Achewood is back, and it’s weirder than ever


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Jan 27, 2024

Achewood is back, and it’s weirder than ever

By Elizabeth Lopatto, a reporter who writes about tech, money, and human

By Elizabeth Lopatto, a reporter who writes about tech, money, and human behavior. She joined The Verge in 2014 as science editor. Previously, she was a reporter at Bloomberg.

Being a fan of Achewood is kind of like being a fan of Warren Zevon; people are either extremely excited when you mention it or have no idea what you’re talking about. But for my fellow enthusiasts, Achewood, the beloved absurdist comic about the adventures of cats, robots, and stuffed animals, is back with a Patreon. And AI.

For those of you who were not heavy online in the early 2000s, it's kind of hard to explain Achewood's influence — imagine, perhaps, seeing a surreal Anna Karenina get published in real time, passed among people via AOL Instant Messenger away messages. In rereading old comics for this story, I discovered that phrases I’ve been using for years — for instance, "due to Circumstances," a way of noting something unpleasant happened — are in fact from writer Chris Onstad's comic. C. Roast Beef Kazenzakis, a programmer (Java) and one of the strip's main characters, is "from Circumstances," a euphemism for his desperately unhappy kittenhood.

"What I didn't realize at the time was that I wasn't making a comic strip; I was writing the biggest graphic novel of all time."

But Achewood also took its toll on Onstad, who publicly struggled with burnout. An attempt at a Netflix adaptation failed. Now, Onstad thinks he's finally found a sustainable path forward — and it involves artificial intelligence. Sure, there's the AI RayBot, which he's put out into the world today with some help from longtime Achewood fans. But what Onstad has in mind is also more exploratory. For instance, using AI models of his characters as something he can interact with to warm up before he draws the strip.

One of the delights of Achewood is how literary it is. The characters have specific, instantaneously recognizable ways of speaking. And that puts pressure on Onstad as a writer: he wants his audience to love his work, and he wants to make the work good every time.

It's a recipe for Circumstances.

The first Achewood comic ran in 2001. By 2007, Time had named it the best graphic novel of the year. As I’ve gone back through old press clips, I’ve seen it referred to as a "cult hit," which feels strange. It was everywhere online at the time — but not everyone was heavy online yet.

Onstad was part of an online boom that included Dinosaur Comics, Toothpaste for Dinner, A Softer World, Natalie Dee, The Perry Bible Fellowship, Hark! A Vagrant, and Cat and Girl. Video on the web hadn't yet seriously developed, so text and images were the norm. Social media was in the process of being born. People were just transitioning to seeing the internet on their phones. Web comic creators were among the first people facing the struggles of what we now call the creator economy: conflict with their audience, the pressure to constantly produce, and the nonstop hustle of trying to make money online.

When Onstad started publishing, RSS wasn't yet widely adopted. He produced work at an astonishing pace to get people in the habit of visiting his site. Besides, the standard for newspaper comics was daily publication. "What I didn't realize at the time was that I wasn't making a comic strip; I was writing the biggest graphic novel of all time," he says in an email. "So I was killing myself to meet Garfield deadlines with Tolkien content."

Still, working at that pace was "often very pleasurable," he says, particularly when he was writing the blogs that each character kept outside the comic's panels. And there was an element of personal ambition involved. "I’m a pleaser, and I want to appear powerful enough as a creator to deliver my best material every day," he tells me in an email. "(this is a great way to annihilate yourself, btw)."

"All I knew was I would post it, and I would go to bed, and I would wake up to message boards saying that they hated me. And I was like, ‘Okay, so that's my job’"

One of the great truisms of creating stuff online is that when you do something people like, they smile and go about their business, and when they hate your work, they email you. This can give creators a distorted view of their audience. Onstad's popularity — obvious to an outside observer — was not evident to him.

