For eight years, Chris Onstad's popular webcomic Achewood has chronicled the adventures of an idiosyncratic posse of talking bears, cats, mice, and otters. It's no Redwall 2.0, though—one of the cats has a penchant for fur coats and Ketel One, another is a hardcore gay vegan, and in the years since the original one-joke, three-panel strip, Achewood has evolved into a sprawling universe that plays by its own unconventional rules. "We have Trekkies," Onstad says of his fans, dedicated readers who obsessively monitor the strip's high-concept running gags and extensive character back-stories.
Onstad is one of a handful of web cartoonists able to wrest a full-time income from the internet. "Our living comes from the subscriber service we run," Onstad explains, through which about 1,000 subscribers pay $2.99 a month for premium content. "That's the awesome thing about the web. A small artist like myself can make it. I'm gonna say something quotable: 'I made it small. You can make it small and survive.'"
Onstad and his family (he's married, with a four-year-old daughter) recently moved to Portland, an experience he describes as akin to "jumping into a swimming pool after a shitty day." "I don't constantly feel like there's a gun to my head," he says of working in Portland, which he estimates is about one-third cheaper than his former hometown in Silicon Valley. With the move comes a degree of financial (and therefore, creative) liberty: "It's not that the content will change, it's that my freedom about what medium to use is changing." Not only has the comic grown increasingly complex, ballooning from the three-panel salad days to a recent 22-panel strip, but since moving to Portland, Onstad has been able to explore his interest in longer-form work. There are screenplays in the works, and "there's a novel gonna be coming," he says.
"So much work goes into that four-second reading experience," he explains of why he's branching out. "It's so inefficient. I didn't think I wanted to be Charles Schulz and sit at my drafting table and draw because I love to draw so fucking much, because I don't. I love to write. Imagine having to put all of your thoughts into six squares."
Onstad's writing is highlighted to good effect in Dark Horse Comics' recently released Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar, a hardcover collection of early strips that marks the second Achewood compilation from the local publisher (he's self-published a number of his own books). The book is supplemented with commentary on each strip, as well as prose chapters introducing the characters. The character introductions are the best part of the book—Onstad himself says they're his "favorite thing that [he's] done."
In addition to Ugliest Guitar, Onstad's finishing up a cookbook—his second, in which every recipe is written from a character's point of view. While Onstad is quick to scorn the term "foodie" ("You have money and you have a good short-term memory for what you had for lunch"), he's quite knowledgeable about food, and he's working with Ten 01 pastry chef Jeff McCarthy to develop recipes for the new cookbook.
It's obvious that Onstad isn't your typical move-to-Portland-to-join-the-comics-community creator. "I'm not a comics person," he tells me. "I've always thought that stuff was juvenile." And while the irony of that statement coming from a man who makes his living drawing talking animals is presumably lost on no one, Onstad seems comfortably poised to explore creative possibilities both within Achewood and beyond.