There is a quality that certain historic figures are said to share, a nearly indescribable feeling—not that these figures embody, but that they bring out in whoever they meet. The quality has been called intense charm, and magnetism, but these are both insufficient. Former president Bill Clinton is said to possess it. Mu Sochua, the Cambodian women’s rights leader, does as well. Successful cult leaders, I assume, get by on it almost exclusively. An ex-boyfriend once told me that Ann Magnuson, actor and frontwoman of Bongwater, was the same. “She’s one of those people that, when you meet them, you want to marry them, immediately, and devote your whole life to making them happy,” he told me. I didn’t understand what he meant until I met Lynda Barry.
Lynda Barry’s personality fills whatever room she inhabits, certainly. Her loud bray and homey vocabulary command attention, and her signature red hair tie spark a connection to her comics work that is both aesthetic and emotional. She is disarming, on purpose. Her personality redefines the roles others play in the conversation, the situation. Whatever it is. Men who might otherwise pontificate listen. Girls who might titter instead ask questions. The very young are enraptured. It doesn’t matter what their days were like before, their lives. Lynda Barry is in the room with them now so everything from this moment on will be amazing.
The possession of this indescribable quality—the ability to inspire devotion, respect, and even love with little more than your presence—helps make Lynda Barry an excellent teacher, as anyone who’s taken her writing workshop can tell you. It could have made her a political leader. (It may still, when her in-progress project on the destructiveness of wind turbines is released.) But most impactful so far has been her work in comics. In a few lines or brushstrokes, Lynda Barry somehow manages to convey both love and a deeply personal understanding of its absence.
First published in the mid-1970’s, Barry began serializing her comics in the Chicago Reader in the late 1980’s. Her early frenetic linework secured her a place in the New Wave canon of cartoonists, an avant-garde if smallish group who pushed storylines out of the 1970’s navel-gazing underground and into new territories: space, youth culture, post-apocalyptic landscapes. Ernie Pook’s Comeek portrayed the most dysfunctional of dysfunctional families: their apocalypse was internal, and Barry made you feel it.
I found this work in the early 1990’s, and learned to appreciate what comics could be because of it. By then, mainstream newspaper comics had developed a set repertoire of happy family stories. But as I learned from Lynda Barry, comics didn’t have to be prettily rendered, meaningful images of teen relationships, or romping kitties and puppies sharing clever repartee. They could also be raw, painful, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. It took me some years to get used to. But for a girl just getting into punk in the 1990s, this lesson was profound, and I continue to live by it.
Then about ten years ago, Barry—now 56, happily married, and living on a farm in Wisconsin—started drawing a cute, happy, nearsighted monkey. At first I was despondent. Had the artist I was devoted to, respected, even loved, sold me out? When I had the opportunity to interview her for a to-be-released documentary for the Video Data Bank in Chicago, I asked her about it immediately. What follows are her candid responses to questions about economic precarity, racial and ethnic identity, the potential of creative expression, and finding love where you don’t expect it to be.
The Rumpus: When I first saw the monkey, Lynda—and to some degree this goes for the recent books that feature him, too, What It Is and Picture This—I was not OK about the change to your drawing style. I may have been resentful. Learning to appreciate your earlier work was fundamental to my formation as a person, and the monkey was such a drastic turn away from that approach to image-making. I felt like, “I did all this work to get here!”
Lynda Barry: [Barry laughs, catching the gist immediately.] And now I have to look a monkey?
Rumpus: Cute animals? No explanation? No apologies?
Barry: [Laughter.] You’re actually sort of describing my experience with what happened after all the catastrophes [that started with September 11]. All I could do was draw cute animals. I had the same experience, like: “No, no, no no no, nooo nooo! I did not work 50 years to end up drawing monkeys!” But yeah—I did, actually.
Rumpus: What happened after September 11?
