Standing behind the counter, Chris Onstad and his publicist Jacquelene talk with fans at Portland’s Floating World Comics about “The Great Outdoor Fight.” The Great Outdoor Fight? There’s posters taped to the counter reproduced from various decades–each marked by the era’s graphic design–and I’m thinking, did these fights happen?
“What is the Great Outdoor Fight?” I ask Chris, referring to the posters.
“It’s completely fictional,” Chris says, “but it makes sense . . . an enormous outdoor brawl.”
I thought it happened as advertised.
“The poster is promo . . . I worked as a graphic designer.”
A beaming young couple approaches the counter. The woman pulls out a mailing tube and Chris says, “hey, I recognize that.” She takes one of his posters out of the tube–this one circa 1950 with an illustration of elk locking horns.
“Who am I signing this to: your name, an imaginary name?”
The couple exchange excited looks, expectant. “What do you think?” the guy asks.
“I think a signature’s fine, but it’s your poster.”
The woman starts talking pastries with Chris, something requiring “sugar pumps”.
“I work with laminate dough,” the baker says cryptically. “The sheets . . . making croissants. I spend a lot of time with butter.”
“We can talk about baking,” Chris says. His self-published cookbook is displayed on the counter. She’s a student at the culinary institute and asks Chris to draw a character on her white chef’s coat. Chris sketches Philippe onto the white coat with a Sharpie, each indelible line going onto the fabric with speed and facility of writing. I ask Chris if he ever uses a tablet to draw onto the computer screen.
“Originally, I drew the strip with a mouse. My wife finally got me a tablet for Christmas . . . it went native right away; the tool works really well.”
“Now all the drawing’s been done years ago,” Chris confides. The characters are vector-based graphics, allowing infinite variations and resizing of the same drawing. “I was just doing my thing in my house, posting on the Internet, but now we have the book out: we have to get on the plane.” Chris is on a ten city tour, posting up-to-date info on his blog.
“Since we published the book, we’ve lots of attention from animation: Adult Swim, Nickelodeon–” Fans at the counter start commenting on the major networks, what can and can’t be said on Cartoon Network versus the creative freedom of Webcomics.
The Great Outdoor Fight collects a three-month story arc from Chris’s Achewood, a strip featuring characters based on his wife’s stuffed animals: cats, a bear, a baby otter, a squirrel (and some robots). His wife now runs the business side of Achewood, and they have one full-time employee. With some 10,000,000 page views per month and Time Magazine’s praise–Achewood ranked best graphic novel of 2007–the opportunity to share his hilarious brand of comedy has arrived.
Now, Chris contributes weekly to the New Yorker’s online “Cartoon Lounge”. Though it sounds animated, there’s no drawings; he’s writing comedy in tandem with Zachary Kanin. The strength of Achewood is Chris’s writing. While his book sells in comic book stores, he admits to rarely reading comic books. He’s a fan of comedy writing: P. G. Wodehouse, Dave Barry, and P. J. O’Rourke (and cookbooks, too).
Jacqulene mentions Achewood Vol. 2, and I ask when it will be coming out.
“He can tell you,” Chris says, pointing to a man who has just arrived with a curly red-haired woman. “That’s Dave Land, my editor.”
“May 2009,” Dave says. “Maybe a little later.”
Dave tells me The Great Outdoor Fight is doing well in comics’ specialty shops, and there was a piece on NPR about it last week. After the radio show, Dave checked the book’s rank online–Amazon updates sales figures hourly–and saw a bump in sales. Word-of-mouth built the strip’s popularity, so I ask Dave how did he first hear of Achewood.
“When Chris first started posting The Great Outdoor Fight online, I heard a buzz that it was really hilarious.”
At first sight, the strip looks like a wire-frame. It’s all one line weight. For cartoonists who spend their career on finely crafted visual storytelling, Achewood requires some investment. There’s not much to the visuals; but once you read it, the strip gets you laughing.
Chris’s work is part of Dark Horse’s Webcomic line—they’ve published a handful of other Web-based comics: Perry Bible Fellowship, Wondermark, K Chronicles, and Slowwave. It’s anyone’s guess what new roads will open on Achewood’s book tour, but for a full-color vista: check out the eight page strip on myspace.com/darkhorsepresents.