Pulp Fictions: Chris Onstad’s “Achewood,” Dash Shaw’s “Bodyworld,” and Spike’s “Templar, Arizona”


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Chris Onstad

Dash Shaw

“Templar, Arizona”

With the sad, sudden, and unannounced disappearance of Nicholas Gurewitch’s “The Perry Bible Fellowship” website on December 9, Chris Onstad’s “Achewood” immediately became the undisputed wazoo of webcomics. Beyond its weekly blast of surreal funny-animal hilarity, the Achewood megaplex is a netrepreneur’s wet dream of synergized marketing (all art for sale, “premium” subscriptions), accessibility (all strips online), value-added content (including Ray’s advice column, desktop images, and 12 characters a-blogging), and social networking (it would take another lifetime to read all the comments).

And “Achewood” has only gotten better since the September publication of Onstad’s breakout book, Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse). The May-December relationship of fatherly Cornelius Bear and Polly the stripper, the subject of the strip’s most recent story arc, has inspired some of the its finest insights into the complex bachelorhood of Ray Smuckles, a bethonged cat. As Ray prepares a sous vide of prime rib for the couple, Polly defines him thusly: “He drops his cell phone in the toilet once a week, he only reads ‘books’ by Donald Trump, and he would throw away a radio that was on without turning it off first.” But any random panel would testify nearly as well to Achewood’s clip-art inspired brilliance.

An incipient tragicomedy with David Lynch-ian overtones, Brooklyn artist Dash Shaw’s “Bodyworld” is the colorful, relatively off-the-cuff sequel to The Bottomless Belly Button, a highly regarded and formally formidable 720-page family epic of a graphic novel that Fantagraphics published earlier this year. “Bodyworld,” however, is looser in all directions. Set in an alternative future, the strip centers on Professor Panther, a gonzo ethnobotanist visiting the college town of Bony Borough. Thanks to a plant that induces telepathy when smoked, Panther quickly becomes embroiled in the college’s teen soap operatics.

“Bodyworld” gets in touch with its inner Dr. Strange whenever Panther lights up and characters blend into one another in colorful and graphically beguiling ways. Shaw pulls off another visual tour de force when Panther accidentally sets the town on fire. Less rigorously conceived than earlier works, “Bodyworld” sometimes reads like an ongoing experiment. But if Shaw’s prior publications are any indication, the strip should be unspinning its mysteries for a long time to come.

Templar, Arizona,” by the cartoonist Spike, began in May 2005. A thrice-weekly webcomic in slow motion, “Templar” has taken more than three years to convey maybe a couple of weeks in the lives of young alternative newspaper columnist Ben Kowalski and some other residents of Templar, a postapocalyptic city that blends ancient Rome and Egypt, Charles Dickens’s London, and the sexy, sporty metropolis of Maxim magazine.

Published in black and white and beige all over, “Templar” seems comfortable with letting its wheels spin by peppering a class-warfare-driven plot with allusions to interesting cults. These include the “Sincerists,” who wear hearts on their sleeves (literally) and only speak the truth, especially if it hurts. “Templar” often reads like a left-wing response to Dave Sims’s libertarian-leaning Cerebus. And while weeks go by when very little seem to happen (also as in Cerebus), Spike tosses out a meaty bone just often enough to keep readers hooked. Call it sous vide storytelling.

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