Monday, August 8, 2011

Every literary writer needs to read this web comic.

Assuming I ever finish another novel and then attempt to get another agent, I'm going to make myself a nice little web site. Nothing fancy; just a place with information about me, how to contact me, a decent photo of myself, and a prominent link to this blog. You know the kind of site I'm talking about.

I've already considered what I'd like to say about myself on such a site, and the most important thing I think I can say about my writing -- my style and what I hope to achieve -- is to list my major influences. We all have influences, and I think it's important for a writer to understand how and why each of hers affects her writing. Right alongside my usual rogue's gallery of literary influences (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Oates, Atwood, Martin, etc.) I intend to place a name you've never heard before, but you should have heard it, because Chris Onstad is one of the best writers of literary fiction living and working today.

You've never heard of him because he doesn't write novels or short stories. He writes a web comic.

But Achewood is more than a web comic. It's an entire carefully crafted world populated by some of the most real and poignant characters in all of fiction, and it is clearly the product of a sensitive, intelligent, thoroughly observant and enviably expressive artistic mind.


I've tried to turn some friends onto Achewood in the past, and, set up by their expectations that web comics be funny and jokey, they proclaimed it terrible. What they were expecting was the usual comic-strip formula: setup and punchline in a few panels.

Achewood doesn't deliver that sort of experience. It's not meant to. It is a mistake to think of Achewood as a comic strip, really, or even as a web comic, although its primary mode of delivery (more on that later) is a series of panels and it is found on the web. Rather, Achewood is a long-running serialized graphic novel (it started in 2001 and went into what I hope is an impermanent hiatus in 2011.) Specifically, it is a graphic literary novel, where the focus of each story arc rests on character development and internal conflict.

Don't get me wrong; there is some humor. But it's Nabokovian humor, Updikeian humor; the kind that adds a little splash of brightening absurdity to a scenario that is otherwise all too realistically heavy. Achewood is not about satire or punchlines or making you laugh -- at least, making you laugh isn't its prime directive, and the laughs you get aren't "Ha ha! Isn't life grand!" but rather "uh...heh heh. Life's a real bitch, but at least we're all in this together."


What's so striking about Onstad and his work is that he has never felt the need to limit himself to the panels of his web site. When one reads the Achewood strips archived from beginning to end, one gets the sense that about three months into the strip Onstad succeeded in making his characters come alive. Suddenly the reader feels that Onstad had so honed each individual personality that they started speaking with clearly recognizable voices inside his head (Onstad's and the reader's), and had histories and aspirations and depth and life.

Rather than sticking to the main method of delivery -- the strip -- Onstad stretched out and gave his characters more space to grow and to be. Soon the characters had their own blogs, where Onstad would write in their voices, expanding their personal stories and character arcs off the panels and into an electronic world where readers came to know each one as well as a person can know anybody online -- which is to say, quite intimately. Characters experienced story arcs on their blogs that had nothing to do with the arcs on the strip, effectively living their own lives away from "home." One character ran an advice column for a time, where readers received wisdom from a jive-talking wealthy housecat, in pitch-perfect character voice. Another character created a 90's-style 'zine, Xeroxed its various issues, and mailed it off to subscribers (yes, I have my own copies of Roast Beef's 'zines.)

Literary fiction is about exploring character. That's what drives the genre (or category, if you prefer that marketing label.) But how many authors of character-driven fiction have spent ten years giving free rein to their characters? The same characters that populate the same world that has been built and actively, publicly explored over the course of an entire decade? Most of us stick with our characters for a year or two at most while we work on a single novel, and while we may come to understand our characters' inner lives as well as Onstad understands his, we don't make those lives freely accessible to the rest of the world. We restrict ourselves to what we show between the covers of our books. We edit. And there's nothing wrong with that. Discrete novels are fantastic, and the narrow-angle peek novels give us into the lives of characters and the worlds they populate is exciting in its own way.

But I can't think of any characters in a novel I feel I know as well as I know Onstad's characters. The residents of Achewood have been given such life by their author that they feel as alive as any of my friends I know only via online interaction -- which is to say, wholly alive -- except I know they're fictional creations.

If an aspiring writer of literary fiction wants to understand how to make a character indelible in the mind of a reader, he should study all the usual masters, but he should study Onstad, too, who is so unafraid of the reality of his characters that he loosed them beyond the boundaries of their medium. I've never seen such fearlessness and confidence in fiction-writing. Onstad is one to look up to. As they'd say in Achewood, the dude has got no mercy.


Aside from Chris Onstad's intense and pioneering character work, he's got a real flair for words. And not only words, but timing, subtlety, symbolism -- all the things that make literary fiction so damn good. He pairs his word choices with just the right simplistic, touching image in the way a gourmand pairs the right wine with the perfect cut of meat. Image and words reflect and enhance one another -- but such fantastic synergy wouldn't be possible without the right words.

The interesting thing about how these words are so right is that most of the time, the words themselves are not particularly beautiful. That's not to say they're unlovely. Like the drawings of the strip, Onstad's words are simple, clear, and minimalist. Their beauty lies in their uncomplicated nature, the way they reflect the speech patterns of contemporary readers. You get the sense reading Achewood that these stories are about you, that these characters are you are people you know. Onstad's writing is more relatable than most of the stuff I've read.

A large part of what makes literary fiction appealing is its reflection of the real intricacies of our lives...the balance of comedy and tragedy, the poignancy of little fleeting moments. I can think of few writers who achieve this depiction of the gorgeous, small absurdities and triumphs and horrors of life with as much consistency as Chris Onstad. His contribution to the world of literary fiction is undeniable, and will probably go uncelebrated for a very long time. Because he does not work in the medium of novels and short stories, because he has chosen to let his characters truly live and to facilitate their expansion and development without restraint, he will probably never win the awards and the critical acclaim he deserves. We don't give Pulitzers or National Book Critics' Circle awards to people who make web comics, or who blog in the voice of a depressive cat.

But why don't we? Achewood proves that depth and emotion and poignancy are not limited to the printed page. Truth is not restricted by anything, and certainly not by the front and back covers of a book.

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