In Praise of Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight

He's the one who sucks—in a good way! A depressed cat gets his own book.

The best new fictional character across any medium in at least a decade is a neurotic computer-hacker cat named Roast Beef who calls everyone "dogg." That's "dogg" with two G's, as in "Dogg don't piss on me, I just invented Photoshop." As the bruised but still-beating heart of Chris Onstad's brilliant Web comic Achewood, Roast Beef has died three times in the strip's seven-year run (accidentally shot during a gunfight between rival Subway franchise owners; fell off a cliff in a golf cart while stoned; accidentally shot again during circumstances too convoluted to parenthetically explain). But in heaven he met Molly, another (temporarily) dead cat whom he would eventually (after they both returned to Earth) marry, in large part because she indulges his various psychoses—for example, consenting to use in their foreplay the special lamp he requires to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder ("OOOH YEAH BABY SHINE THAT LAMP. SHINE THAT LAMP ON THIS SAD, SAD MAN").

Achewood is, like any surrealist alternate universe worth exploring, difficult to explain. Onstad is a Northern California tech-industry survivor who gradually built the strip around crude computer-template drawings of his wife's stuffed animals—several cats, a couple bears, a tiger, a naive young otter, etc.—who say outrageously crass but stupendously articulate things. Roast Beef describes one character's rampant philandering thus: "If gonorrhea was a piano, Todd would be considered a bold and unpredictable new talent." (Todd is a stuttering, drug-addicted squirrel.) Visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area will recognize much of the slang—when Roast Beef steals a rocket and flees to the Moon, his best friend and fellow main character Ray, a filthy-rich semi-alcoholic playboy cat whose sole consistent article of clothing is a thong, tries to coax him back via cell phone: "Roast Beef! You should get down here! We lookin' at hella porno!" The art itself can occasionally be stupendous (a single panel of two horrified characters listening to the Grateful Dead conveys more passion than 1,000 pages of modern-rock criticism), but Onstad's true gift is verbal, a flair for vivid dialogue rivaling that of David Mamet or Richard Price.

The Great Outdoor Fight is the strip's big-shot debut. Onstad presides over a burgeoning empire at achewood.com, with a new strip three or four times a week, painstakingly detailed blogs in the distinct voices of a dozen characters, and a shop selling everything from collections of past strips (though they're all still available online, including the vast majority of the stuff in this book) to pint glasses to hot sauce to T-shirts, some of which Roast Beef has worn in the strip, including the one that says "I'm the guy who sucks" on the front and "Plus I got depression" on the back. But this is Onstad's first outside-publisher venture, and though most of Achewood's devoted fans will have plowed through the Great Outdoor Fight saga several times already (it unfolded over three months in early 2006), it's worth revisiting here if only to enjoy the carnage in this new context, the transition from a workmanlike gag-a-day approach slapped on a computer screen to hardback elegance, graphic-novel reverence, and unbroken narrative flow.

Chris Onstad

The plot emerges slowly—the book begins with Ray's business proposal regarding "Chatsacks," which applies the "fake testicles glued to the back bumper of your truck" phenomenon to cell phones. But eventually we're introduced to a mythical annual bare-knuckle brawl held in Southern California. Ray discovers that his mysterious absentee father won the bout ("Three days! Three acres! Three-thousand men!") back in 1973, and vows to dominate this year's competition to prove himself worthy of his lineage. Beef joins him as a sidekick/battle technician, running potential rivals' credit and advising that his partner "kick rich amounts of ass." What follows is technically violent, but the real fun here is deep in the details. When the Fight leaders are invited to dine on roast turkey and Christian Brothers brandy during Day Two, we get a close-up of the grocery-store receipt, complete with sales tax; a hapless British blogger provides periodic Fight updates for the Achewood characters gathered around a computer back home, his posts re-created complete with XML and RSS tags.

It's unclear whether all this will entice the uninitiated or merely confuse them, but even if Onstad's flair for idiosyncrasy freaks you out (the book's print-only bonus material is mostly faux-encyclopedia GOF history, including past winners, recipes, and other bewildering trivia), just zone in on Roast Beef, a vividly rounded everycat capable of conjuring both deep sadness and linguistically dazzling delight. As he puts it shortly after The Great Outdoor Fight enters its gunfire-and-Molotov-cocktail phase, "Oh hell yes dogg right we gonna make the metals kiss and the fuel turn lively." You can't put it any better than that.

Chris Onstad will celebrate The Great Outdoor Fight's release with a book signing on November 7 at Rocketship, 208 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-797-1348

 
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