The Webcomic Overlook #30: Achewood

If there’s anything that’s explicitly terrible about Chris Onstad’s Achewood, it’s Achewood fans.

Like other members of rabid fanbases, Achewood fans seem to have no idea how to express their love for their strip except in the most boorish way possible. It seems like every message board I go to, there’s a dedicated Achewood thread. Why? Because Achewood fans were posting their favorite strips in threads where Achewood is not wholly appropriate. It’s as if mods everywhere came to the same conclusion and set up a separate Achewood thread just so the meatheads would leave everyone else alone.

And so, my first impression of Achewood was very negative. First, the asshole fans. Second, of the strips that were posted, none of them struck me as very funny. Achewood seemed to have a system of in-jokes that are not very funny to the casual viewer. Third, the art is very off-putting. I mean, the main character is an anthropomorphic cat in a thong! And finally, every Achewood strip fans posted seemed to boil down to a penis joke. I mean, even the title sounds like a penis joke. (Yeah, Onstad says it’s named after moonshine, but that explanation sounds a tad too convenient, if you know what I’m saying.) Wow, right up my alley … if I were 14 years old.

Thus, I was set to pretty much ignore Achewood for the rest of my life. However, two things happened that made me decide to give Achewood a spin. First of all, on a respected message board thread about webcomics, there was discussion on how Achewood was one of the most plot-driven webcomics around. Hold the mayonnaise, chief … this chuckleheaded webcomic has a story? And second, Achewood became Time’s #1 Graphic Novel of the Year. Now THAT got my attention. Time Magazine has made some absolutely boneheaded nominations recently — lest you forget, YOU, dear reader, were 2006’s Man of the Year — but this accolade seemed almost legitimate … despite the hilariously flowery prose.

(OK, I can’t be the only one laughing my ass off at Time‘s “The art is at times crude, but it rises to moments of extreme lyrical beauty,” right? This is Exhibit A why positive reviews are tougher to write than negative reviews.)

So I checked out Achewood for the same reason I check out a lot of things … morbid curiosity.

The series starts off harmless enough with a bunch of stuffed animals and robots living under one roof. It’s a roommate comic. There’s the dirty one, the sensible one, the cultured one, and the child! It builds on the paradox that these are children’s toys, yet they’re drunk or high half the time. If Achewood had stayed true to these roots, it may very well be going today … but I doubt the series would’ve attracted its loyal fanbase.

Achewood becomes something special — and starts to show promise beyond being simply a gag-a-day strip — with the introduction of “the dirtiest dudes in town.” Pat Reynolds, the one with the round glasses, would be destined to become a minor supporting character (along with everyone else from the original cast, including beloved characters Lyle and Philippe.) In a way, Achewood is the story of the other two “dirtiest dudes”: best pals Ray Smuckles (the one with the rectangular glasses and later, thong) and Roast Beef Kazenzakis (the unglassed one).

Onstad surprised me by making these two characters more tremendously likable than they’re supposed to be. At first glance, Ray Smuckles is one creepy looking son of a bitch. In addition to the glasses and the thong, he also sports a flabby potbelly and a medallion straight out of the 1970’s. He’s the guy who says “hella” a lot in a tragic attempt to sound cool. Yet Ray is also the series’ most charming character. He is an eternal optimist, never believing that any of his crazy business schemes can ever fail (and they don’t). He is pure id, and he gets pretty much anything stupid thing he wants thanks to his incredible luck and vast wealth from a lucrative music career. He revels in gleefully juvenile tendencies, like wearing a crown while posting entries in his electronic diary or accentuating his signature with tasteful speed lines.

But, best of all, Ray is a true friend who is willing to stand by his buds through thick and thin. He’s got a strong bond with his childhood friend, Roast Beef. Ray goes out of the way to include Roast Beef in his latest schemes. The simple moments, where Ray tries to make Beef laugh, are heart-warming. Even when he screws up, you forgive the guy because his heart was in the right place. Ray is the best friend/big brother we all wish we had.

