Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chris Onstad offers the reason for the multi-month hiatus on "Achewood"

This should probably get posted at our links sister site, but I'm posting it here.  Chris Onstad, sole creator and creative force behind the popular online strip, Achewood, has offered up a bit of an explanation as to why the series slowed to a drip and then went on hiatus, which seemed to start in earnest last October.

You can read his explanation here.

Some will say Onstad owed no explanation, but I'm not sure that's accurate. We can make a guess as to what happened and theorize, but part of having an audience does, in fact, mean that one has a responsibility to at least let people know what's happening.   Not knowing is a bit like if your waiter goes back in the kitchen and never returns (I actually did have that happen once, and its totally freaky.  I waited half an hour before flagging down another waiter and figuring out what happened.  Apparently my waiter's shift was over and he forgot he'd never closed out the tab at table 5.)

Achewood's tone and poise is not set to the same audience as that of "Marmaduke"
Onstad's response is more than adequate, but will confuse the howling masses who have been trained to expect their every whim to be catered to if they believe a penny can be made from such a whim.

His explanation is, by the way, basically:  I got burnt out.  It's been ten years, and with all the stuff associated with that sort of production, maintaining quality and challenging myself became a bit of a drag.  And the constant two-way feed of communication with the public seemed to be getting him down.

In some small way, I can relate on an infinitely smaller scale.  When I shut down League of Melbotis for several months and brought it back up under The Signal Watch, it was the best thing I could have done for myself and for my willingness to continue blogging.  Those months away retrained me that I was more than the work I did to get paid and a race each evening to post lest my readership numbers dwindle (for which I did not get paid).

Back in the blogging day, we attempted a sort of collaborative pop-culture blogging experiment called "Nanostalgia" that didn't really get off the tarmac before we settled gently back into the sea and I found myself on a metaphorical yellow rubber raft paddling back to shore and unnecessarily eating the ration packs.  But at that site I did a column about how hard it was going to be for webcomics because they aren't set up with all the niceties of the corporate structure, and its all on the shoulders of the single creator.  And that meant, man, you'd best be ready to give over your life to nigh-daily content production.

That all got a tough response from a webcomic guru, but six years later, I can see I was mostly right.  Making money and getting support is hard to begin with.  And once you do self-build that empire, its not unlike being successful at, say, owning a hardware store that becomes the size of a box store.  Suddenly you have all these new duties that aren't just "man, I have to get the new hammers out for the spring hammering season".  You got staff, deals to close, etc...  and its a much bigger thing than selling bolts or whatever reason you got into the hardware business to begin with.

And, I think, people do not get into the business of comics to feel like they're on an assembly line, cranking out comics that meet exactly the same criteria every panel, every episode lest the readership get nervous when the artist tries something new.

And, in my own small way, I wrestled a bit with the expectations of the readership, as it were.  I have enjoyed the freedom of the sandbox that I've staked out as The Signal Watch, and in many ways, its easier having a much smaller readership of friends, family, strange Canadians, etc...  who aren't much more invested than sort of checking in and do not think of the content as a product to be delivered to their RSS feed daily.  And while it had little to do with why I quit (however briefly), man...  its much easier to get the "hey, is everything okay?  You haven't posted in a while" emails than the "where are you?  what's your problem?" comments showing up because you decided to do something else for three or four days.  And I never had to deal with the entitlement of a readership that one could see in the sprawling comment sections beneath each and every strip.

I hope Onstad finds his way out of whatever creative qicksand he's been caught in.  I salute the guy.  He created a fantastic strip for about a decade, producing hundreds of times better content in that time than some strips that run 365 days a year, have hit every day for decades and have become the ugly, comfy slippers of the newspaper strip world.  I'll be sure to try to follow him wherever he goes, and I am certain that whatever he does next will be better than even Achewood die-hards would expect.


Michael Corley said...

They talked about this at length on Webcomics Weekly podcast. All of them are fans of his work. But he doesn't (or hasn't) run any ads on his site. It's a problem when you can't pay for your own hosting. I'm not worried about him coming back, he's got too many fans :)

The League said...

I've heard Onstad did really well selling affiliated product (t-shirts and the like. I own two of them.). I think this was all creative burn out, and that's more than understandable. He didn't do Achewood as a gag-of-the-day strip, and at some point, you have to realize you're running on fumes.

I don't know if he'd appreciate the comparison, but Bill Watterson burnt out and never came back, Berkeley Breathed bailed on Bloom County and tried different formats, and Gary Larson quit his comic. Creativity is hard work, and you don't want to wind up cranking out work that no longer speaks to yourself, lest you turn into a caricature of your former greatness.

Anonymous said...

I would also add Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship. The most brilliant online comic strip I've ever come across. Gurewitch stopped cartooning around 2008 and never looked back.


The League said...

I only discovered PBF in the last year of its existence, and it was just a great strip. I'm just not that surprised anymore when I hear creators saying "I can't do this anymore". Its a grind, and it has to make you have some weird thoughts about people in general to be doing this sort of thing in the internet age.