Instead, it was "an awful, stressful period," Onstad told me. "I would work really hard, from eight to 12 to 16 hours a day, sometimes, to put out a really good comic strip I believed in. And I was always missing deadlines because I wanted to be better than the day before. And all I knew was I would post it, and I would go to bed, and I would wake up to message boards saying that they hated me. And I was like, ‘Okay, so that's my job.’"

Then, Onstad found himself on his first book tour in 2008. His first stop was at Isotope Comics in San Francisco, where the owner told him to arrive for the signings about 15 minutes late. As he was arriving, he saw a line "about three blocks long, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I wonder if there's a real signing after mine.’" And then he realized: everyone was there for Achewood. "It was the most exhilarating, exciting night," Onstad says.

The exhilaration didn't last. By 2010, the comic started to sputter. "I was sort of hitting the wall personally and chemically and marriage-wise, and just kind of like ground to a halt over the next couple of years," Onstad says. Achewood ground to a halt with him.

"I went from being a private citizen to someone who was sort of cast into the oil cauldron of public comment."

In 2011, Onstad acknowledged the comic was on hiatus. "Whenever I cracked my knuckles and attempted to start a fresh strip with an idea that had popped into my head that day, I’d get halfway through it and realize I’d already done that particular gag, say, six years ago," he wrote in a post at the time. The nine years, 1,700 strips, 30 books, 12 character blogs, 700 subscriber pieces, various tours, interviews and public appearances — plus a veritable tsunami of "vitriolic hate mail" — had taken their toll. He was burned out, and he needed a break.

Onstad dealt with the onslaught of public opinion a decade before YouTubers were talking openly about burnout. "I went from being a private citizen to someone who was sort of cast into the oil cauldron of public comment," he says. "And that was very, very traumatic for a long time."

This isn't unusual for people who make their living online, and it's not unusual for people who make comics, either. Calvin and Hobbes, the high watermark of newspaper comics, ended for similar reasons.

In 2013, Onstad resurfaced. Achewood was back, and he was taking meetings to develop an animated show. That didn't quite work, but in 2019, Onstad began collaborating with Pendleton Ward, perhaps best known for Adventure Time, and they made a deal with Netflix. The series was based on "The Great Outdoor Fight," a kind of fairy-tale brawl that takes place annually in California. The arc centers on Ray Smuckles, a tomcat wearing only a thong whose heart is in the right place even if his mouth usually isn't (and who sold his soul to the devil for music industry success). Ray discovers his father won the fight in 1973 and decides to enter himself.

Onstad and Ward wrote six episodes and produced a pilot animatic — like a wireframe of the animation with voices. Throughout the process, Onstad says that they had great support from Netflix as well as a "superb" team.

"I’ve had like two jobs for a total of 18 months in my whole life, outside of Achewood. Maybe it's time to admit, like, This is who I am. And this is what I do."

Then, the day that the show was going to get its final approval, Onstad got a text from Ward. Had he seen the stock market? Netflix had posted a loss in subscribers, and its stock lost more than a third of its value in just one day. "So, in a nutshell, they slashed almost all of their animation projects, ours included," Onstad says. He got the official word that the Achewood show was donezo last May.

That wasn't the only project Onstad was working on. He’d been putting together a four-volume, 2,300-page hardcover anthology of Achewood with Oni Press, a Portland-based publisher of graphic novels. The anthology was ready to send to the printer. But just after Netflix canceled the Achewood animated series, Oni Press underwent its own convulsions — and scrapped the project.

"Every time I try to work with a larger entity, it's just, it never pans out for me," Onstad says. "And I’ve always had this sort of personal punk rock ethos and sensibility about just doing it my own goddamn way. I’ve had like two jobs for a total of 18 months in my whole life, outside of Achewood. Maybe it's time to admit, like, This is who I am. And this is what I do."

So he decided to get back into being the Achewood guy.

