Because I Can’t Make Things Short: Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar Review

Since I was introduced to it in 2005 by a (soon-to-be) good friend, I’ve been a completely, head-over-heelsly devoted follower of the comic Achewood.  In the years since, the strip has exploded.  Two consecutive Ignatz Awards, one of Time’s top ten graphic novels of 2007, along with a slew of other awards gives some mainstream legitimacy to the comic, not to mention the huge following it has gathered since its start in 2001.

Last year, Chris Onstad (the sole artist, writer, and creator behind the strip) had his first book published by Dark Horse Comics: The Great Outdoor Fight.  This was a physical copy of his most popular story arc, involving a huge, sprawling three day brawl (“Three days! Three acres! Three THOUSAND men! Only one will win THE GREAT OUTDOOR FIGHT!”) along with notes on the (totally fictional, obviously) history of the fight.

Following on the success of his last foray into the non-internet publishing world, Dark Horse just released the first (second?) anthology of Achewood strips, starting from the very beginning: Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar.  I received my long awaited, pre-ordered copy in the mail two days ago.  I eagerly tore off the Amazon cardboard to find a very handsomely put together little hard-bound book.  Not normally one to focus excessively on the external trappings of what I read, I can’t help but mention the excellent cover design.  This amazon picture doesn’t quite do it justice – the colour is pink, but much more of a deep, reddish one, while the layout is much less vertical than pictured.  As is obvious from the above sentences, I have no idea of how to describe design.  The overall effect is very pleasing, something you’ll just have to trust me on.

Inside Onstad opens with various origin stories about the characters (who are mostly stuffed animals and cats), explaining how each of them came to reside in his house.  A few pages of this, which is done in the voice he uses on his in-character blog, and the strips start.  A longtime Achewood reader might be a bit confused, as the annotated strips start here several months after the actual initial comic, Phillipe is standing on it.  He begins with the introduction of the three cats who, despite being minor characters to start, eventually come to take over the series.  Well, two of them do – the unnamed ‘middle cat’ (Roast Beef, the middle cat!  Not Ray, not Pat!), and Ray.  The strips go a little ways past the end of The Party, the first major story arc that really introduces all the characters.  Then we get a little more written stuff, followed by the missing initial few months.  Onstad explains that he didn’t want to turn off new readers with the bizarre, totally out-of-character pieces where he was floundering about and discovering the medium.  I’ve recently started doing the same thing, when introducing friends to Achewood.  I tell them to start with The Party, and then go back and cover the beginning once they’re hooked, as its strangeness often confuses people before they’re properly hooked (although I maintain that anyone who really, really reads it must get hooked).

While I loved re-reading the early strips again, all of this stuff is online.  Beyond the sexy presentation and visceral pleasure of a hardbound book, what an Achewood devotee really buys this for is the previously unpublished stuff, such as the character introductions and the annotation.  The text running throughout the book is a fun addition.  As mentioned above, Onstad never breaks character, fully maintaining that the stuffed animals he writes about are real and animated creatures.  This fits nicely with the content of the various blogs he wrote for both himself and several of the characters in his world, and further develops the already cult-like mythology of how it all came to be.

Even in the rare interview he grants, Onstad rarely, if ever, breaks out of this persona.  This is why the annotations running below many of the strips are such a treat, and also, by the end, somewhat of a disappointment.  In the first pages of the collection, the annotations mention the thoughts behind the strips.  Onstad gets into what he thinks of them now, and often discusses how this line or that action doesn’t fit with the current conception of that character.  It’s refreshing to get a glimpse inside his head, even if at such a minute scale.

However, these revelatory comments don’t last.  The annotations eventually slide into extended versions of his ‘alt-texts,’ sentences or phrases that appear with each comic as the reader hovers their mouse over it.  These often add to a gag developed in the strip, or make some reference to the real world surrounding the comic.  While the alt-texts are occasionally brilliant, and almost always add something to the reading, it’s a shame that Onstad breaks away from revealing a tiny, rare snippet of himself and simply tacks on more of the same.  I still thoroughly enjoyed reading these alt-texty annotations, but couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed after his opening ones.

This complaint does feel a bit forced, as though I feel like I have to say something negative amongst the praise.  I loved this collection, and eagerly await the next volume, alluded to in the end of Worst Song.  We’re told that it will contain the origin stories of the cats, and that “A bright orange sticker, oval in shape, will aggressively proclaim “CATS!” on its cover.”  I’ll keep an eye out.

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