On an email thread yesterday, our own Tobias Carroll was goofing around like he does, and, perhaps off topic, he linked to an old Achewood comic. That link might not make any sense to you. If this were a few years ago, I wouldn’t feel like I have to explain to a reader what Achewood is. There was a brief moment, at least from my cultural vantage point, of deserved recognition for the web comic. In 2007 the comic’s website received ten million page views monthly, and Time listed it as one of the best graphic novels of the year, although that label is not totally adequate. It’s not enough to say that comics have cultural relevance because of this movie adaptation or that coveted award. One must elaborate extensively to describe the exact experience the reader of a web comic is having. Despite Lev Grossman’s best intentions, Achewood is not a graphic novel. It’s not a glossy omnibus with a hard cover, although you could spend hours going through archives and get the same effect of spanning the years with your favorite characters. It’s not a weekly issue sort of thing, wrapped in plastic and made rigid with cardboard, although you would get the same giddy feeling when there was an update. No, it’s just a website, updated on a once regular, now extremely irregular basis. There are characters, narrative arcs, running gags, hidden jokes in the alt-text, a theme song, blogs for all the characters, and more things it would take effort to explain because there’s just nothing else like it, damn it.
The point is, thanks to Toby, I was overjoyed because, as if you can’t already tell, I am a big fan of Achewood. The strip follows a group of animals, stuffed toys, and robots living in two houses in Achewood, California, a fictional suburb in non-fictional Silicon Valley. (The setting was always important for me, a Bay Area denizen, not just because of the frequent appearance of Safeway, our supermarket chain, or of local football teams, but also because of the vernacular used. There’s something very Walker Percy about seeing a piece of literature popularize the word “hella,” even if it’s not solely responsible for the trend.) There is a central friendship between two cats that sort of anchors the whole thing, but every character is special in his or her own way. They’ve all had moments that are wonderful to recall. There’s a belligerent, notably illiterate squirrel who is always on hard drugs. There’s a serial killer named Nice Pete. There’s a stuffed teddy bear named Teodor who is an idealistic and nurturing foodie. There is a constantly aggrieved vegan cat named Pat who was closeted and fell in love with a gay porn actor. There is a foppish, erudite bear named Cornelius. There are those robots I mentioned: one that lies (Liebot) and one that tells offensive jokes (Chucklebot). There is the cutest little otter you’ve ever seen, the resident innocent. His name is Philippe, and his blog is called “Huuugs!!” And, of course, there are the two protagonists, Roast Beef and Ray. They are an odd couple of cats, one constantly depressed and the other a party animal with enormous amounts of money and a positive attitude.
I could go on. There are so many plot lines I could call my favorite. This comic was as important to me as any book or television show, any movie or band. I checked the site every morning, and I despaired at Onstad’s announcement of an indefinite hiatus in 2010. Do I do that with anything now? I don’t think I do. Every morning I wake up, check my email, read the news, write a few things, make my coffee. But there’s no distinctly literary pleasure that I get on a daily basis. It was almost as if Onstad were writing letters to me, sending me gifts. It was a one-way correspondence which must have been exhausting for him. I don’t wonder why he stopped. All the same, the morning feels lonely without him.
For a while, I would quote jokes as shorthand for how I was feeling or what I was going through. Roast Beef’s depression was commonly cited by friends of mine who went through similar trials getting out of bed in the morning. In fact, I think Achewood taught me what Seasonal Affective Disorder was. Ray’s unique way of talking often pops into my head in moments of blind confidence. (“Man, I wonder what ever happened to Bill Cosby…” is a phrase that comes to me whenever I find myself thinking about something inane but somehow important. This usually happens on the subway.) But now that the comic has been off the map for three years, never mind the promises of updates and an animated series (fool me once, etc.), it’s isolating to have this wealth of references. When the site was updated regularly, it felt like an event. It had resonance. Now, I’ll think of a joke, and there are about three or four people I know who would get it. There’s a hole left by the antics of Achewood.
I can still email those three or four people, but it’s not the same. It’s not waking up in the morning to see that someone has made something weird and singular just for you. Well, and ten million other people, but you know what I mean. What is that? Is it a feeling of loss? Is it nostalgia? Is it the feeling that something you love should be known to the world? Maybe. I mean, I can quote the Simpsons with my dad or a co-worker, but I can’t quote Achewood? Man, that is low. Like a dirty snake.