Thursday, September 30, 2010

A feminist reading of Achewood, part one: disability and Roast Beef

Ray Smuckles of Achewood by Chris Onstad jumps over a wheelchair with a ball and chain attached, saying "DAAAAAAMN!". He has a martini. From this strip.
I’ve been reading Achewood since late 2006, and it’s one of my favorite distractions - I can spends days in the archives, re-reading my favorite arcs. It’s weird, literate, layered, moving, dark and hilarious. One of its central figures, Roast Beef, experiences depression which often enough to limit his ability. Cartoonist Chris Onstad’s handling of disability and its intersection with poverty is nuanced and funny. But Onstad otherwise ignores or sneers at disability and accessibility, befitting the comic's scoffing tone in matters of social justice.

Roast Beef’s depression is a major theme of his character and the strip. At the outset of his appearance in the Achewood universe, he expresses the wish to commit suicide repeatedly, though he has not mentioned past his first year in the strip. His actions and words (in a distinctive smaller font) are often explicitly steered by his low opinion of himself; depression is a simple fact of him. While sadness is a constant in his his characterization, the portrayal of his disability is far from static: his emotions are fluid, dependent on context, an advantage at time and a palpable pain at others. He is quite competent at computer programming (link to molly heaven) and garage sale management, and uses his depression to great effect in a business venture. It is something he combats and works with regularly. Roast Beef is often, as Dorian might put it, "depressed but otherwise fine."

Punchlines are subjective in Achewood - many things could be funny, innocuous, offensive, or just peculiar to each reader. And Onstad incorporates disability into humor without making Roast Beef in an amorphous punchline. His disability is there, neither definitively tragic or definitively a punchline. Beef's most serious challenges come and go and come; seasonal affective disorder is a source of melancholy when Beef struggles to eat, and, when he finds effective management, comedy and sexuality. (Beef is also just about the only character with a consistently healthy sex life, which is pretty transgressive). There is little shame in Onstad's depiction of Roast Beef, who is in many ways the moral center of the strip. His depression is not a plot device but a facet of his character, present even when not crucial.

Furthermore, Onstad takes care to show how Beef's disability has intersected with his lack of class privilege and history of abuse to amplify his poor opinion of himself. Roast Beef was raised in a low-income household with an abusive mother and grandmother. His background is usually presented in a fairly tragic light - while Achewood makes jokes about most things in life, its treatment of Beef's upbringing is fairly serious, even heavy-handed at times. His lifelong friendship with overprivileged Ray often throws this into sharp relief: Ray's upbringing has led to a lifetime of continuing wealth and overconfidence, whereas Beef has continued to struggle with poverty and feelings of worthlessness. It is clear that Beef's troubles are directly related to a lack of privilege, though I don't think that the connection to systematic oppression is articulated, and Onstad's association between class and happiness is quite problematic. However, the intersection is generally well-thought-out and sensitively handled - especially in comparison with the rest of the strip.

Unfortunately, beyond Beef's disabilities Onstad either ignores or makes a point of mocking disability and accessibility. Physical disability is mostly ignored, except for a few one-off jokes (one which juztaposes disability and dancing as if they never go together). But the most direct depiction of disability besides Beef comes in this horrible little comic, titled "Handicap Access" (transcript here). In the comic, Roast Beef and Ray, wearing tuxes, address the lack of accessibility in the comic. They then jump over wheelchairs and wheelchair ramps, and make fun of braille (which is conflated with Morse code), transcripts, captions, and speech output.*

This comic is intended to offend, satirizing not ableist resistance to accessibility but requests that websites become accessible. There are several points at which disability is presented as a joke: wheelchairs, wheelchair ramps, braille, captions are all presented as ridiculous requests. The wheelchair even has a ball and chain on it. Satire is a staple of Achewood, but it's more often expressed through silliness, e.g. Roomba Cinema. "Handicap Access" is supposed to be satire along the lines of the Fuck You Friday - abrasive and mean. But Fuck You Friday makes fun of the little frustrations of life - things like upselling at fast food joints, not major issues that impact health, mobility, and livelihood. Disability issues are presented as trivial and not worth serious consideration; in this installment, accessibility is a concept considered only long enough to be scoffed at. Achewood is not a political strip, and as I said, it takes many things lightly. But devoting a whole strip directly to mocking the concept's worth is mean-spirited and, well, ableist.**

Achewood is not a strip that is concerned with social justice; it looks at the world with a darkly comic and often flippant eye. The strip's attitude towards issues to social justice is not friendly, as evidenced by "Handicap Access" and the whining, selfish, self-righteous Pat. Onstad has written a multifaceted and worthwhile depiction of disability in the central character of Roast Beef. But his sneering attitude reminds the reader that Achewood is not a strip that gives a shit about equity, social action, or really any points of view that threatens the kyriarchy.

Check back soon for more Pat-esque analysis of gender and race in Achewood.

*Ironically, Achewood is actually more accessible than the much friendlier Questionable Content - every single script has been transcribed.
**A qualifier: This was back in 2005, when strips were posted several times a week and have a lot less weight than they do now. I am probably being a little hyperbolic about the weight of this strip in determining Onstad's attitude.


  1. Have you ever read BLOOM COUNTY, a comic strip by Berke Breathed from the 1980s? I think you'll find it more to your liking with regard to social issues. Breathed tackled issues such as homophobia, disabilities, animal testing, and poverty in ways that were groundbreaking for his day.

  2. Ahab, I've perused Bloom County, but I haven't done an intense reading of it for a while. I'll have to revisit it. Do you know of any good pay or free newspaper comic archives?

    Doonesbury was fantastic when I read its first 25 years a couple of years, but I was a far duller feminist then.

  3. Check out GoComics.

  4. This is DEEPLY tangential, but you mention about transcription wrt access in regards to Questionable Content vs. Achewood.

    It made me think about access in terms of web comics, so pardon the derail a little bit. I can't recall if this came up when you were talking about xkcd, but what about strips such as xkcd or A Softer World in which the alt text serves as an extra punch line rather than a description? I don't know if Achewood ever uses that device (my AW-reading bff tells me it does - she may comment here more OT later) -- but it's definitely prohibitive to readers who need a screen reader to enjoy their comics.

    Not only prohibitive, but self-defeating, actually, because without context or image, the punchline is at best ruining the joke and at worst just a total non sequitur. (Previously mentioned bff wondered if Achewood/other transcripts also transcribe the alt text in these cases.)

    Anyway, this is very off topic except, of course, in terms of disability being overlooked in the realm of web comics.

  5. Faye, I hope your friend will comment!

    Interesting point about the alt texts. Achewood is very much about the alt texts, so that's quite relevant. The transcrips do include them, though.

  6. I agree with this, and as much as I love Achewood, have found it problematic around social justice topics on an ongoing basis. It's a rich, baffling little strip that sometimes manages to almost get it, even around gender issues, which are typically one of the last things it's "okay" to be a creep about--but then it'll slide right back into spitefulness just as quick.

    Roast Beef's depression always seemed pretty accurately portrayed, though, and that really impressed me. There's been many a time when I found real solace in reading about his adventures, if nothing else because it was so unusual to see someone like me represented sensitively in popular media.

  7. wow. really interesting, well-thought out critique. thanks for writing/sharing it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin