Posts Tagged ‘Comic Books’


2001, and using the web Chris Onstad opened up the flipped world of Achewood to us.

Why ‘flipped’? Well, Achewood, he explains, is the underground version of the city above. Problem is, the city above is fictional. Chris Onstad is really into this, he uses an address from the fictional suburb as his own.

Who lives there? They are stuffed toys, toy robots, pets. But they are all full characters, complete with detailed and interrelating back-stories.
This is his premise, and from this he extrapolates wonderful absurd, funny, often poignant adventures and events. He interrupts stories to explore side events, adventures, before resuming the earlier arc.
One extra ingredient to the story lines is an interest in recipes, cooking. All adds to the mix.

Chris Onstad kept the comic strips going until about 2010. In 2011 he announced an indefinite hiatus. It lasted a couple of months at most.
Back on track but favouring a more realistic method of writing, the adventures are retailed on a more occasional basis, regular but with breathing space.

Achewood takes the form of downloadable ebooks/comics, and online strips. Lately he has turned his attention to regular film medium. He has constructed a whole merchandise arena for Achewood products.
Hard copy books are also available. Take, for instance:

THE GREAT OUTDOOR FIGHT (Dark Horse Books, 2008)


‘Three Days, Three Acres, Three Thousand Men’.

He touts the Fight as a regular event, based in Bakersfield, Calif. It is a last man standing competition.
It also takes off expertly ultra-macho posturing, the he-man industry, Iron John idealisations.

The participants, three thousand strong, slug it out. Achewood’s Ray Smuckles, described as a ‘thong-clad, anthropomorphic cat’, discovers his father was a previous champion. Typical lacunae in the story line is when his mother calls to see him – she is a prim, be-eye-glassed matron. But her marriage was a marriage of passion; her husband used to take her out to the lowest, dingiest bars and challenge all comers, but make her stand outside to protect her sensibilities….
Ray Smuckles enters the competition. But competitors have to prove they have previous ‘form’. He ‘acquires’ this, and so enters the arena, along with best buddy Roast Beef.

And what of buddy Roast Beef? There is another world of surprise and unexpected gifts all over again!

It is not the straight story line we read Achewood for – Onstad goes for the absurd, the ‘flat visual punch-line’ – but for the twists and turns, the sights and scenes along the way. He plays with stereotypes: here are two English guys, one’s a blogger commentating on the Fight; and the way Onstad twists the language to suggest a kind of English accent is hugely entertaining. Likewise the Russian/Soviet robot’s speech patterns.

Nothing is straight-forward in Achewood.

And we have WORST SONG, PLAYED ON UGLIEST GUITAR  (Dark Horse Books, 2009)

Complete with detailed over and under maps of Achewood territory, and histories of Achewood.
Here we have speech bubbles but also on occasion under commentary. In A Terrible Thanksgiving he gives us a twist of a tale that ends in a moral and show-stopper dance-routine.

In here we also have Before Achewood – The Early Experiments. It was, he writes: ‘… a vehicle for taking the day’s odd workplace thoughts or memorable lines and stuffing them into word balloons above stock drawings.’ It is more than that, of course – it is how all the pieces work together: format, drawings, pauses, expressions, and the intonations we pick up and decipher from context and pre-formats.

In this book he gives us backgrounds – to place, character, but also to his influences and travelling companions. He references names of other cartoonists; it is for the reader to follow up as need be because as Onstad wrote when readers wrote in about the fate of his character Scrambles: ‘(I never wrote them back,) because I don’t care.’
The irony is, of course: here is Scrambles reproduced again.



Posted: September 20, 2014 in Chat
Tags: , ,

Comic writing has come a long way in such a short time. Ten years or so ago we had the big spectacle of Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOUR books, and his CANCER YEAR. Both adopted successfully to film.

We had Daniel Clowes’ GHOST WORLD, another successful film based on his comic strips.

Harvey is no longer with us. He had the good fortune of knowing Robert Crumb, before Crumb became a comic writer. The connection proved good for Pekar.

Mark Beyer, though has a wholly innovative technique, and customary bleak story lines.
I dug out my copy of AMY AND JORDAN for this write-up – all the strips are black and white! I remembered colour! His AGONY is colour – and the colours are always strong washes and planes of colour. The images are so strong, though, they colour themselves in memory.


Mark Beyer grew up in Pennsylvania, with a troubled childhood, by all accounts. He had always drawn and illustrated but it really took off in his later teens.
First of all he self published – A DISTURBING EVENING and OTHER STORIES, 1978.
And then his breakthrough DEAD STORIES, 1982

From there he has published successfully AGONY, 1987

AMY AND JORDAN, 1993 and 1996


And then the big AMY AND JORDAN, 2004.

What is it about his work that is so interesting?
Wiki cites a childlike, geometric drawing style, coupled with themes of disaster and dismemberment, death and humiliation. Typical angst, then.

What is really innovative of his work is his use of panels. Every comic strip is composed of panels to be drawn in, and a gutter between. Manipulation of space here is a key to pace, and tension: a wider gutter, or a wider panel between two regular ones, adds as much to the storyline as the text.

Mark Beyer has experimented with panels so well it is difficult to come back from.
Why must a panel be a rectangle or square? So he tried spherical panels. He tried triangular panels; he even drew panels that defy geometrical description.


It is also a basic truism that the more complex the drawing, whether background, or figures, both the slower the read, the more complex the experience.
So Mark Beyer drew simple figures – yes, but complicated with in-filling and design. He still used voice bubbles within the panels. His characters are shown from odd angles, perspectives; their bodies are pliable, plastic, he drapes them, morphes them, he slews their bodies like a Chagall. They turn into skeletons but keep their characters. They do terrible things.


So what’s with the bleakness and misery? Amy wakes to find a huge bug-like creature standing on her bed. It explained it was an ancient demi-god; its abdomen consisted of a series of drawers where she could learn all the secrets of the world discovered over millennia. So, like a memory-palace, then? She was too taken up with discovering a bug on her bed, though, she squashed it.

What works here, is the drawing style, awkward it may be but carries its own logic and authority, and the off-setting of theme by innovative use of unusual panels.

Mark Beyer is using the form to transgress – it is our disturbance he is manipulating: he has stepped over the line and altered our perception.
Comics do that anyway: we see horrors and wonders that cannot possibly exist, and we accept them.

– Scott McCloud’s book UNDERSTANDING COMICS: The Invisible Art (William Morrow/HarperCollins 1993) is excellent background reading on the art of comics.