The Chris Onstad Interview
Laura Hudson just did a long, intriguing interview with Achewood‘s Chris Onstad at Comics Alliance. Anyone who’s ever had a passing interest in Achewood should check it out. Here are a few choice excerpts:
ComicsAlliance: Well, you went away, and then you came back. I think something that a lot of people are curious about why, on both ends. What made you want to take a hiatus?
CO: I’d been going at pretty much full steam for about nine years, and that all the comics, the blog writing… There are more blogs than comics, and I really like to do those. Prose is really what I personally enjoy. There’s a f**kload of content out there, because I was always under the gun. Every second where I’m not writing, I’m not making enough money to live. It’s a weird job and I have no benefits, so I’ve got to make make make. And that was also peppered with the public demand the internet, which 24/7, 365 days a year. So if you take six hours off, someone’s going to be like, “What the f**k’s the matter with this guy?” So that constant pressure, it accrued very slowly to the point where I was like, A) I think I’ve written pretty everything I know about over the course of 3,000 installments of comics or stories or other varieties of things I did. Merchandise, speeches, personalizations, paintings, freelance gigs. I was like, I don’t want to repeat anything, and I think I’m burned out. I’d be wondering if I was burned out for a very long time. When it got to the point where every night for a month I’d sit at the computer and say, “I want to be anywhere but here,” I knew it was time to take a break.
CA: In terms of that final breaking point, was there a single moment when you knew, or was it something more gradual?
CO: The single moment lasted about two months. Where I like, “I don’t care if the money’s not coming in. F**k it. I’m not going to kill myself anymore.” Like, it literally does start to kill you. Your blood pressure’s up. You eat poorly. You don’t sleep. You’re stressed out and angry about everything. You’re not enjoying life. It’s not supposed to be that way.
CA: Did that stress come primarily from the nature of working on the Internet, where there are no real hours or boundaries?
CO: Everyone knows that you’re online, because everyone’s online on time. Everybody knows if they send me a request that I got it and read it immediately, even if it takes me weeks to get back to them. I don’t know; it’s still something I haven’t figured out how to deal with. But I took all this time off just to sort of depressurize and gather new stories.
CA: By living?
CO: By living. Because if you sit at your desk and write all day, what are you going to write about? Sitting at your desk and writing? When you think you’re making stuff up in fiction, it’s really all autobiographical otherwise you wouldn’t even think of it. You wouldn’t know to write down. Hmm. That’s a big thought that could use some fleshing out. Finally I embraced the face that — I quit, but I’m tabling this until further notice. I have to, for my own sanity. So there was hate mail for a while. Actually, I just recently got my first hate mail since I got back to work. I was like, what took you so long?
CA: Your recent comics have also been exploring some surreal, dream-like places, with Ray going into a coma and exploring this strange alternate world.
CO: I’m trying to show what it’s like to have a real hallucination. It’s a challenge and it takes time. It’s not a punchline-driven thing. Even to someone who has or hasn’t had their mind do that to them, I want it to ring honest. Because we all dream. Dreams are sort of like this, because it’s something that’s occurring that wasn’t real. There’s this story called “The Uncanny” by E.T.A. Hoffman. It’s one of the introductory texts for literary theory and deconstructionism. It’s about a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a robot. He doesn’t know that at first, but he just comes to have this “uncanny” or off feeling about her. Something’s not right; I’m not getting something here. My brain is picking at this puzzle that I can’t quite solve. I kind of want to create that feeling of familiar discomfort. I think that would be a really awesome achievement. I don’t know if I’m getting it at all, but I’m enjoying the process of laying out what I remember as honestly as possible.
For my whole career, I always said that the best path to making someone laugh is to put up something that honestly made you laugh. Honesty. I was thinking about putting up a piece of paper on my monitor that said “be honest,” so that when you’re f**king around and you’ve lost the plot, you can remember to just be honest about what you’re thinking, because that’s the best way to connect with people. We’re all sitting here saying the same things. We’re trying to achieve goals that don’t mesh with reality, or just trying to get along.
CA: There’s a fundamental economic notion behind that in that I think you see in that, this idea that the withholding of something is what gives it value.
CO: It’s job security. No one else can do what I do. That’s one of the nice things about my job. It’s not like someone is going to take it over when I’m gone, or fire me.
CA: Well, it’s also part of what makes the webcomic model so interesting, because it runs totally counter to that. That’s why I think it eludes a lot of people, because they don’t understand how you can offer your content for free and still make money. They don’t get how it can work unless you withhold it for payment, and that’s what separates the old model from the new.
CO: Well, webcomics can’t [work] without the product for payment, because otherwise no one would read them. No one’s going to read Octopus Pie or Goats or whatever if they don’t know what it is. It takes a long time to fall in love with something enough, to pay for it.