Gently Deconstructing Achewood

Yeah, not the whole thing. Doing that would take years, and is almost certainly a whole department's worth of PhD theses in some terrifying future academic paradigm. People lose sight of the fact that Chris Onstad is just a man, with a man's courage, and not a god. Even though he's put more than a decade of his life into one of the funniest and most consistently pitch-perfect webcomics of all time. I come to discuss Onstad's work, not to venerate or castigate him for what he chooses to do with it. The briefest of autobiographical notes: I got into Achewood back in '08 or so, mostly because of this strip:

I make no secret on the internet of being the guy who sucks, and it kinda struck a chord with me. So I did a bit of research into the character of Roast Beef, who owns bad t-shirts which make him undateable and hails from circumstances, and found that I liked him. Especially his flowchart. But when I went back to the beginning of the archives, the early strips were kind of impenetrable. It was a gag comic without real gags, and Onstad hadn't really had a chance to develop the voices of his characters (which is where the comic really shines). It was vaguely offputting, but I kept clicking through. And, boy, was I glad that I did.

As a long-time defender/proponent of Achewood, the three things I hear most often are: "the art is so bad that I can't read it", "they're a bunch of anthropomorphised animals" and "it took too long to get going and I gave up." I don't write about comics as a way of telling other people what to do, but maybe I should - GO NOW AND TRY AGAIN, HUMANS. Do it right this second. Yes, the art isn't always* stunning (though it is expressive, particularly in terms of facial subtleties, and in this sense it matches Onstad's verbal subtlety very well), and, sure, the whole thing takes about a year's worth of strips to hit its stride, but you will not regret it. Particularly when it gets really, really good. As for the anthropomorphic animals? Well, I didn't think I'd warm to them either, but I like them more now than some actual human people to whom I'm related.

It's also very, very weird. Super weird. Did I mention it was weird? From Cartilage Head to the repeated use of Mexican magical realism as a theme (for variation upon, if not really for debate or narrative - beyond deus ex machina, that is), Achewood is super fucking weird. I love that; ymmv. Even if you find it - heaven forbid - too weird around the edges, Achewood still delivers on the "humour" side of "offbeat humour".

Anyway. I have blathered this paean for long enough. Time for some gentle deconstruction.

I've gone with one of the most recent Achewood strips for several reasons: because it shows that they're still funny, because this one represents (to me) Onstad hitting his stride again after a long-ish period of hiatus/intermittence**, because it does a number of things which are typically Onstadian (some classic Achewood, etc.), and because it's intrinsically funny, insomuch as anything can be.

This is the strip we're going to be stripping down (*cough*) and building back up (link here):

So. Why is this funny?

1) "Oh dang man I gotta fierce case of Early Meat"

This is funny because:

- No punctuation (classic Roast Beef vernacular)

- "fierce" used as an intensifier

- "Early Meat", including capitalisation

2) "Early Meat" followed up with "Urban Pinocchio" and "silent ruckus"

These are all slang terms no one would conceivably use for having an erection in the morning. By this point, I am laughing helplessly.

3) Panel 6

The cat - the married cat - the married cat in his own house - is ashamed of his erection. He calls it a "crime scene". He wonders what his wife will think.

4) Panel 8, aka "four ladles"

"I don't know who we think we are with four ladles", etc.


4.5) "I don't know who we think we are"

The technical term for this is tragicomedy***. The cat has been so deeply disturbed by his traumatic early life that he cannot conceive of taking four ladles to the garage to hide his shameful erection as anything other than arrogance. Arrogance! This is a recurring theme.

5) Panel 9

You don't need me to deconstruct this for you.

6) Panels 11 - 13

The cat, bedsheet tent visible for the first time, has a Damascene moment. He's going to rock this.


His life is his porno and his porno is occurring. He's rocking this!

It's a setup.

8) Panels 16, 17

This is the bit where it stops being funny and it just gets kinda sad. Is Onstad going to leave us on a total bummer, with the cat's wife going off to the gym all mad because he's proven himself to be an unreliable dude? Say it ain't so!

9) Fortunately, it ain't so







No one is ever going to win alt text more than Onstad has already won it, with this glorious little snippet which ties the joke back together and leaves the reader happysad. Or sadhappy. Or something.

Anyway. There we have it. Achewood deconstructed. If you would like any more comic-based close reading done, please send an email to

And thank you for reading. The moral of this story is that you should go and actually read Achewood, instead of reading me saying weird stuff about Achewood.





*it is occasionally stunning; the man can do wonderful things in monochrome.

**about that whole hiatus - there is so, so much Achewood out there that you don't need to worry about running through it all too fast and then being stuck loving something that never updates. Well - you do - but not for a good eighteen months or so. 

***this is not technically true.