Barry: The horrible decision to go to war, and then Katrina, and we really saw what the administration was made of. Then, right around that time, I started to have friends that died. A cluster of friends; I probably lost around five people. It got to the point where I couldn’t do anything, except I had this weird compulsion to draw cute animals. Like cute. I mean, I’ve never been about cute, I’m [she adopts a deep voice] “Lynda’s feminine … kind of.” And here I was drawing dancing dogs with tiaras and, like, little buns and what the? Little ducks wearing hula leis, but it was all I wanted to draw! I was very confused by this urge. I drew this monkey, this meditating monkey. I first drew it in an airport because I was on my way to this funeral and I was crying, drawing this monkey. I drew the monkey and I just felt time shifting. It didn’t fix anything, but it made those five seconds or ten seconds that it took to draw that monkey more bearable.
So I drew it again, and I drew it again, and I drew it again, and then I thought, “Aw, I’ll do a hundred,” and when I drew a hundred, it wasn’t enough. Then I thought, “Aw, I’ll draw a thousand,” and still not enough. So I’m still drawing that monkey. In Picture This, I’m trying to give that option to somebody where, if they don’t know what to draw, but they know how to do the alphabet—because the monkey is basically an upside down “U” and an “O” on its side, and then the letter “C” with a “C” inside of it—I just do it all like the alphabet, like we all know how to make. The eyes are little parenthesis this way, two periods and a parenthesis, and you have your monkey.
It’s almost like a meditation, but it’s something more than that. What it did was, it allowed me to stand being around for another minute, and then another minute, and then another minute.
Then I got really interested in what this could be for people, especially ones that have been talked into the idea that, you know, it’s too late for them. We start hearing that early! You hear, “Oh, if you want to play the piano you have to start at four.”
Rumpus: “If you wanted to dance the ballet you should have thought of that by two.”
Barry: It’s like you’re washed up by twelve! I’m really excited about the possibility of being able to open that up a little.
Rumpus: You started cartooning pretty early.
Barry: I was just one of those lucky people at the right place at the right time when alternative papers started to appear. Chicago has a fantastic tradition of the Reader. Well, it had.… It’s like R.I.P., right? Rest in Peace.
Rumpus: Yeah, print. Lived a good life.
Barry: Yeah. So about that time, there were little papers springing up everywhere, and it was before the Internet, but they all would send each other copies and they all belonged to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies [now the Association of Alternative Newsmedia], so people would see the strip and ask if they could include it, so I had this job that built itself.
I also had a tradition from working with my teacher, Marilyn, of working very hard and working in series. We had to do ten finished paintings a week, for two years, and we had to write five pages a day. I just got used to working really hard and in series. So this idea of a weekly deadline, for the longest time, was nothing but heaven to me because it wasn’t just a weekly deadline but it was also a space limitation as well. When you have that, a time limitation and a space limitation, it’s sort of like for fire, what do you need? You need fuel, air, and combustion? That’s what it was.
That job lasted for quite awhile. My strip ran for 30 years. And then the job was gone.
Rumpus: Because the newspapers were gone?
Barry: Because the newspapers were gone. When I stopped the strip I wondered what was going to happen with my characters. I was used to seeing them every week. Then I realized, especially when I was working on Picture This, that they were free. They were free of the four little boxes. They were free of the requirement of being high-contrast, black and white with no greys. They were free of the increasing nervousness that began to happen as the alternative papers were being bought up, and becoming more corporate. There was a lot of nervousness then about a sad comic strip. There was a period where I could write about the saddest stuff in the world and at first—because the set up is so firmly entrenched in people’s minds of “Set up, set up, punch line”—people would write outraged letters: “THERE IS NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT CHILD ABUSE! NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT ALCOHOLISM! And I would respond, “This isn’t a funny strip. It’s not funny”.
When I quit my strip, it was really wild. You’d think after 30 years there’d be something … like, you lose a tooth and you get another one? Like maybe I’d get two?
Rumpus: Or someone brings you a cake that day?
Barry: But, no. There wasn’t any big deal.
