STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer Chris Onstad used to work at a Silicon Valley tech firm. He drew cartoon characters in his spare time which soon became a new career...
Mr. CHRIS ONSTAD (Creator of Achewood): The relatively unproven concept of making a living off of a web-comic.
INSKEEP: A web-comic. Your newspaper comic page may be getting smaller but one source, the webcomiclist.com counts 12,000 comics online. Chris Onstad's comic strip, Achewood is among the most acclaimed. That's A-C-H-E wood, Achewood. It depicts a stark world in black-and-white. The characters are coarse but their inspiration was cuddly.
Mr. ONSTAD: I sketched out some of my wife's stuffed animals and I put voices in their mouths, and overtime, they actually grew into their own characters.
INSKEEP: Well now, let me just ask about that though, these are stuffed animals that your wife has had since she was a little girl?
Mr. ONSTAD: Yeah, and in a couple of cases, some of these are 30 years old sitting on a shelf in our house.
INSKEEP: Is your wife happy to go online and see that her stuffed animals swear, drink a lot, try to sell obscene products that we won't even describe on the radio and do various other things?
Mr. ONSTAD: Yeah. You have to buy the book for that.
INSKEEP: In the book, those sweet stuffed animals commit acts of fantastic violence. The book is called, 'The Great Outdoor Fight,' which is a made up extreme sport. Thousands of creatures brawl for days until all but one is torn apart. The story evolved as Chris Onstad posted strips online.
Mr. ONSTAD: It happened totally by accident. What I do is I'm a cartoonist who works - I post, you know, three, four times a week in the mythical world called Achewood that I've made up. And I kind of think of 'The Great Outdoor Fight' as something where like tall cans (unintelligible) at the tale grew in the telling. I had a character discover that his long lost father had won this thing and then he went to enter it himself, I wrote it day by day and as a daily gag strip artist, I was really concerned that people weren't going to hang on for the three months it took to tell this online. But they did and it became our most critically acclaimed piece of work ever.
INSKEEP: Well, let's go to page 29 of this if we can. I just wonder if you can describe...
Mr. ONSTAD: Yeah.
INSKEEP: A couple of your main characters here because it gets us a little bit into this world that you have created.
Mr. ONSTAD: On page 29 in the book, what we have is the two major protagonists; Ray, who is sort of the wealthy, chubby happy-go-lucky and Roast Beef who's the depressive rodeos helping him get to the fight because he's actually more of a scholar of the thing. Roast Beef is explaining to Ray basically how 'The Great Outdoor Fight' will work once they get inside the grounds. You know, they're talking, they're on the road to Bakersfield which is where the fight is delivering (unintelligle), Ray's in the side car being chauffeured to 'The Great Outdoor Fight' where he is expected to win because he's blood of former champion. So Ray says, so, so what's the main thing? I got to know going into this? The fight is three days which is enough time for an ad hoc culture to form. Two armies typically arise and their pawns are sent to the front. It's true that the army leaders often fight only on days one and three and traditionally feast on turkeys and brandy on day two. Damn, sounds like I got to be an army leader. Are there side dishes?
INSKEEP: Now, I'm already just looking at the page getting a sense of the different voices that you have assigned to these characters in the way that you've represented that online. Some of these guys are punctuated. Some of them are not so punctuated. Some people use capital letters. Some of them don't. Is there an online reason for that?
Mr. ONSTAD: There's a grammatical reason. The character who speaks in a smaller typeface without punctuation is the depressive one who I like to imagine speaks more of a low mumble most of the time. That's just my way of representing that visually. I - one thing I say time and again is comics are such a restrictive medium. I want to have sound so badly for so much of the stuff.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that because here we are talking on the radio.
Mr. ONSTAD: Yeah.
INSKEEP: And those of us who work in the radio know this is a very old, outdated medium and we persuade ourselves that it's more powerful in a way because the voice is so powerful and you don't have the distraction of an image and you really hear an individual's story. So, I want to ask the same question about the comics. Even though it's old, outdated, limited, weak in a way, what is the power of it?
Mr. ONSTAD: Just like with radio, your brain fills in so many of the blanks. If you look at the art here, it's fairly spare. This is more about the writing and the richer I can make the dialog I think helps people conjure up in their minds what they want these people to be.
INSKEEP: It sounds like people have begun demanding that you fill in more blanks for them. You have blogs written in the voices of many of your characters.
Mr. ONSTAD: Right. That I did because I was so pent up with - I had so much more I wanted to do with these characters but, even in the format I work in, I work in with what I consider a sort of a Sunday format every time I post, which is two rows of six or eight panels or more.
INSKEEP: Bigger than the timely daily comic that you'd see in a...
Mr. ONSTAD: Right, the timely daily comic, I can't imagine how people work in that medium. It's so small. You can only have like 25 words in one of those or it looks too dense and I can't get enough done with that. You can't make richness in that. I mean, sure people argue that oh, well Peanuts was rich, that was usual. Yeah, he did that over 50 years.
Mr. ONSTAD: I'm like add capacity in how much I can produce but still, I feel like people are always demanding more. So, I...
INSKEEP: That raises another question. This is something you hear about comic artists all the time is the murderous demand of the deadlines.
Mr. ONSTAD: See, since I work for myself I regularly blow deadlines left and right like I was going duck hunting.
Mr. ONSTAD: I, you know, people have great patience for me because typically a responsible man would write his cartoon a few weeks in advance and have it ready and then it would go live every morning at 8 a.m. on some sort of dependable schedule. But, you know, I'm not doing a little single stripper every morning. I'm creating tales in the making - sometimes they're really long, sometimes they're short. Sometimes instead of doing a comic, I'll write a bunch of new blog entries for the characters and people just have to roll with it. If they disappear, they disappear.
INSKEEP: Given that this is a lot of work and that it keeps expanding and you say that it's gotten to the maximum that you can handle at the moment, do you think about famous comic artists like, I don't know, Bill Waterson or Gary Larson and I should say, the authors of Calvin and Hobbs in 'The Far Sight.' People that did acclaimed work and one day they said I'm all through. I'm finished with this. I can't do it anymore and pretty soon it'd be hard even to say where they were.
Mr. ONSTAD: Yeah. They - those guys ran, I know for about 10 years each right and they have really great stand-alone bodies of work. I don't see myself ending the Achewood daily strip just yet but I really do want to branch out into other things. I don't just want to be a daily strip guy and I think those guys like Waterson and Larson, they might look like, you know, silly little comics but those guys put their heart and soul into those things and they stopped because they had to. Because I don't want to say they're well dried up but you don't feel the same way forever. I like the characters in this body of work. I like the voices. I think they cover all aspects of the way I see the world, not all aspects. But, I've created a good vehicle for communicating with people and I don't want to throw it away.
INSKEEP: Chris Onstad is the creator of the online comic strip Achewood and author of "The Great Outdoor Fight." Great talking with you.
Mr. ONSTAD: All right, man.
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from "The Great Outdoor Fight" at npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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