City Paper is not for tourists
Bryan Stone has a thing for anthropomorphic vegetables. It started with a notebook doodle here and there: a talking tomato, a mouthy piece of broccoli. During the two years he spent at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, his fascination evolved into a single recurring sketch: a man with an onion for a head, aptly named Onion Head.
I called Stone yesterday to find out how Onion Head is doing. It’s one of several comics featured in Bash!, the District’s new “monthly comic alternative,” which launched its first issue in August and published a second issue last week.
You can read more about Stone’s love for talking vegetables after the jump.
Stone drew the first Onion Head strip, entitled “No Pets Allowed,” as part of his MFA thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies. The story reads in the initial panels like a boys-on-the-town sitcom, or even a lighter version of Fight Club or Apathy and Other Small Victories. Onion Head is an under-achieving 20-something who works at an electronics store with his best friend and roommate, Woody. In the first story, Onion Head tries to hide his pet cat from the landlord only to have the cat escape through an open window. Onion Head catches the cat, but it claws its way out of his arms in pursuit of a bird. Before he can recapture the cat, it runs out onto the highway where it meets its end. The strip closes with Onion Head standing over the cat’s grave and apologizing.
That might sound like a sentimental ending, but the effect is exactly the opposite. Sentimentality is ultimately supposed to make you feel good, even if it makes you feel sad first. But Stone avoided the Family Circus-esque “Billy misses his kitty” tone, and in turn wrote an ending that was neither funny nor hopeful. Instead, the reader feels just plain bad; bad that the cat died and bad that Onion Head is such a care-free and arrogant jerk. Black and white ink work set the strip’s dour tone, and plain minimalist dialogue suggests that Onion Head’s post-adolescent hang-ups will hurt more than just a cat in future stories.
Stone emailed me another copy of an early Onion Head strip, entitled “$20,” with this disclaimer: “At first Onion Head was much more of a defined onion because when I first started drawing him I was really attached to the idea.”
Sure enough, the original Onion Head is a strange character, stranger than a half-man, half-onion character necessarily has to be. In the first panel, his head is wider than it is long, and comes to rounded points where ears would be. His facial expressions are dirty-not perverse, but more like his head is fresh-picked, farm-grown, organic. And of course, there’s the stalk protruding from the top of the character’s head-which, oddly enough, isn’t all that strange to the other characters in the strip.
“There’s no reference to Onion Head being an onion, other than his name. He’s raceless, too, because my goal was to create a sort of racially neutral space with him” Stone said.
Oh, and Onion Head isn’t a cannibal. “When he orders burgers and pizza he orders them without onions.”
And before all the comic nerds take up arms in opposition to Onion Head’s assigned genre, just know that it’s ok to call it a comic strip, instead of, say, the “first installment of a graphic novel,” or a “comic book.” Stone says that while it’s “kind of weird” to put Onion Head in the same category as three-panel newspaper comics, he also admits, “I call it a strip when I talk about it.”
Despite its categorization, Onion Head is closer to R. Crumb than Charles Schultz. At some points, the strip offers a disturbing satire of our generation’s issues with responsibility and independence. At other times, Stone appeals to our sympathies in scenes that serve to remind us that Onion Head and Woody are a lot like young people in real life, escaping into movies, mismanaging their money, and wandering around the neighborhood looking for something that will hold their attention.
Stone says his focus in Onion Head is finding the balance in Woody’s and Onion Head’s dichotomous relationship. “Onion Head comes to the worst conclusions and Woody is always the clean-up guy…they’re two halves of the same person,” Stone says.
The two are what the Odd Couple would have been like if Matthau and Lemon had attended suburban public schools and started smoking pot before they hit puberty. Onion Head is the guy with all the hair-brained money making schemes; the guy who drives his DVD collection to a pawnshop with the expectation of getting top dollar, only to settle for a twenty. Woody is the guy who works too hard to make up for the fact that he’s underemployed; the guy who would’ve told Onion Head he was an idiot if only he’d known what Onion Head was up to.
The new issue of BASH! sees Onion Head and Woody fretting over attending their high school reunion. Onion Head is embarrassed that he’s almost 30 years old and still working in an electronics store. It’s a story that every ladder-climbing code monkey can relate to, especially Stone, whose own high school reunion is in October.
“I don’t know if I’ll actually have them go to the reunion. My reunion is in October, and I was thinking of that when I wrote the story, but I’m missing it to visit Baltimore, and BASH! asks its cartoonists to write self-contained stories for each issue, so I don’t know if they’ll go.”
And about that Bash! policy against writing a story arc across issues? Stone says it’s a good thing. What would drive most cartoonists crazy is helping him refine his technique: “Through the limited space I’m learning how to tell a story and a good story.”
Stone hopes to create an anthology for the strip once Bash! publishes some more installments. Onion Head has already been anthologized with other strips in the Sundays Anthology, which is published by Jeff Lok, Alex Kim, Chuck McBuck, Sean Ford, Joseph Lambert, and Stone—all CCS alumni; as well as in Secrets and Lies. And He’s hoping that the wider exposure Onion Head is receiving in Bash! will catch the attention of someone at Best American Comics or Best American Nonrequired Reading.
But becoming a wildly famous cartoonist like his heroes Stan Sakai (creator of Usagi Yojimbo) and Seth (Gregory Gallant, creator of the graphic novel Clyde Fans, a copy of which Stone keeps near his workspace) are what Stone humbly calls his “long term goals.” For right now, Stone says he’s focused on “Onion Head and getting my chops where they need to be.”