Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Outdoor Fight

The Great Outdoor Fight
by Chris Onstad
Dark Horse Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: So, while it's a smart move to publish some of Chris Onstad's webcomic Achewood in physical, printed format as far as broadening audiences and providing an archive for future generations and so on (not to mention that it's more likely to get results if you just hand your buddy a book and say "read this" than if you send him or her a link, even in this day and age), finding the right thing with which to do that is difficult. Achewood isn't like The Perry Bible Fellowship, which is a series of unconnected, one-page strips, sometimes only a single panel long. But it isn't exactly a serial either, like Dick Tracy (weird example). If I had to compare it to anything, it's like a briefer and yet larger Love and Rockets, in that Onstad creates an entire world, and sometimes there's a long, long story, that goes on for days, and sometimes (this being less Hernandez-y) there's a one-off, like a silly flowchart. The thing is, even the one-offs rely on an elaborate structure of jokes, many built over years, and while there's plenty to amuse without getting it all, it mostly works like The Simpsons, in that the equation is: the more you know, the funnier it gets. Did I mention that many of the characters also have blogs? They do. Anyway, Dark Horse or Onstad or someone figured out a particular storyline that would work well published on its lonesome, with no introduction about what the strip is. Instead, The Great Outdoor Fight begins with a few pages about the history of the fight itself, and it's a beautiful illustration (as is the back matter, with recipes, history of contestants, glossary, etc.) of one of Onstad's strengths as a writer, which is a faux-historical, faux-serious tone. This then contrasts nicely with the extremely dude-slangy way in which his characters talk, and he's absolutely excellent at mixing the two, sometimes within a single strip. And make no mistake, the dude is a writer. The art is fine, but never more than that. It's simple and it serves its purpose and it's a step up from David Rees, but this thing is about the writing. Okay, enough introduction. How often do you read the online strip, and for how long? How does this compare? Did you read any of this when it appeared online? And what, in the end, do you think?

Garrett Martin: I hardly ever read Achewood on-line. Which sucks, 'cuz it's great. I just don't ever think about it. Also I try to avoid the internet when I'm not at work, and it's hard to hide that you're reading comics at work. If I want to read Tucker Stone or Iroquois Pliskin at work I can just paste the text into a new email and nobody'll know the difference; that thing can not be done with a comic strip. And man, much managerial buzzing of late. It's hard to fit my daily internet routine into the standard eight hours these days. So this book is very handy; I read it straight through on a bus ride the other day, and were it not for this collection I'd probably never actually read the entire storyline.

I might've read a random GOF-related strip on-line at some point; I first read Achewood in the summer of '06, and isn't that when this story ran? I don't remember, though. I remember thinking it wasn't very funny, until I went back and read a lot of the earlier strips. That's a common observation with Achewood because it is so true; as you say, the humor relies in large part on knowledge of the characters and familiarity with Onstad's style. I know a guy who is not possessed of much free time, a schoolteacher with a two-year-old who spends most weekends out of town playing rock music, who still spent seven or so hours reading the entirety of Achewood on the Sunday he first learned of it. It is addictive, it rewards regular long-term reading, and thanks to all the ancillary business there's enough new material going on-line to justify repeated daily visits. Onstad's good at stoking the obsession.

Anyway, yes, Achewood is fantastic. I love how thoroughly yet affectionately Onstad mocks lunkheaded concepts of masculinity and "dude culture", or whatever. The Great Outdoor Fight, itself, is such a perfect idea, ridiculous enough to act as parody of bad-ass / tough guy convention, but still completely plausible and believable (up to a point.) And yes, it's something I'd totally be into were it real. Of course it feels so possible due to the detailed history Onstad provides for the fight, its cultural impact, and the lives of former champions. As you point out, this highlights one of his greatest strengths, his writing ability, and especially his talent for writing in a variety of styles and voices. It's just kinda weird, and a big indictment of the traditional newspaper side of the medium, that a frequently vulgar on-line comic starring a cat in a thong is one of the more layered and nuanced comic strips of the last several decades.