Roast Beef is one of those characters who gets more or less sympathetic depending on your age. After browsing through the comments, I get the sense that the clinically depressed Roast Beef is the overwhelming fan favorite. And, boy, does Onstad pile on the angst. Ray’s defining moment is when he sells his soul to Lucifer to get a magic piano, and all sorts of crazy hi-jinks ensue. What’s Beef’s defining moment? As a kid, his mom kills his dad while he listened in the other room. (Deep!) I understand this sort of emo trauma goes over big with the kids. So while Ray gets to go on super adventures (like flying around in Airwolf, no less), Beef’s stuck in solemn storylines. He’s the one who deals with his abusive relatives, and he feels the pain and uncertainty of Achewood‘s only romantic relationship (with the sensible, long-suffering Molly).

I guess I’m getting kind of old: in my teen years, this sort of thing would resonate with me, but as an adult I have little patience sad sack types who can’t get over themselves…even if it involves something as traumatic as homicide. In an old ESPN Page 2 article, Bill “Sports Guy” Simmons once flipped through his old high school year book and was embarrassed to find out he’d signed it with the lyrics to David Bowie’s Changes. Because, now several years removed, he realized the high school years were hardly as bad as he was letting on.

I have nothing against Roast Beef, really, and he is sort of a charming character in his own right. He provides the series some real emotional grounding, as opposed to the prevailing goof-off attitudes that threaten to turn the webcomic into nonstop penis jokes. (Though, to be fair, Beef is the one who ends up exposing his man junk (link NSFW).) Still, the longer I read Achewood, the more I realized that I liked Beef because he was close friends with Ray. If Ray disappeared, of example, I have very strong doubts that Roast Beef could ever carry Achewood as the main character. Ray, though, is irreplaceable, and he could easily carry the entire strip without his pal.

Ray and Roast Beef play major roles in Achewood‘s magnum opus, “The Great Outdoor Fight.” This storyline is often held up as the pinnacle of Achewood storytelling, and frankly I agree. The story is very simple and straightforward. The Outdoor Fight is like a huge prison brawl, conducted inside a walled off field of battle. The winner is the competitor who outlasts everyone else. Ray discovers that his estranged father was one of the sports’ greatest competitors. To preserve the family legacy, he and Roast Beef enter themselves in the Fight: Ray being the brawn, Roast Beef being the brains.

The characters spend much of The Great Outdoor Fight standing around, eating chicken, and formulating strategies. Once in a while a fight breaks out, but Onstaad manages to keep the fights quick yet humorous. Meanwhile, Beef strategically spreads rumors and incites rivals in the spirit of turning his buddy into a legend. I was impressed by the leisurely pace of the story, especially since it’s titled “The Great Outdoor Fight.”

Eventually, the clandestine committee behind the fight and Ray’s father force Ray and Roast Beef, the last two competitors, to do battle with each other. So Ray is at a crossroads: uphold the noble family honor, or destroy his own best friend?

C’mon, this is Ray F’n Smuckles. What do you think happens?

If the warm glow of heterosexual male bonding isn’t up your alley, Achewood‘s got you covered. From the first issue, Onstad cultivates a large cast of characters with strong, unique personalities. A personal favorite of mine (and of a lot of readers) is the eternal child, Philippe. The character evokes the playful, precocious 5-year-old mentality so well that you wonder if Onstad had any kids he used for reference. (From his self-insertions, it seems Onstad does have a kid, but one that’s younger.) He’s always charming: sometimes he befriends a french fry, other times he completely misinterprets the meaning of “Homosexuals.” Philippe even gets to be the star of his own delightful feature, the mostly-text Philippe Times.

Other regular characters include Theodor (one of the originals who often plays the straight man) and Nice Pete (a psychotic killer with a blank face and a habit for tilting his head just so). One of my favorite supporting characters is Vlad, a robot with an Eastern European accent and a passion for romance that transcends carnal desires. For my money, Vlad’s got some of the series most quotable lines. “Until you are so nude….” Eh, heh heh … I’ll be using that pickup line at the next church picnic, I tell you what!

