One thing I’ve found relaxing in this non-relaxing time is returning to an old favorite: the webcomic Achewood. Part of me doesn’t want to write about it in my usual critical register. This is less because I worry I will tarnish something I’m fond of — I never thought Achewood or its creator, Chris Onstad, was perfect and beyond criticism and would probably like them less if I did — and more because I feel it would be a big job to do it justice. And instead, I can just relax and partake of the subdued absurdist dude’s utopia of the world Onstad made.
That said… I can’t help but do a little self-contained act of historicization. The last Achewood (so far- Onstad has taken long breaks before) was posted on December 25th 2016. Strips appeared inconsistently for most of late 2016. None of them mention Donald Trump, and only allude to the election indirectly with Onstad’s perennial joke of having adorable five-year-old otter Philippe run for President again.
Donald Trump has been referenced in Achewood, however. Using the text search function on the Achewood website (which I know is imperfect- a lot of the later strips, especially, haven’t been transcribed), I found six strips that refer to the man who is now our forty-fifth President.
The first is the strip of January 30th 2004, and it’s found in the alt-text, the little extra joke Onstad fit into the image description of his comics and that you get by hovering your mouse over the strip (not sure how one sees it if they’re viewing on mobile). This strip was part of little Philippe’s first presidential campaign. At the end of a little speech telling his caretaker/housemate Teodor that he will, as President, give every American a puppy named Mr. Poopytime, Philippe makes a hand gesture. The alt text informs us this is the “Donald Trump you’re fired gesture,” popularized by “The Apprentice,” a hit tv show at the time.
The next two — the strips of March 28th 2004 and April 19th 2004 — come from the arc where several of the Achewood crew visit Berlin. In the first one, one of the series’ main characters, impetuous rich cat Ray, has locked himself out of his hotel, is freezing cold, and hasn’t got enough German to buy a coat (in my experience of Berlin, everyone speaks English, but leave that aside). He improvises a suit of clothes — a business suit, complete with tie — out of newspapers. Impressed with himself, he announces he’s “the Donald Trump of homeless people!” and makes the same “you’re fired!” hand gesture Philippe did earlier. This doesn’t save him from being thrown in the trash by the Berlin police. He is stumbled upon by his friends Roast Beef and Teodor in the April 19th strip. Before noticing Ray, Teodor, often the voice of aesthetic disdain in Achewood, announces to Roast Beef, “Donald Trump is a corny douchebag! I’m not afraid to say it.” Ray, hung over on schnapps after his night in the trash, does not challenge this assertion.
The strip of October 1st 2004 is a pastiche meant to celebrate the three-year anniversary of the comic. One of the elements shows Teodor writing his blog. Onstad wrote in-character blogs for a dozen-odd of his characters for years. The last (to date) Achewood strip is an encouragement to read the blogs, which never took off the way the comic did. In the entry Teodor is shown writing, he says that Ray is planning on a “Donald Trump theme” for his weekly Friday party. Teodor, continuing in his disdainful vein from April, speculates that this means that Ray “would fly away in a helicopter while the party went bankrupt.” Achewood did not depict this particular party of Ray’s, if indeed it ever went off.
The June 20th 2005 strip is part of an arc where Teodor entertains becoming a (heterosexual) porn actor. In a previous strip, his “mentor” in the biz, Circus Peanut, sends him unknowing to a gay porn shoot as a joke. Gay porn legend Rod Huggins informs Teodor of what happens in this strip, and Teodor reacts with anger and a little bit of gay-panic paranoia. “I’m not gay Donald Trump, we do these things with style and dignity,” Rod explains when Teodor demands to know why Rod made Teodor a drink and talked with him rather than just telling him to get lost. Teodor does not accept this explanation for Rod’s hospitality and storms off.
Finally, we have the September 13 2006 strip. Here, Ray and his old frenemy Pat are discussing their respective sex lives. Ray reports having been “hella klondike lately-” he is romantically unsuccessful. He relates to an uninterested Pat his efforts to revitalize his love life, all futile. Finally, he declares “If things don’t turn around, I’m gonna get a sex change and a time machine and give myself the kind of science fiction romp that Donald Trump only dares to dream about!” In the alt-text, Onstad jokes “Donald Trump…making love to…female-genitals Donald Trump. The power plant at the center of a perfect universe.”
More than any “take” — Ray’s qualified admiration, Teodor’s distaste — I think that Achewood’s treatment of Trump is interesting for its context. This is an artifact of the period before the forces of American reaction found its way behind Donald Trump, and before Trump became primarily the face of American reaction. That’s not to say Trump was good or blameless at the time- he never was in his adult life and arguably before. He was just a guy on TV a lot as far as relatively apolitical artists/entertainers of the time, like Chris Onstad, were concerned, someone to make aesthetic judgments about, if that. If there’s any rumbling of the future on our doorstep in Achewood, it’s not in the comic’s scattered remarks about Trump.
A lot has changed in a short span of time. There’s more to it, but part of the appeal of Achewood to me in these times is simple nostalgia for the recent past. I think this is a relatively safe form of nostalgia to indulge- it doesn’t come with a fallacious political program attached, like other forms of (liberal) nostalgia. It fits the general mood of the comic that it contains within it little seeds of after-the-fact reminders of another time. The Trump references aren’t the only instance of this. The town itself of Achewood, after which the comic is named, is modeled off of Palo Alto, and while the whole thing does take place under the shadow of the tech industry, in some respects Achewood is a document of the South Bay before the tech industry completely metabolized it. I don’t know the area well, only having spent a bit of time there. I wonder if the Palo Alto that Achewood referenced is as gone completely as the 2006 version of Trump. One part of it is- according to his social media and blog, Chris Onstad doesn’t live there anymore. It appears he has spent the Trump years in… Portland.