Where’s Chris Onstad? (UPDATED with answer)

On March 16, the administrator of a Facebook fan community called “Achewood: A Momentary Distraction on the Road to the Grave,” posted a terse update, the first time in over a month anything had been written on the page: “The hiatus is hella lame!” A few dozen people chimed in to agree, with comments like “In limbo, thinking about the back of a van” and “oh uh yeah.” To an outsider, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible, which only added to the tragedy: the best humorist in the country has been essentially AWOL for months, and no one has noticed except Internet people.

When Chris Onstad began the online comic strip “Achewood” in the fall of 2001, it was little more than a hastily illustrated collection of private jokes and surreal punch lines, more a project to share with friends and family than something with the potential to become one of the best works of American fiction since the end of the Cold War. Yet that’s exactly what it became over 10 years, as Onstad’s cast of anthropomorphic, frequently drunk animals evolved into characters so rich and dynamic they’d be the envy of any of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” crowd.

Webcomics have a signal-to-noise ratio roughly equivalent to their in-print cousins: a handful of greats, a significant percentage of perfectly good stuff that you forget about immediately after reading it, and a huge amount of work so bad it routinely makes you regret that the hippies smuggled the First Amendment into the Constitution. This was even truer when “Achewood” began, a time when roughly 80 percent of all webcomics were about elves having sex with each other.

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Comic Strip Tropes: The Silent Penultimate Panel

There are few chunks of media real estate more imperiled than space in the print edition of your local newspaper. For over two decades now, the actual physical paper has been shrinking both in page size and number of pages as advertisements and circulation figures drop. As a result, that space has become more precious than ever: fewer stories, fewer photos, fewer graphics mean everyone has to redouble their efforts to justify what they propose to put in between the tire ads. Knowing that, what would you do with a slot in hundreds of newspapers every week? Would you try to cram as much as you can into the shrinking space you occupy, hoping to maximize your limited resource? Or would you regularly devote between a third and a quarter of your alloted space to wordless filler? If you’re like a startling number of American newspaper cartoonists, you already know the answer to this. Behold, the Silent Penultimate Panel:

This phenomenon was first drawn to my attention years ago by a blog, now sadly defunct, dedicated to chronicling its startlingly regular appearance in the comics section of America.

Essentially, the silent penultimate panel functions as a comedic pause for effect in the dialogue of the strip, to further set up a punch line. In a four-panel strip, it works like this: premise, setup, silent panel, punch line. This is done by hack cartoonists and by great ones.

In theory, this is a perfectly valid comedic device, but its sheer regularity suggests a less happy conclusion: the silent penultimate panel is nothing but padding by artists who can’t figure out how to fill even the limited space they’re allotted.

That’s because the silent penultimate panel is often identical, in art, to the panels that surround it, except devoid of any dialogue or narration. It’s the printed version of dead air. In an age of newspaper austerity, it is the ultimate extravagant gesture: “I could put in more words or different art here,” it says, “but instead, I just cut and pasted the image from panel two and took out the dialogue box.”

The silent penultimate panel is an indicator of badly paced jokes. I say “jokes” because the silent penultimate panel never appears in the soap opera strips; because those strips have to advance a narrative (at what is often a glacial-seeming pace, especially in the tedious world of Rex Morgan, M.D.), they can’t afford to waste space on a blank panel that contains no new information.

Gag-a-day strips, though, lean on the silent penultimate panel all the time. The essential structure of a gag-a-day strip is simple: setup followed by punchline. This is so simple that, incredibly, sometimes artists can’t even figure out a way to stretch it to three panels.

There are structural ways to overcome this problem without regular recourse to the silent penultimate panel: “Shoe” has become a two-panel strip, with the setup appearing in the first panel and the punch line following in the second panel. “Mallard Fillmore,” a strip I loathe, has nevertheless accommodated its paucity of narrative direction by becoming a one-panel strip that contains a word balloon or two along with a credibly-executed drawing of a duck watching television. Take a look at the three examples above: all would work just as well with two panels, but for some reason (pride? habit?) they were stretched out to three.

I’m not suggesting some kind of “rule” against the silent penultimate panel. Used sparingly, it’s fine as a placeholder in a larger storyline, and there are times when it can even advance the story or provide information without dialogue in an effective way. A good recent example of this comes to us, not surprisingly, from the bleak mind of Tom Batiuk, who used a silent penultimate panel in “Crankshaft” (the “funny” strip in the “Funky Winkerbean” universe) to establish the “humorous” premise of a week’s worth of strips: an old woman falls on some ice and waits vainly for anyone to rescue her. That Batiuk always cracks me up!

Once you’ve thought about the silent penultimate panel, you start noticing it everywhere. The comics in this entry were taken from a two-week period, and I could have included more. There are, although it may be hard to believe, artists all over the country bursting at the seams with ideas for comic strips, who would vomit in a bag and mail it to their grandparents for a chance at the exposure most of these comics have. It must be profoundly irritating for them to open the paper in the morning and see the haves of the newspaper comic world phone it in so frequently.

(V. Charm)

Acquisitions, week of 2/7

I was belatedly celebrating some overtime this week, but that’s still no excuse. The piles of unread books lining my garret climb ever higher.  Still, here are the books I acquired this week.

W. Branch Johnson, Folktales of Normandy. The Whitefriars Press, London (1929). I got this at a used bookstore in the college town nearby, along with the next three.

Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. Oxford University Press, London (1955).

Ron Goulart, The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips. Adams Publishing, Holbrook, Mass. (1995).

Jack Berrill, Sheesh!: A Gil Thorp Collection. Take 5 Productions, Arlington Heights, Ill. (1991). Purchasing this makes me think I have sailed past some obscure point of no return. What’s next? Mary Worth toaster cozies?

Ben Snakepit, My Life in a Jugular Vein: Three More Years of Snakepit Comics. Microcosm Publishing, Bloomington, Ind. (2007). I got this from Interpunk.com, along with the Cro-Mags’ “Age of Quarrel” LP on red vinyl and an Oi Polloi LP whose title cannot be printed in a family newspaper. The book comes with a CD. I’m the punkest guy in church.

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. AK Press, Oakland (2006). I got this at a leftist bookstore in the same college town, along with the latest copy of The Workers Vanguard newspaper, which is published by Spartacists.

William Kleinknecht, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America. Nation Books, New York (2010). This seemed an appropriate purchase given all the 100th birthday hoopla for Ronnie. I got it at a Borders. Word is that Borders is going to file for bankruptcy protection and announce the closure of at least 200 stores on Monday. This means bad things for writers, readers, and publishers.

(V. Charm)