by Brandon Beck
The Great Outdoor Fight is the first volume of Achewood, Chris Onstad’s legendary webcomic, to be published by a major publisher (Dark Horse). This is not the beginning of the Achewood story, but a stand-alone tale that falls somewhere in the middle of the strip’s run. It’s big, it’s flashy, it’s violent, and, above all, it’s funny as hell.
Every year, The Great Outdoor Fight brings thousands of men to an ominous field known as “The Acres” to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other for three straight days, with the glory going to the last man standing. While having a conversation with his mother, Ray Smuckles, the gluttonous, self-obsessed cat that forms one half of Achewood’s leading duo, finds out that his father won The Fight in 1973. Because Ray seems to make a living out of half-cocked, misguided ideas he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and win the fight. Thankfully, his best friend, the incredibly intelligent and incredibly sad Roast Beef, has been studying the fight for years, and is more than willing to help his friend win. What follows is a rollicking, violent, vulgar adventure story that tests a friendship that already has a weird, uncomfortable power dynamic. Despite starting as a simple gag-a-day strip, Achewood really found its strength when Onstad allowed his storytelling to stretch out, becoming less focused on punch-lines and more concerned with his odd little characters and their even odder stories. Much like Penny Arcade, I rarely laugh the hardest at the final panel in an Achewood strip, as Onstad’s writing shines in the idiosyncrasies of his dialog. I am not exaggerating when I say that Onstad is one of the best dialog writers out there, on par with greats such as Joel and Ethan Coen when it comes to giving every character their own distinct voice and cadence. Onstad has disavowed the first year or so of Achewood strips, saying that he never quite got the hang of things until Ray and Beef came in to the picture, so it makes sense that he would choose a later storyline as his first mainstream, large scale publication. The story manages to give you the best parts of Achewood rolled up into a crisp, tight story. The only complaint I have is that some of the other main characters, specifically Teodor and Philippe, aren’t given very much to do. Granted, this isn’t their story, but Achewood has such a deep bench of wonderful characters that it’s slightly disappointing to see some of them benched for the majority of the book.
Onstad’s art has never sought to be anything more than a vessel for his dialog, and in that it succeeds, but there are a few moments when he lets himself stretch out a bit that are a nice change of pace from the talking heads we’re used to. The scenes of Ray and Beef in the desert, and some of the fight sequences, are visually stunning, and some moments of sadness or awkwardness play louder and more clearly in a printed format than they do on your computer screen. Most of the book’s strips are split up over several pages to allow the artwork to breath a little bit, rather than trying to cram some of his massively long strips on to a page or two. This was also to allow the story to flow continuously, which mostly works. There are a few pages that still feel like “strips,” but for the most part you’d never notice that this wasn’t a completely original graphic novel.
The Great Outdoor Fight is a tremendous primer to one of the most consistently funny web-comics out there. Onstad is a master storyteller, and Fight is a wonderful showcase of everything that makes him great. Now if only he’d put out more than one strip a month…
TL;DR: The Great Outdoor Fight is a stand-alone story from Chris Onstad’s Achewood that plays like Battle Royale but with cats. It’s funny, violent, and incredibly well written.
The Great Outdoor Fight is a story from the webcomic Achewood, written and illustrated by Chris Onstad. Onstad self-published many volumes, but this one is from Dark Horse. Ask for it at your local comic book shop or, support Spandexless by buying it from our Amazon web store.
Brandon Beck is a writer/director/improviser living in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently working towards an MFA in TV Writing/Producing at the TV Writer’s Studio at Long Island University with the hopes of one day bending the entertainment industry to his nefarious will. He is more than happy to talk to you about Phish. You can see inside his mind by finding him on Tumblr or following him at @hellyesbrandon.