Walter Penko produces an indie comic out of his garage in Sylvania, Illinois – it’s called The Onion Psychiatrist. Just as the title states, it’s about an onion that is also a psychiatrist.
The premise of the book is that people come in to talk about their fears, their lives, their phobias – and the onion psychiatrist sits quietly listening. Invariably, just as his patients will start to feel better about their problems, the drifting lines that Penko draws to indicate the odor of the onion psychiatrist will reach the patient’s nose and they will begin tearing up and crying uncontrollably.
The onion psychiatrist only listens, Penko never employs talk bubbles with the character. The silent dialogue from the onion psychiatrist is handled by the swirling odor-lines eminating from his spherical frame. In this way, the onion is a silent observor of life’s happenings, trapped within some self imposed solitary confinement and unable to effectively interact with those people who desperately need him the most.
His patients are shown panel by panel pouring out their souls about life’s tragic circumstances while the onion sits there, quietly, stewing in his own stench. It’s as if this stench is actually a pervading anti-noise that cuts the patients down panel per panel, until they can no longer keep their composure, and in an explosive mess of tears and Kleenex, they let it all go.
Onion Psychiatrist is a tale of life in our time. Detached from the closeness of other humans and retreating further and further into stinky personal hells. The book employs this metaphor as its core theme – the pushing away from society until the stink of it all breaks us down and exposes the fragile souls within the armor we wear day to day. As tears are purged and emotions well to the surface we are all, inevitably, gasping for clean air.
Penko himself is one who has been gasping his entire life – reaching out, but not really knowing how or who to reach to. Comics were never his life’s ambition, and even now as a sort of cult figure in the indie comics world, he seems uneasy with the whole affair. He began Onion Psychiatrist after he was laid off from the computer manufacturing industry (The Intellivision crash of ’83).
He could only find odd jobs to sustain himself and his family (eleven cats, all named Whiskers). He began his comics career after becoming obsessed with the newspaper staple The Family Circus, but also credits Hi and Lois as a huge inspiration. Never into the idea of superheroes, he decided that if he was going to venture into the comics world he’d have to create something real and that spoke to people just like me.
Penko took the plunge, investing in materials and given the luxury of free time to work on the book after a successful appearance on the game show The Price is Right allowed him to win a Showcase Showdown. Selling off his prizes for cash (a new dishwasher, a grandfather clock, and a Chevy Cavalier), …
…he purchased art supplies and began working on what would become Onion Psychiatrist. Disheveled and walking around his house in a dirty bathrobe, he drank nothing but Sanka and obsessively chewed nicotine gum for inspiration.
His compulsions paid off eventually.
Even now with his cult status and his awards he still doesn’t feel he’s arrived. Something seems to still naw at him – as if he’s the subject of his own comic. The book, he admits, has been cathartic for him. He ventures out more, joining a square dancing class recently as well as participating in war re-enactments of the US occupation of Grenada.
“I guess…” as he ends our talk through his locked screen door, “I guess I just haven’t smelt that stank yet – that stinked. You know? I guess I ain’t got a good enough snitched of my own stink, that which comes from my own onion. It ain’t made them teardrops flow.”
As the front door proper closed, I heard the rhythmn of many locks snapping into place and I left there feeling I had learned something about the human condition. I hummed a tune, as I lazily made my way to the next house on the block, still trying to give away all those copies of Watchtower that weighed me down so – but with a little more spring in my step.
* * * * *
I am not the genius that Walter Penko is, and I have never written a comic about Sanka or Onions, but…
Billy Purgatory happens to be the most badass skateboarder and sweet talker any broad can meet–even at the age of ten. He is also the target of supernatural forces he can’t understand, and doesn’t want to.
Billy just can’t seem to avoid all things Monster. Growing up, he encounters Devil Birds, gypsies, Time Zombies and vampires (and not the kind you want to bring home to your Pop, either). He tries to convince himself they’re not real by joining the army, fixes cars and even goes to Vegas. But whenever Billy thinks he’s put it all behind him, a monster shows up, and it’s usually in the form of the beautiful Anastasia…
Billy Purgatory is Jesse James Freeman’s first novel. He’s also studied psychology and film and scripted comics. When he’s not writing books, Jesse James trains falcons to kill Leprechaun Robots, and will continue to do so until the world is relatively safe.