In October 2022, Onstad and his business partner, Ben Porten, met up in person to make Achewood a standalone business. Porten ran through all 18,000 of Onstad's Twitter followers and discovered many were Stanford graduates who’d gone into AI. ChatGPT had just come out. AI was hot. What if Onstad did something with those guys?

"If you read the biographies of the great entrepreneurs, one thing they were never afraid to do is pick up the phone, right?" Onstad says. "Like that was Steve Jobs. That's how Steve Jobs started."

So he DM’d David Hall, who has a day job as a research engineering lead at Stanford's Center for Research on Foundation Models. Hall had been an Achewood enthusiast as an undergrad at Stanford, even throwing a GIN OCEAN party despite not particularly liking gin. Hall tells me he particularly relates to Roast Beef, though Ray was his favorite character, "which I guess is kind of a Roast Beef thing to say," he says. He even tapped in his old housemate at Stanford, Jason Barrett Prado, to help with the UX design.

OpenAI's ChatGPT was a little too sanctimonious for Ray

Hall had designed multi-user dungeons in high school, and the collaborators kicked around the idea of a text-based adventure game. (Onstad was particularly inspired by Douglas Adams’ 1984 Infocom adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) But as they talked, they realized the easiest way to build something fun and compelling would be to create an AI version of Ray's old advice column. After all, Onstad had produced "well over a million words" of Achewood, Hall says. Compared to that, how much work could training an AI on them take?

The first challenge was formatting the data in a way the language model could use. Then, there was the matter of picking an underlying language model to train with Ray's voice. OpenAI's ChatGPT was a little too sanctimonious for Ray, who likes to color outside of the lines, Hall says. They wound up using a fine-tuned version of OpenAI's Davinci, which Hall estimates is about 60 times more expensive than ChatGPT.

At first, RayBot didn't recognize that Roast Beef was his best friend. It's not entirely clear why that is. Onstad tells me he thinks the issue is that the words "roast beef" are so heavily weighted as a sandwich filling that a large language model couldn't process that it was dealing with a person. But I also wonder if it's because the relationship between Ray and Roast Beef is more implied than explicit. A human has the experience of having a childhood best friend and doesn't need to be told what that looks like. An LLM, with no real-world experience, won't get the context.

"I wrote a ton of material training it," Onstad says. "This amounted to hundreds of examples of them hanging out, talking to each other, etc., and David tagging them appropriately." When Hall has Onstad write new work for the bot, he asks for advice columns since that's what RayBot generates.

There were other hiccups. "For the longest time, RayBot thought he and Pat were lovers," Hall says. Neither he nor Onstad can figure out how that happened.

Unlike Character.AI, which seems to be aimed at the kind of people who write fanfiction with Mary Sue characters, RayBot isn't meant to suck you into a personalized, solipsistic relationship. Instead, you ask him a question, and he replies briefly. Prado told me he wanted to preserve the Achewood aesthetic in the design, which was lo-fi even at the time: chunky fonts, simple layout.

I wanted to see what would happen if I fed RayBot a question Onstad had answered, so I picked this one:

I’ve always found my fellow musicians’ claims that psilocybin enhances creativity dubious (frankly, I’m too chicken to try it), but I don't have the experience to say.

I know that you’re a successful musician, but maybe that deal you signed doesn't provide for inspiration 24/7 - would you care to comment on the relationship between drugs and creativity?

- In a Rut.

Onstad is much funnier. His advice begins:

Dear In a Rut,

I looked up "psilocybin" on Google and man, that's what ‘shrooms are! I guess I did not know that. Anyhow, what I like to have goin’ on when I’m writin’ music is a tall chilled one, either a mojito cocktail or something else that strikes my fancy. I also will dabble with red wine, as it is very mellow and allows for several hours at the piano.

It then goes on to describe a mushroom trip Ray went on with Lyle and Téodor, effectively creating more Achewood canon.

