorous talking cat.

The voices of Phillippe and Ray are respectively Abbey DiGregorio and Toby Huss:

“I know the voices are a huge deal to readers, and there is absolutely no way we’re going to make everyone happy, but I worked with Toby Huss to create a Ray that really came real for me,” says Onstad. “It was like working with a larynx Theremin. I’d say, ‘Add twenty pounds, make him ten years younger, and from three streets over,’ and Toby, on the fly, could do it.”

Is this really how Onstad hears Ray? I mean, aside from the fact that Onstad indeed cannot make everyone happy, I was bothered by the stilted accent Huss did for the role. I do imagine Ray speaking some version of African-American Vernacular English, but the result here had an uncomfortable strained wackiness, like it was meant to be a substantial part of the humor.

The thing, the more general thing, is that we're living in a golden era of animated storytelling right now. I'm not sure if this would've played better in the nineties (also a pretty good time for animated storytelling), but the fact that the boast is a faster turnaround than South Park does speak to kind of a limited and dated idea of what the show could be. These clips are trying to sell themselves on weirdness alone at a time when The Venture Bros is finishing up its fifth season with characters as rich and boldly written as print-Achewood's, and when Catbug is a better animated Phillippe than Onstad's own. And, yeah, the sizzle reel isn't the whole planned show, and Onstad aimed it this way very deliberately and is probably working on different ideas now, but I feel like it can be critiqued on its own terms and that it doesn't work very well. I hope Onstad does find that better way to do Achewood (or another project) in a way that gives him a stabler and happier creative life, but I understand why this wasn't the one that struck gold.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:01 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't like it very much either, but it reads a lot like the attempt at making Achewood a television show is less artistic fulfillment and exploring a new medium, and more Onstad trying to somehow make a living off Achewood that isn't the incredibly self-destructive way he lived off of it when it was a daily strip. Maybe I'm wrong, but there's something a sense of desperation about the attempt to get the show made.

Desparation might be too strong a word, but I remember Tony Millionaire on WTF expressing his regret that the Drinky Crow Show (similarly an awkward/unsuccessful strip>show translation) show couldn't have run for a couple seasons and kept him going financially, and that seems like a similar situation - not so much a strong creative urge, as the desire to turn something into which you've sunk a lifetime of effort into a little engine that can just make some money on its own.

All that said, I really didn't think the Achewood footage was as bad as people are saying.
posted by anazgnos at 11:02 AM on October 29, 2013


The footage absolutely had some clever moments, but @thesmallmachine's comments about Ray as the central character are spot-on, and the timing is, uh, spot-off. There are a lot of jokes that fall flat because the high of the setup was killed during a camera pan or scene change or such as like.
posted by Imperfect at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Denigrates him. DENIGRATES HIM, I was trying to say.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:37 AM on October 29, 2013


overall the fact that it mostly only works if you're already familiar with Achewood

In fairness, Achewood mostly only works if you're already familiar with Achewood.
posted by Etrigan at 11:54 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've known about Achewood for a very large part of its lifespan due to a user on another online forum I frequent, but I've never gotten into reading it because it always seemed too overwhelming. Is there a good place to get into it at all?

And I didn't know Chris Onstad was the guy that wrote the food section of the Portland Mercury. I read that all the time! I try to visit the places he mentions when I have the money.
posted by gucci mane at 12:10 PM on October 29, 2013


Is there a good place to get into it at all?

The Party is as good a place to start as any. I suspect Onstad agrees because it's the first story arc you can immediately jump to. Not that Achewood is necessarily dependent on arcs, but the pre-Ray/Beef/Pat stuff is unrefined at best.

If that doesn't suit you just jump to any story arc in the little selection box that sounds interesting. Ray+Beef Road Trip is one I enjoy quite a bit.
posted by griphus at 12:15 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, bear in mind that Achewood is one of those strips where things that sound like references and inside jokes aren't necessarily. So if you don't grasp something, don't assume it is because you haven't done the Required Reading.
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, Onstad even put all the pre-Ray/Beef strips in a separate section at the back of his first chronological collection, saying that these comics were "pre-history" (also "hacky" and "impenetrable"). I wouldn't go that far -- I was sold for life while this era was still going on -- but I do concur that the beginning is not very representative.

(I say "chronological" because the Dark Horse collections actually begin with the Great Outdoor Fight arc, which is a great standalone-ish introduction to Achewood in its prime. Possibly merits a warning for occasional cartoon ultraviolence.)

And also-yeah, I love Onstad's restaurant reviews. He gets flak in the comments for his elaborate and idiosyncratic style, but so far that hasn't visibly got him down.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:35 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, bear in mind that Achewood is one of those strips where things that sound like references and inside jokes aren't necessarily. So if you don't grasp something, don't assume it is because you haven't done the Required Reading.

God, this. That was one of those things that made me kind of hate Achewood despite all the praise from people I respect. Then I realized I wasn't really missing as much as I thought I was.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:52 PM on October 29, 2013


Also, bear in mind that Achewood is one of those strips where things that sound like references and inside jokes aren't necessarily.

This is a good observation. The in-jokes fit right in, so they read like tossed-off one-liners, and the one-liners sound like welcoming in-jokes.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:53 PM on October 29, 2013


Yeah, Onstad even put all the pre-Ray/Beef strips in a separate section at the back of his first chronological collection, saying that these comics were "pre-history" (also "hacky" and "impenetrable")

BECAUSE HE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT'S GOOD.

