Chris Onstad still sounds surprised. The creator of Achewood, the online comic strip from which Dark Horse Books recently published a 104-page story, The Great Outdoor Fight, wasn't sure readers would stay with him when the story ran online in early 2006. "But it turns out," he says, "that comics readers love long, drawn-out storylines." It helps that Achewood is one of the funniest comics ever created—a drill to parts of the brain you weren't sure existed and didn't know were ticklish.
Onstad's world—inhabited by Ray Smuckles, a millionaire playboy cat with a thong; Téodor Orezscu, a neurotic teddy bear with a sweater; and Cassandra "Roast Beef" Kazenzakis, a childhood friend of Ray's with crippling depression—is so dense that publishing only a piece is risky. "I have such mixed feelings," he tells me. "I want people to be able to get into it every day, and recognize that there's something there worth getting into. But world-building is what Achewood is—a universe where people grow over time."
Dark Horse has selected a good primer. The Great Outdoor Fight's titular contest ("three days... three acres... 3,000 men") features enough of Achewood's right-angled lyricism and unmoored language to demonstrate that there is indeed something here worth getting into. Onstad's drawings are stark as stark gets, but some of The Great Outdoor Fight's imagery—like wide-panel vistas of the fight's giant prefab paddock, or a band in black jumpsuits performing for the fighters from behind barbed wire—is as rich as the book's dialogue. Still, Onstad thinks of himself as a writer, more S.J. Perelman than Charles M. Schulz. He likes The New Yorker's humor pieces, finds the McSweeney's axis "overwrought," and credits P.G. Wodehouse for shaping Cornelius Bear, Onstad's Anglophile teddy of uncertain (but advanced) age.
Most importantly, Onstad—like all good jesters—is more than just funny. He sums up Achewood best without meaning to, when I mention a (very funny) strip about depression that meant a lot to me one unpleasant year. He says it drew emails along the same lines, and adds, "It sells really well as a poster."
"There's always money in depression," I joke.
"I guess," he says. "I should sell a pill or something." But, see, he sort of already does.