Ray Smuckles warning me off drugs felt fishy, so I asked Hall if I’d run into one of the AI's moderation guardrails, and he checked RayBot's logs. But the moderation API mostly limits hate speech, violence, self-harm, sex, and child abuse sexual material. "I think that was the answer it wanted to generate," Hall told me — not that RayBot really holds philosophical stances.

RayBot can be very funny. Also, because Ray is a deliberately unreliable narrator; when the AI hallucinates, it's entirely in character for him to be confidently wrong. But even at his best — and on less racy questions — he's still Onstad on an off day. On one hand, Onstad thinks it's amazing that RayBot is good enough to pass for him at all. On the other, he says, "Okay, cool, I still have some value in the process."

The Achewood Patreon has three tiers. For $5 a month, fans get new comics, access to a community Discord, and input on forthcoming merch. A $9 / month tier includes the characters’ blogs and Roast Beef's Man Why You Even Got to Do A Thing print zine. The highest tier currently available, $14 / month, has all of those things plus behind-the-scenes stuff, non-Achewood work from Onstad, and cooking discussion — Onstad is an avid foodie. The Patreon is preloaded with several months’ worth of comics, Onstad says. RayBot is a standalone project, and anyone can ask a question.

Though Achewood lives on the web, most of Onstad's money since 2002 has come from real-world merch. Merch serves as a flywheel that introduces people to the comics: writing in The Verge in 2013, Adrianne Jeffries notes she got into Achewood because of her brother's "weird sweatshirt." And in the last 10 years, Onstad has also begun selling original artwork, which put him in touch with his current business partner, Ben Porten.

Porten had been reading Achewood "since I was a depressed high schooler," he says; at first, he related to Roast Beef, but now, Ray is his favorite character. "I always said to myself, if I ever become a big shot, I’m going to have Chris make a wall-sized painting of Roast Beef."

Instead, he began collecting Onstad's abstract art, and the two began corresponding and then fell out of touch. When Porten emailed again, the Netflix collaboration had just fallen through, "which was devastating for me as a fan," Porten says. "But it also made me feel, okay, I’ve been in the business world for a while, I’ve been pretty successful. Let me apply what I’ve learned to help Chris."

"As a fan, you can imagine, I was like, I’ve fulfilled my life's purpose by getting Chris to do more Achewood."

Porten and Onstad bought a professional embroidery machine, and Onstad has drafted a design for a brightly colored Sukajan-inspired jacket based on art Onstad created last year. Some other ideas include pint glasses featuring the character Pat as pictured by the Mexican magical realism camera. There are also Achewood hats, both beanies and baseball caps.

The original plan was simply a new merch line. But Onstad got so excited working on it that he began writing new strips. "As a fan, you can imagine, I was like, I’ve fulfilled my life's purpose by getting Chris to do more Achewood," Porten says. And the Patreon was born.

When Onstad started writing Achewood, the idea of subscribing to your favorite artists wasn't common. Web comics were free, and maybe you bought something in the merch store. But by 2022, web comic artists — like Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics and Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content — were making a comfortable living through it. "I talk with younger people, and they’re like, ‘oh, yeah, I follow like two or three people on Patreon," Onstad says. "I’m thinking, if I could actually get by on this, I could really devote myself to the stuff that always made so many people happy in the first place, and not have to keep futzing around with side hustles."

The goal of it is to build a new audience for the strip. "Originally, the merch was going to be the big event," Porten says. "But the AI stuff has really consumed all of our waking hours." Now that RayBot is out in the world, though, the two of them are free to focus on the merch store again. Its revamp should be live in June.

But the thing that really keeps Porten up at night is trying to finance RayBot. Generative AI is pricey: each snippet of Ray's wisdom costs about 10 cents. "It's prohibitively expensive, like $10,000 gets you maybe 83,000 queries, depending on the length of the response," he says. In the hopes of keeping RayBot running, Onstad has begun a series of 26-by-36-inch canvases to auction, and he and his business partner are actively in talks with OpenAI about maybe being subsidized. Another possibility might be letting users donate directly to support the bot.