HB: Yet another reason books are pretty superior technology... I've been having my own internet difficulties of late, what with me having to mooch off some neighbor's weak, unsecured wireless network because AT&T hasn't delivered my DSL modem yet, but the Google Reader is really ideal for something like Achewood, which doesn't quite post every day and is better read in chunks, where the jokes become clearer and the narrative hangs together. (And parenthetically here, what's our house style on online comics? Italics? No italics? This is an issue the Chicago Manual of Style has yet to address.)

I think you're right in zeroing in on the "dude culture" aspect of the strip. Really, I'm not sure who's writing better about the contemporary definition of being a man than Onstad. Sure, Esquire tries, and Details sort of tries, and occasionally ESPN: The Magazine ventures into similar territory, but they're all very concerned with making you buy things, and not that consumerism isn't part of contemporary masculinity, but Onstad isn't trying to sell you anything other than his strip. I don't think The Great Outdoor Fight is perfect (the ending is too abrupt, for one thing), but it's a very smart meditation on violence, adulthood, family, relationships, strategy, friendship, and what rules one has to or can't break. I hadn't really thought, prior to this discussion, about the strange layer of seriousness that's behind almost everything Onstad writes, but it's certainly there, and yet without toning down the funny.

GM: I don't know how the ending couldn't be abrupt, though, being an on-going strip. Maybe if Onstad drew up a new page or two, I guess. Apparently there are some scenes in the book that never appeared on-line, but I have no idea what those would be.

Maybe Onstad's not trying to sell us anything other than Achewood merch, but the strip couldn't exist without those magazines you mention. They try to define modern manhood in strictly consumerist terms, and Onstad mocks that in ridiculous fashion. Still, though, he doesn't mock camaraderie or friendship, and though the strip can be amazingly cynical and bitter at times, the mood never becomes too oppresive or arrogant. Maybe Onstad picks out the agreeable underpinning to the mountains of bullshit that make up manliness? Yeah, Ray and Roast Beef are absurd caricatures, but Onstad writes them as fundamentally decent people, and utterly likeable despite some pretty unsavory qualities. And of course is completely hilarious about it in the process.

Anyway, my biggest complaint is that the fight itself is way too short. Roast Beef's fists don't crush enough dudes.

HB: It does seem awfully brief after the lengthy set-up, what with the introduction and all that, but the fighting itself is the least interesting part of the piece. And the turkey dinner is the saddest.

GM: Yeah, I don't need to see more fisticuffs, but I wish we were introduced to more fighters. That's always the best part of the illicit fight tournament genre (see Enter the Dragon, The Quick and the Dead, The Immortal Iron Fist, Mortal Kombat 2, etc.)

"The Man With Blood on His Hands" is such a great nickname for a violence-prone American folk hero, isn't it? Better than "the Nature Boy".

HB: The only other thing that I can point out as a potential pitfall with Onstad's stuff is that it can occasionally be hard to differentiate his characters, which may be why he doesn't have more. During the whole wedding story that's consumed the last few months, for example, I was lost on a regular basis (as much my fault as his). So maybe we get fewer introductions and fewer fighters in motion because they are hard to draw? Am I being too down on his visual element? I don't mean to be. I think his art is better than serviceable. It's just, again, not the reason to read.

GM: You are being more charitable than I would when discussing the art. I've pointedly avoid mentioning it because I don't want to say anything bad about such an outstanding piece of work.

Okay, the art's not that bad, and there's one particular scene (can't remember if it's in this book or a strip on-line) where Roast Beef (I think?) is comically excited over something that has one of the greatest facial expressions of any comic I've ever seen. For the most part, though, Achewood looks like clip-art.

And shit, I just realized I meant to say "Ray's fists" above, and not Roast Beef's; I can't even tell 'em apart.

HB: And you don't have face blindness. Point made. Still, people should read this. Props to Dark Horse, although I would have preferred an uncoated to a coated sheet, being a paper snob.

GM: Well, I can only tell them apart based on accessories. One wears googles, the other glasses and a thong.

Oh, we didn't even mention the alt-text. That's often the punchline for the on-line strips. They're not reproduced in The Great Outdoor Fight, so I have to assume we missed a number of good lines, if not anything crucial to the plot or character development. Although shit, I think the alt-text is even vital for that sometimes, too.

HB: Right, it should definitely be mentioned. You really should read Achewood online _unless_ you have people hovering around your desk at work.

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