by Anthony Harrison
Back in October 2001, while everyone else was still reeling from 9/11 and the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, a young man named Chris Onstad started a web comic named Achewood.
The first strip was titled, “Phillippe is standing on it.” It’s only three panels. Two bears speak to each other. One says, “This new drum machine utterly confounds me.” The other, apparently older and proper says, “We have the instruction manual for it.” The first says, “Phillippe is standing on it.” Cut to Phillippe, a young otter, standing in a corner, on top of the drum machine manual.
Talk about offbeat.
From this weird, humble beginning, Achewood developed into the greatest web comic — actually, the greatest comic — I have ever read. It’s maybe the only web comic I’ve read which approaches great literature in terms of quality.
The characters define the strip. The three introductory characters — Téodor, Cornelius and Phillippe — remain throughout, but the stars of the comic are two cats, Ray Smuckles and Roast Beef Kazenzakis, a platonic odd couple. Ray is gregarious, entrepreneurial, bombastic, lucky and often a buffoon. Roast Beef is his polar foil: timid, neurotic, soft-spoken, highly intelligent and a cynical romantic.
Nearly all of the characters are this well drawn, rounded and dynamic. They range from an alcoholic tiger with a shady past, a lustful robot from a fictional Soviet bloc country and a drug-addled squirrel with a stutter and a nice van.
Over the years, the ensemble engages in absurd antics, including riding in Trent Reznor’s high school car and experiencing existential dread, establishing a slow-pitch softball league centered around getting stoned and participating in a no-holds-barred fighting tournament called the Great Outdoor Fight.
Despite the apparent silliness, though, Achewood contains amazing artwork and imagery, idiosyncratic wordplay, emotional weight and a surprising number of insights and musings on existence.
While the comic received prestigious acclaim and commands a loyal fan base — I actually spent Memorial Day weekend at a convention in Nashville, Tenn. — Onstad has kept Achewood on an indefinite hiatus since April 2014. I still read it nearly every day, partly in hopes that a new strip might be uploaded.
I speak for many of the strip’s fans when I say we live in optimistic anticipation for a return.