Interview with Chris Onstad
by Joseph Martin
(Read Part I here)
THE BELIEVER: How do you think this strip compares to the 2007 strip? What makes one “earlier” and the other “later” in your mind?
CHRIS ONSTAD: At the time, I thought it was risky to just jump out of the linear, narrative-style gag strip and work in a format that wasn’t built for humor. We’ve all seen funny flow charts posted on the office fridge, but it’s a different way of telling and timing a joke. Is it an evolution? It’s an evolution in that it shows I was frustrated with the typical six-panel comic format and looking for something new. I’ve always been wary of repeating myself.
BLVR: Well, you appeared to make it hard for yourself; this flow chart is about depression.
BLVR: Earlier that month, you featured another strip about Roast Beef’s depression. What drew you to such an iffy comic topic?
CO: The Roast Beef character was based on a friend of mine, a far more obvious depressive, but I can recognize that inability to face the world in myself. With me, if I were depressed, I’d just be like, “OK, I’m in my robe. I’m going to go to the room in my house furthest from the street and try not to think about anything for a while.” What I like is that I can put that out there from that room and have so many people connect. I have so much mail from readers that says, “I really loved seeing that. It helped me acknowledge the issues I have and feel like people understood me, that I’m not alone in this.” It’s serving some purpose beyond making people laugh.
BLVR: I always wondered, as it went on, if Achewood was necessarily about “being funny.” The joke in this strip is almost formal; the depression is absurd and sad, but I don’t know that it would be funny without the Philippe flow chart in the corner.
CO: And that was there because I had space and realized, “This is your thing, you can do whatever you want.” A Philippe flow chart, what could be simpler? It’s like a circuit diagram on a light switch, the simplest little thing. But you can’t do that too many times. For the most part, I tried to work in the gag format. A, that’s the challenge and B, I didn’t want to catch a lot of shit from people for trying something new.
BLVR: But you were doing interesting things regardless. In one other strip, Teodor looks into a puddle of urine and finds a DOS-style role playing game about Kim Jong-Il; in another, he’s beaten and naked in the back of a van. You have an arch based around a self-explanatory character named Cartilage Head! Achewood never seemed to shy from unnerving, dark comedy.
CO: Yeah, and those strips are pretty quiet, too. It’s liberating to explore creating a feeling through art, not writing. That said, I also just watch a lot of David Lynch and like the 1930s. All of this, in time, will [reveal itself as] an exercise in autobiography and self-therapy, I’m sure.
BLVR: The strip became very dark over 2010 and came to a halt in 2011. Why did you stop doing it and what did you do in the meantime?
CO: I stopped because I finally admitted to myself that I was really, really written out. I was tired, I wasn’t enjoying it, and I felt like I was flogging myself. I needed to concentrate on my family, raise my kid, and do something that made more money. I’m not a guy that works 9 to 5, Monday to Friday; I’m a guy who works from 2001 to 2006. It had been a decade. That’s a good long go of it. In the meantime, I cultivated new friendships. I got a divorce. I moved out of my house. I had to restart my life and find new ways to make a whole bunch of money. I had some major mid-life maintenance to do.
BLVR: Did the Time Magazine nod (“Best Graphic Novel of 2007”) have anything to do with your burnout? Did it put a new pressure on you?
CO: That was significantly before I really recognized that I needed a break. That, to me, was something to show my dad and grandpa, because they read Time. I knew it was a big deal – I was incredibly honored. But I [understood it would] validate what I do to people who are older than me. I’m an idiot, I don’t know what anything’s worth. I probably could have capitalized more on it and gone on TV, gotten an agent, and gotten promotions. But that’s not really what interests me.
BLVR: How did your divorce affect the strip? Did it change the way you were writing at the time?
CO: At first I was like, “Oh, I’ll go to a dark place and do some cool dark work.” But then I thought, “Maybe one of the reasons this happened was because I focused too much on the work and neglected my relationship.” Maybe it was because we were incompatible in many fundamental ways. Who knows? But I didn’t use it to fuel any work.
BLVR: How do you feel about the comic at this point? What are your expectations for it?
CO: I’m looking forward to getting this strip going more regularly. Right now, it’s just been a few a month while I get the motor turning over. I’m trying to find a nexus of caffeine, inspiration, and free time. Before it was always my job. I had to stress to get it done and, in my free time, I’d just go get bombed or something. Now it’s my reward for working [as a food critic]. I can see it as a treat again.