Seriously, he said something like he'd never write the "how come you sold your eyes?" strip again, which is insane, because it's one of the best.
posted by kenko at 1:07 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have to say, they picked good example comics for the article. I'm one of those people who, sadly, rarely "gets" Achewood, but all of these were great. Pete's attempts at romance "writing" especially. "Understanding women is like picking up a beetle and looking underneath. It is a brief glimpse into the insanity and desperation of an inexperienced god."

Unfortunately, Onstad is in that place where he's really good at making something universally admired and loved, but can only make middling from it. According to our vaunted economic system, people like that are better off doing something else. And who am I to argue with that?

Oh, that's right, A HUMAN BEING.
posted by JHarris at 1:20 PM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


(He does disown a bunch of excellent strips, but it turns out "sold your eyes" isn't one of them -- I just went to look what he said, and it's just some stuff about selling the first self-published collection too cheaply and still not having any eyes as a result.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:41 PM on October 29, 2013


Man I hate to say it but I own a bunch of the self-published Achewood books and they are shitty as far as physical objects are concerned. I can't imagine he could've squeezed more out of that rock.
posted by griphus at 1:45 PM on October 29, 2013


I like Achewood, but couldn't make it all the way through the test footage for the cartoon show. Yes, the voice of Ray rankled a bit at the start, but I could get over that if the comedy was on point, which it wasn't, really.

I do think there's an opportunity to make a animated show out of these characters, but it's going to be a lot harder than simply moving the strip wholesale to animation. If it were up to me, I'd create an overall plot, something the strip does only rarely, and focus on that as opposed to the little slice of life style the sizzle reel seemed to be going for.
posted by cell divide at 2:00 PM on October 29, 2013


If you're trying to get into Achewood make sure you read the alt-text for each strip (the little text balloon that pops up to describe an image when you hover a cursor over it in a web browser), because that's sometimes half the joke. It's something veteran readers do by habit, but maybe not something a new reader would know to do.
posted by codacorolla at 3:27 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(He does disown a bunch of excellent strips, but it turns out "sold your eyes" isn't one of them -- I just went to look what he said, and it's just some stuff about selling the first self-published collection too cheaply and still not having any eyes as a result.)

I definitely read him disowning that one in an interview!
posted by kenko at 4:24 PM on October 29, 2013


Last week I did a stupid thing and started rereading the entirety of the Achewood archive from the beginning.

It was not a productive week.

It was also not a stupid thing.

I will stop here because otherwise this comment will run to several thousand words in length.
posted by motty at 4:35 PM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


NOBODY CAN HEAR THE UNDERPANTS ONCE THEY ARE INSIDE YOU.
posted by The Whelk at 4:38 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, bear in mind that Achewood is one of those strips where things that sound like references and inside jokes aren't necessarily. So if you don't grasp something, don't assume it is because you haven't done the Required Reading.

See, this is one of the things I like about Achewood, even though I've fallen for it a few times. I spent a few frantic minutes on Google and Wikipedia trying to find out what a Magreaux dog was before I realized Onstad was pulling my leg. I felt like I had been the butt of a clever and well crafted practical joke, and how can you really be upset at that?
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:08 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm slightly upset that Empire Voice Donuts don't exist, and that I may never find out what comprises a "commodore".
posted by codacorolla at 6:05 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I agree that the voices are a very difficult problem here. Ray's voice is so wrong. And Phillipe sounds too obviously like an adult woman, not a kid.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:29 PM on October 29, 2013


i am so pleasantly surprised at how good the recent strips have been
posted by rap and country at 6:32 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"are you ever... honest with yourself? I mean, about everything?"

Achewood is responsible for some of the most truly devastating put downs I have ever seen.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:57 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, I just watched the sizzle reel, and I'm with the rest of you: the voices just aren't working. I want Ray's voice to be much deeper, slower and smoother-- think Barry White. Onstad's Beef is closer, but too demonstrative; I want an almost mumbled monotone. And Philippe sounds more like a grown woman than a little kid, but Nancy Cartwright would probably be up to the task.

I agree that Onstad might be better off trying to develop a whole new property for television.

For what it's worth, I think Todd sounds like Rikki Simons as GIR, and that Nice Pete speaks in the same tones, accent and cadence as Fred Rogers. This is not to denigrate or mock Mister Rogers in any way, of course. I think of it as a cruel cosmic joke, one eminently befitting the Achewood universe, that Nice Pete should have almost the same voice as one of the kindest men to ever live.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:34 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


FoB -- that's exactly what's wrong with Ray's voice for me too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:27 PM on October 30, 2013


I feel like joining the chorus:

THE GREAT OUTDOOR FIGHT is one of the greatest comics I've ever read. It's so many different kinds of funny, weird, smart, and ultimately heartbreaking that I can still hardly believe it, years later. I paid like $2 for the hardcover. It's made me weep many a time.
posted by waxbanks at 6:15 PM on October 30, 2013


What if Onstad put out a straight prose book? Even a novella? I'd pay good money for a Mr. Bear autobiography.
posted by Iridic at 7:33 PM on October 30, 2013


He wrote a Nate Small short story as part of the subscriber-only content back in the day. It was pretty great. I asked him about it at a signing, whether he had any plans to write more, and he had forgotten he had done it at all.
posted by griphus at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've started hearing Ray speak with John Roderick's voice. Especially in older strips like this.

"That's Todd. I know him. I know Todd".
posted by Foaf at 1:29 AM on November 4, 2013


And so it's come to this, some of the Achewood characters now have Twitter accounts. Philippe, Cornelius Bear, Teodor, Lyle.
posted by JHarris at 4:39 AM on November 4, 2013


« Older Three months ago, Psychology Today blogger Susan K...  |  If regular coffee bores you an... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments