The War for Independence
Chapter 3: A Couple of Webcomics
Print media is circling the drain. What’s left of it is mostly devoted to the shenanigans of insipid, pandering flash-in-the-pan celebrities and shiny advertising that’s been trained in a lab to actually cram itself down the reader’s throat. This means I need a different place to look at cartoons. Fortunately, they’ve invented something called the “inter-net,” which contains plenty of comic strips in the spaces between the amateur porn. Here are two of my favorites.
I can’t provide much of a bio on Chris Onstad (he’s not very forthcoming, and I usually can’t be bothered to look much further than Wikipedia) aside from the fact that he went to Stanford and was the editor of that school’s humor magazine. But I can give some background on Achewood. I’ve read all of ‘em multiple times.
The phrase “defies description” gets bandied about a lot these days (as does the phrase “gets bandied about a lot these days”), so in the interest of not bandying things about willy-nilly and higgledy-piggledy, I’ll try some rudimentary webcomic description. Achewood is about a bunch of anthropomorphic animals based on stuffed toys, living in the fictional world of Achewood, California. But that description, despite its accuracy, makes it sound sillier than it is. Most of the strips don’t really have a traditional setup-punchline format, and the funny is based mostly on characterization and wordplay. It’s not a good idea to just jump in on a random strip—there’s way too much of the surreal and absurd in Achewood for that to be effective. I recommend starting at the very first strip, from October 2001, and reading all the way through. While some strips are one-offs, most are grouped into story arcs. It takes a while for the characters to develop their real personalities, but I think observing the progression of the comic from its inception to the present is part of the fun.
The most striking thing about Achewood, as far as I’m concerned, is its use of language and dialect–just about the most imaginative I’ve seen in the entire genre. It’s a linguaphile’s comic. The characters all have distinctive and interesting modes of speech, and Onstad regularly produces some odd and brilliant turns of phrase. In addition, he occasionally writes in-character blogs, which are always amusing. And there’s usually a sentence or two of “alt text,” which is revealed by placing the cursor over the comic.
There are lots of ways to support this comic and its creator, if one is so inclined. The online shop features plenty of interesting Achewood-related items, including (but by no means limited to) nine collected volumes of strips, pint glasses featuring the logo of an in-comic bar, a chili sauce “created” by one of the main characters, clothing, and posters. In addition, there’s a subscription service which allows access to plenty of exclusive content. It’s only $2.99 a month, and it’s well worth it.
American Elf/James Kochalka
Ten years ago, James Kochalka (a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art) started drawing “diary strips:” small daily comics detailing the day-to-day life of the artist. (Note: this is especially nice for me, because it means I don’t have to write a bio section about Kochalka—he’s got ten years worth of bio available for free on his website.) American Elf (the collective name for the diary strips) is sort of the webcomic version of reality TV, only interesting. And artful. And with more cartoon drawings of penises. As with Achewood, I recommend starting at the beginning and reading chronologically. It’s sort of like looking into someone else’s brain four panels at a time, and that particular someone’s brain works in ways mine couldn’t possibly comprehend. The strip, thematically similar to Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, is a compelling read. Kochalka doesn’t pull any punches, and handles both the silly and the tragic equally deftly. His artistic style is simple and effective, and his use of colors is striking. And I have practically no visual aesthetic sense at all, so if it’s striking to me, it must be really striking to normal people.
In addition to writing and drawing American Elf, which seems like plenty of work by itself, Kochalka produces plenty of non-web comics, including Johnny Boo, Monkey vs. Robot, and Super F*ckers. In further additionalliness, he fronts a band called James Kochalka, Superstar, with which he has recorded nine albums. I have no idea how he’s able to do all this stuff, but I suspect cloning and uppers may be involved.
American Elf, like Achewood, has a subscription option, granting access to more non-Elf comics and James Kochalka Superstar MP3s–$1.95 a month or $19.95 for a full year. I’m a big fan of these subscription services, for the same reason I obsessively watch DVD commentaries: I love finding out as much as possible about stuff I like, including detritus and unused drafts and errata and artists’ backgrounds. Since I was a kid, I had an idea that creativity was like a code to be cracked, and if I could compile enough information on people who do it successfully, the entire creative universe would open up to me and I’d be able to Make Stuff myself. Which is sort of true and sort of not, and almost entirely beside the point, except that whenever an artist I like offers a greater degree of insight into his or her art, you better believe I take ‘em up on it.
Next week: strong>Maybe I’ll even talk about a musician! Who knows?