In case you haven’t already encountered it, here’s the deal with Achewood: If you come across the comic strip online right now, in it’s seventh year of publication, you’ll probably feel like you have no clue what’s going on. Something about cats, and bears, and robots, and a naïve otter. Heck, you probably won’t get it when you read the first strip. But if you spend the time to go back through the archives, read from the beginning, and take the time to learn about the characters and their history, you’ll quickly become engrossed in one of the most savagely funny evolutions in comics today.
Writer/artist Chris Onstad has developed a small universe inside a pathologically erudite world called Achewood. It’s a place where your toys and your pets live human-esque adult lives right alongside us. Our hedonistic habits, shopping centers, television shows, celebrity chefs, and fashion labels are theirs. And in Achewood, Onstad has created a cast of characters that have effectively satirized contemporary life through their own distinct personalities. It’s rude, it’s frequently crude, and some of the smartest work being done in webcomics. Not only do you have the semi-regularly updated online strip, but Onstad has created blogs for each of his major characters, displaying a range of voice and a breadth of cultural savvy. There’s even a series of Achewood cookbooks.
Which makes it both a triumph and a challenge that Onstad’s The Great Outdoor Fight has finally been collected in hardcover book form and is now available through Dark Horse Comics. The “Great Outdoor Fight” story-arc is one of the most sustained sequences of the strip’s history, and is a mixed-sentiment fan favorite (explanation to follow). It ran over a number of months online, and the amount of backstory and characterization make it a perfect stand-alone collection—if you already know Achewood.
This isn’t an easy one for new readers to pick up. It’s just not possible to understand the absurd humor if you haven’t come to know Ray and Roast Beef—essentially the two main characters of the strip, and the central focus of this storyline. Knowing something about Ray being the luckiest semi-idiotic egomaniac with a heart of gold in the world is important to getting the joke of his being invited to the event that gives the book its title. Knowing that Roast Beef is a chronically depressed hypochondriac with the world’s worst self-image is important to understanding the transformative moment of Beef taking charge in an event that is entirely about machismo.
For the Great Outdoor Fight is the most aggro of competitions. Three Days, Three Acres, Three Thousand Men. An all-out, nothing-barred, bloody fight until the last man standing is declared the victor. It’s hyper-violent, completely over the top, and a hilarious commentary on the historical urge for bloodsport. And yet, because Ray is the son of a former champion, the entire fight becomes an observation. There are graphic moments, but those are less important and less visible than the people involved and their reactions, from the Achewood gang at home following along online (through a blogger using a Blackberry from inside the fight itself) to the strategy discussions of Ray and Roast Beef. The hows and whys and spectacle of the event are more important than the action. When this initially ran, it actually drew a mixed reaction from the fans, who only received small chunks in daily updates. This made it hard to sustain the momentum, and the lack of visual violence and the almost necessarily pat conclusion left some feeling underwhelmed. But when it’s placed in full context in this book, you can see the complete picture and not stall out waiting for updates. And sure, you can get this experience by reading it online in the strip’s archives, but something about the book form makes it feel more unified. If you’re already hip to the language manipulation of Achewood’s style, it flows much more smoothly in this form. Plus, you get a few neat little extras, characteristic of Onstad: a text intro and history, some fight-related recipes, and some new art.
But if you’re someone who’s had Achewood recommended to them, or is curious about Onstad’s recent ascendancy to New Yorker blog subject and GQ comic strip appearance, do what everyone is told to do: go start from the beginning and read the strip online. Then read the character blogs. And then you might fully understand why the release of The Great Outdoor Fight in a mass-market form is a great thing.