|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.|
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.