The simplest option would be to simplify RayBot: to use a less sophisticated model for the AI or get rid of the button that lets users regenerate responses looking for the perfect answer. "But each time we’ve done that, we’ve rolled it back to the more expensive version," Onstad tells me. "The more we fall in love with him, the less we want him to be hobbled."

Onstad's excitement about AI is arresting — there's been a lot of angst from creative types about the possibility of being replaced by AI. In fact, fears of an AI writers room are part of what's motivating the current WGA strike in Hollywood. But if you bracket out the mouth-breathing finance types eager to fire as many workers as possible, it's possible to ask more interesting questions about AI. After all, software engineering can be creative, too. What would it be like if AI were fun or collaborative rather than obliterating?

Of course, Onstad doesn't fear being replaced. All his work with AI has reinforced that he's still the king. He's planning on experimenting with AI-generated work for his Patreon, but that's only going to be in addition to the stuff he produces the old-fashioned way. After all, his fans’ relationship is with him.

AI is a tool to Onstad, like a word processor. But there are some things an AI can't do that a writer can, such as character development. Take, for instance, Achewood's Pat, whose main driving ethos seems to be feeling superior. At first, he simply reads as unpleasant — but then, he comes out of the closet and suddenly becomes recognizable as a specific Type of Guy and, simultaneously, much more likable. That isn't really something the LLM can do.

How would Onstad feel about a fan making their own bot trained on his words?

Still, he's excited about playing with AI and expects his relationship with his bots to evolve rapidly in unpredictable directions. The sheer volume of words he's written over the years means it's hard to keep everything in his head — for instance, has Cornelius ever expressed a distaste for egg salad?

Outside his interactions with RayBot, he uses versions of an LLM tuned on specific characters for limbering up before he writes, interacting with a bot to get ready to write in that character's voice.

The bots get a lot wrong, but that can be creatively useful in its own right. Onstad knows why it's wrong and what a right response would be. It isn't difficult to imagine an Oulipo-like creative collaboration with an AI, following certain rules to produce something deeply weird.

But RayBot is his. How would Onstad feel about a fan making their own bot trained on his words? "It's absolutely going to happen, for anybody who writes any work that moves people," he says. After all, people have been writing fanfiction for a very long time. Onstad describes the stages of appropriation, which he views like the stages of grief. The first is, no, you can't touch that. The second is, wow, I love that someone cared enough to do that. And then the third is, wait, is that taking money out of my pocket?

"It all comes down to compensation," he says. "If you’re going to directly use somebody's copyrighted likeness, and characters and the names of them, then there has to be some sort of model for compensation. And that's not in place yet."

Still, as a devoted fan of P.G. Wodehouse, Onstad tells me that if there were a LLM good enough to write new Bertie Wooster novels, "I greedily admit I would purchase them if they met a certain bar." As a fan, he’d love to read more about the adventures of Arthur Dent. Both Onstad and Porten point to the Star Trek Holodeck as a possible future, one where you can create new entertainment with your favorite characters.

Onstad has hit on one of the paradoxes of fandom: the people who love your work the most and who consume it the most voraciously are also the ones who are never satisfied with what you’ve managed to produce. For all of his excitement about using AI, Onstad doesn't want to press a button to auto-generate infinite Achewood. He loves details and descriptions — and most creative work comes from the subconscious. The possibility of an AI interrupting his instincts does give him some pause.

As we kept talking, I wondered if Onstad's enthusiasm for AI assistance is partly because of the demands internet audiences place on creators. It's clear Onstad treasures Achewood fans. The sheer volume of his output is astonishing, spurred at least in part by the pressure he's put on himself to give us more of what we want. AI might be able to relieve some of that pressure — but it won't lessen the forces that create it.

Correction May 8th, 1:21PM: This story originally suggested the 2013 animation project and the Netflix animation project were the same. They were not. We regret the error.

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Correction May 8th, 1:21PM: