To love the work of an artist or writer you believe has not received due recognition is its own special hell. You’re doomed to an infinite loop of recitation as you eternally rattle off X’s accomplishments and chant reminders of the existence of X. For me, X = Lynda Barry.
While many will register recognition of Barry’s name and some will even mutter a yeah, she’s great, few seem to fully grasp her genius and realize that before comics were cool and women could fancy themselves cartoonists, a young Lynda was spending her Sundays on Seattle’s Beacon Hill copying the images of Snoopy and Nancy from the funny pages. Even here in her home state, she’s not given the full heft of the credit she’s due. It seems to be forgotten that not only did Lynda grow up right here in Seattle, but she spent four mossy coming-into-herself-as-an-artist years at Evergreen.
In fact, it was at Evergreen State College that Barry’s drawing went from a pastime to a compulsion. After a rough breakup, she started drawing strips in which “the men were cactuses and the women were women, and the cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was at Evergreen where an editor of the school’s Cooper Point Journal named Matt Groening (Yep, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening) hounded Barry to give him a strip to print, and thus began a lifelong friendship and Barry’s first published strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek.
Yet, Barry does not seem to share my interest in elevating her literary status. Her own focus over the last decade has been on investigating the nature of creative blocks and helping others to regain the creative habits of childhood. Barry has taught an intensive undergraduate class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the last few years and has been a perennial instructor at the Omega Institute for several summers running, teaching image-based writing classes that rest on the assumption that everyone can write. Barry’s 2010 book Syllabus documents Barry’s intensive and sometimes chaotic teaching style, one that appears to demand as much from the students as Barry seems to ask of herself. Reading the furiously packed pages of Syllabus, we learn that, among other requirements, her Madison students must fill several composition books in a semester with daily sketches and are strictly forbidden from phone checking during class or even during class breaks.
The logic behind Barry’s immersive pedagogical style likely originates in her belief in the elixir of creativity. “I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living,” Barry said in a 2010 interview.
This theme that creativity renders life livable is a strand that runs through her work as does her interest in wrangling with art’s deeper questions. Her popular 2008 book What It Is returns to the obsessive questioning of the nature and power of the image that haunted Barry in her student days as at Evergreen. In What It Is, Barry documents her deep desire to recapture “the floating feeling” drawing offered before the adult “two questions” of “Is this good?” and “Does it suck?” supplanted the joy of goalless creativity. Urging adults to return to the youthful pastime of drawing, Barry’s 2010 book, Picture This, is organized around her attempts to answer the question, “What makes us stop drawing?”
Barry’s nearly 40 years of publication include over a dozen books, a handful of greatest hits collections, and bylines in numerous mags and online sites, ranging from the slick and self-satisfied (Esquire) to the alt weekly to the early promising days of Salon when Salon was still the voice-driven precursor to The Rumpus. It was on Salon that Barry began a serialized coming-of-shame story, “One Hundred Demons,” which would later become the 2002 eponymously titled book of Crayola-bright drawings on yellow composition paper.
One! Hundred! Demons! opens with a self-portrait of the author at her drawing table facing her “demon,” a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and that horrific scenery-chewing creature from A Little Shop of Horrors. On the adjacent page—typical to the binary philosophical questions that underpin much of Barry’s seemingly simple stories—the author asks herself two questions she wisely never answers: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” The rest of the introduction shows Barry discovering a painting exercise done by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th Century Japan that gives Barry’s book its conceit. She will face her demons, and she promises to take us along for the ride. I’m in.
Her demons are a catalog of exquisite coming-of-age shame tales that take place mostly in Barry’s Seattle’s Beacon Hill childhood and adolescence. Despite Barry’s early announcement of a fictional strand in the stories, I’ve rarely read stories of growing up female in the 70s that capture that gritty reality so well. Barry is the master of the specific detail that convinces: The Jungle Gardenia perfume, the hitchhiking in halter tops, The Loving Spoonful, the frozen chicken pot pies, the beaded earring selling hippies, and the younger friend you ditched when you hit middle school.
From the first story, “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend,” Barry drops you into her very specific world without explanation, knowing you’re smart enough to figure out your way without a map. On the first page, we see Barry’s Filipina grandmother giving orders in a mix of Tagalog and English to a young redheaded Barry, who is on the next page discussing the mechanics of “cooties” with a mix of black and white kids on the school playground. Turn the page and we are in the Philippines, visiting relatives and listening to an argument among the local kids on whether head lice change color with the race of their victims. A few pages later Barry flashes us forward into a relationship with a pompous ponytailed boyfriend and reader of the Lonely Genius Gazette who calls her “little Ghetto Girl.” In the final frames, elementary school art teacher Lynda has passed lice onto her ponytailed boyfriend. In his irritation with her as they stand face to face with their heads covered with lice shampoo and shower caps, we feel this primal shame of bug infestations and spending our time with people who don’t love us and how truly alike those two experiences are.
There is no brutal reality of female coming-of-age that Barry isn’t willing to wrestle in these pages: The random makeout sessions, the childhood molestation, and the adult expectation of resilience that really must translate into shame that goes underground and emerges in some random makeout session you’re not sure how you got yourself into (but maybe it has something to do with that wine stolen from the neighborhood synagogue). Yet, going through these 100 demons with Barry doesn’t feel brutal. It feels reassuring. It feels like being seen with all your broken parts and messiness.
It feels like genius.
Lynda Barry’s Tumblr blog: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/