From time to time, Onstad experiments with different style. There are times where he balances light and darkness to convey events that are more serious, more terrifying. I assume that this is what prompted Time to make their comment about the strip exhibiting “extreme lyrical beauty.” The “dark” strips are very unnerving and very moody. If Onstaad ever wanted to do a psychological thriller, I imagine it would be very good. likened Achewood to Garfield, but I think that a better comparison would be Dilbert. Both Dilbert and Achewood are catered primarily to a core audience — put-upon office workers in the first case, bong-smoking male college students in the second. If you’re not from the in-group, there’s a chance that you’ll get the jokes, but there’s an equal chance you’ll scratch your head and mutter, “This is funny … how?” Both are mainly gag strips, though, from time to time, they’ll venture into a continuous. (I can’t be the only one who remembers the “Dilbert Goes to Elbonia” plotline, can I?) And both feature off-putting artistic styles that look like a child’s doodles and frankly take a while to get used to. (It’s hard to imagine now, but doodles of a round dog with glasses looked lazy in a time when Calvin & Hobbes was still in papers.)

The difference is the level of fanaticism. Dilbert fans get off on sticking it to the man by pinning up the latest “Work is sucking my soul” gag in their cubicle. Achewood, on the other hand, tends to turn their fans into rabid missionaries. What the hell is it with comic? It’s a great comic, yes, and I’m a Smuckles fan 4 lyf … but perennial top comics xkcd and Penny Arcade hardly generate as much discussion as Achewood. Does Achewood somehow attract a disproportionate number of obsessive readers?

In the larger view, though, I guess Achewood fans are really no different than the fanbases of Firefly and Arrested Development.

That is, they’re all f***ing insane.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

digg it!


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 11, 2008, in 5 Stars, comedy webcomic, funny animal webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is one of those comics where I just don’t get what all the fuss is about, at all. I’m completely baffled by its critical respectability and popularity.

    To me, it seems like the artwork is terrible, and the jokes are insular, and the writing is badly-structured.

    There may be a jewel in there under that, but first and second impressions are off-putting.

    Are you sure you didn’t give it 5 stars simply to avoid pissing off the fan base?

    • I think it’s genuinely good, for reasons I won’t be repeating here since I think I stated it all in the review. Besides, if you click around this site, I’m really not above pissing off people’s fanbases.

      • Hm. Well, in my effort to give it another chance, I clicked at a random spot in 2004 and read a stretch of it. Seemed actually pretty comprehensible and mostly funny, though the art style did seem to struggle to clearly portray some actions, and the grammar annoyed me. On the other hand, I read a stretch of comics from closer to the beginning of the strip, and another from closer to the end, and found it to be filled with non-sequiturs and incomprehensible references. Sort of “clever for the sake of cleverness” (to give the benefit of the doubt), and often as obscure as anything you’d see on xkcd.

        I also can’t quite get over for my distaste at the fonts that are used.

        So it’s not totally bad and can be funny, but overall it’s just not for me.

  2. There’s an important aspect to Ray and Roast Beef’s relationship that you hinted at, but never said outright, and I think it bears explicit expression: Ray and Roast Beef complete each other, and as likable a character as Ray is, he would not be nearly as likable without his undying friendship with Roast Beef.

    You already remarked that Ray is “pure Id,” and I fully agree with that. But what would Ray be without somebody like Beef to temper him, to provide the fallibility, humility and humanity to make his antics that much more relatable to the audience? He’d be Rayne from Least I Could Do, that’s what. Do we want to see Ray win the Great Outdoor Fight because he’s already won so many other things? No, we want to see him win because his best friend is helping call the shots. We want to see him win because, just as Beef stands by him, he stands by Beef, even in the face of the Jeeps. Without Roast Beef, Ray would be just a self-absorbed, privileged dick, and even Ray seems to realize that sometimes.

    Beyond that, Achewood’s prose is really pretty unique, and does an excellent job of capturing the language and vocabulary that develops between a small group of friends. Onstad develops some truly original and memorable dialogue and phrasing, even when it’s in reference to something as banal as getting shitfaced with your friends. And that kind of simple elegance is part of what makes Achewood unique and exciting for so many people.

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