NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008

Lynda Barry

[CARTOONIST]

“SOMEHOW PEOPLE STARTED TO ACTUALLY START TO LIKE IT, ONCE THEY UNDERSTOOD THAT I WASN’T MAKING FUN OF THE SITUATION, BUT THAT A COMIC STRIP COULD CONTAIN SOMETHING SAD, LIKE A SONG.”
Mutating labels for Barry’s work:
Underground
Punk
New wave
Alternative
Art

One of America’s seriously multitalented artists, Lynda Barry is the author of sixteen books. These include Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies!: Coloring Book (1984), which offers black line-art of a deck of cards’ worth of women, with a narrative about Playboy and boners scrolling through its fifty-four pages; comics collections such as Girls and Boys (1981), Down the Street (1988), Come Over, Come Over (1990), and It’s So Magic (1994); and two novels: The Good Times Are Killing Me (1988), a story of interracial friendship that became a successful off-Broadway play, and the gory, darkly hilarious Cruddy (1999) (which the New York Times called “a work of terrible beauty”). The Greatest of Marlys!—a “best of” comics volume—appeared in 2000, featuring Barry’s most beloved character, a smart, spotty, bespectacled child. This was followed by the genre- and form-bending One Hundred Demons (2002)—an experimental autobiography in gorgeous color, which loops through Barry’s life in comics frames and meditates on themes in thickly layered collages made from everyday materials such as stamps, paper bags, and pieces of old pajamas. Barry’s latest taxonomy-defying work, What It Is—based on a writing course she teaches about memory and images, “Writing the Unthinkable”—appeared this year courtesy of the comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, which is set to reissue five out-of-print titles from her backlist. This year, her nationally syndicated comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek celebrates its thirtieth year of existence.

Barry is the editor of The Best American Comics 2008, and she is working on two projects: a third novel, and The Nearsighted Monkey, a collaboration with her prairie-restorationist husband, Kevin Kawula. The two live on a farm in Wisconsin. (“We’re almost off the grid. We’re like hard-core hippies. We heat with wood and cook with wood and bake our own bread and grow our own food.”) The titular character is, she explains, an alter ego of herself: “She comes over and it’s like she’s the kind of guest who comes a day early. When you come home from work she’s wearing your clothes. She has no hesitation in drinking all your booze, but at the same time you kind of like her.”

I took Lynda’s “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop in the summer of 2007. Almost a year later, in early June 2008, I interviewed her over two weekend days in New York City. For the first—the morning after we’d both attended the Post Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang! symposium at NYU, where Lynda was the headliner—we met at Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW Books & Graphix office in SoHo. For the second, Lynda and I drank beer and ate eggs Benedict at 10 a.m. at M&G bar in the Village, where she humored me by graciously watching the French Open on television as a warm-up to talking.

—Hillary Chute

*

LYNDA BARRY: We did have critiques [in Marilyn Frasca’s “Images” class], but the critiques were that you’d come and they’d put the work on the wall. We just had to sit and look at it.

THE BELIEVER: And not say anything?

LB: Didn’t say anything, and so what you did was you learned to look. And so this idea that the work happens anyway was this revelation. I studied with her for that one year in “Images,” and then the next year I had an individual contract with Marilyn, and just studied with her. I did start making comic strips mostly to make my friend Connie laugh, but I knew very much about R. Crumb. I was crazy about R. Crumb when I was in junior high school. I was in seventh grade when I found my first Zap, but I think I had a completely different experience than a lot of guys did, because the drawings of the sex stuff with the ladies really scared the hell out of me. I copied and copied and copied and copied and copied and then I would try to find those collections, but if S. Clay Wilson or those guys were in it, they would totally freak me out, because I was looking for, like, the kids’ version, you know?

When I saw Zap I got that upsetness, that scrambled feeling, but Crumb had this thing. It was a comic strip called Meatball, and it was just one of his silly comic strips, but it would have little details. You know, there was this regular story going on, but in the background I remember he had this store and there was stuff for sale and there was a little tiny sign and it said, men from mars 25 cents or something. I remember looking at it, and I had always liked comics and I had always copied them, and I realized you could draw anything. What R. Crumb gave me was this feeling that you could draw anything. But it was really hard-core because the sex stuff was very frightening. When I look at Crumb… Well, let’s just turn to Cruddy, my second novel. Cruddy has murder galore. It’s, like, you know, it’s murder fiesta, and lots of knives and killing

BLVR: It’s great.

LB: So does that mean that I’m a person who thinks about murder? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do think about murder constantly. Actually, when I’m talking to people who are driving me crazy, I often imagine they have an ax in their forehead while they’re talking to me. I know that that’s my personal relationship with murder and knives and blood. It doesn’t mean that I need to go do that.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Hillary Chute is a Junior Fellow in literature at the Harvard Society of Fellows. She is currently working with Art Spiegelman on his book project MetaMaus, and her study of contemporary women cartoonists is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.


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