Rumpus: It’s hard to believe that was just the end of it. When was the first strip published? There are stories that Matt Groening secretly ran one…
Barry: Oh! That would have been in the 1975 or ‘76. In college. My best friend Matt. Well, he’s a dear friend now, but in college he was mainly somebody I liked to torment, and he tormented me back. Matt was the editor of the paper in Olympia, and then I had another friend who was the editor of the University of Washington daily in Seattle, and so I was sending them both my little drawings, mostly made to freak them out. They were both guys, they didn’t believe in astrology, they have the same birthday, they hate hippies, they are endlessly attracted to hippies. Matt was at this hippie school, he—what was amazing about him, he wore shirts with buttons, he had hard shoes, he looked like this straight dude. So I had these two friends who had these parallel lives. Matt was drawing too, back then. But he did a thing in the paper where he made an announcement when he became editor, and said “I will print anything that anyone submits.” I didn’t know him, but I really liked that challenge. So I sent lots of letters to the editor about, you know, outraged events that happened, not even to me, just made up. Then I would make comic strips and I’d think, “There’s no way he’s going to print this,” but he would.
Rumpus: Tell me about one.
Barry: A typical strip that I would have given him would be a dad, who’s reading the newspaper, and a little girl. The caption is, he’s reading the newspaper and not really looking at her, and he goes, “That’s nice, what else did you learn in school today?” And she’s chopped off all of her limbs. [Laughs.] And he goes, “That’s nice.”
Then I had this series—I’ve always been boy crazy like, crazy-crazy—so I had a series that was based on these giant cactuses that were trying to get women to sleep with them, and the women were like, “I think I could make this work.” [Laughs.] I was a punk rocker too, I was very heavily into punk. I smoked a lot and I didn’t eat, so I did all these comics that were about that, about these guys that were cactuses. In fact, that’s how I got my first non-college paper job: I had done this series, they called them “Spinal Comics.” People really liked them. The cactuses spoke strangely. They didn’t speak regular English. They had this strange way of talking and they always had these cigarettes, and these women would always just think, “You know maybe … maybe this time.”
When I got out of school and I moved to Seattle there was this little weekly paper called The Seattle Sun. It was just a few blocks from my studio. It was in a funky old house like all these things were. All the alternative papers were shoestring. I went there and said, “I have some comics and I want to show them to somebody.” And somebody said, “The editor, she’s not here, but put them on her desk.” So I did, and I got back and my phone was ringing and it was the editor and she wanted me to come in and talk to her immediately. But she didn’t sound happy. She was this big feminist person who also had a feeling about racial relations. She said, “These are the most racist comics I’ve ever seen.” I’m looking at them going, “What part??” And she thought that I was somehow making fun of Mexicans.
I’m not kidding you! This chick was nuts! She thought they weren’t cactuses, they were Mexicans, and the girls’ problems were about that they were Mexicans. I mean, seriously! So she let me have it. Then as I was leaving, carrying away my comics, there were these feet behind me—a cute guy! And he said, “What was she yelling at you about?” I said, “She hates my comics. She thinks they’re racist!” And he looked at ‘em and started laughing and said, “I run the back page, and I’ll print them.”
He didn’t care about the comics. He hated her—she hated him, he hated her. So he could print these comics to make her head explode, and I think it needed to … that’s how it happened.
I think that happens more often than we expect. You know how fungus is supposed to be the biggest living organism in the world? Like they can be 30 miles long? I think there is something like that in the way human relations work. In the course of somebody’s career it sometimes comes down to two people that hate each other’s guts. Or have a mad crush on each other. I lucked into it and rode it.
Rumpus: You credit “luck” but you’re also willing to pick a certain kind of fight and go into spaces that are not necessarily welcoming to you, and you’re loud and aggressive and demanding but you back it up with talent and awesomeness.
Barry: I think it’s more that I am loud and aggressive. [Laughs.] I tried everything else! I so didn’t want this personality, not at all! I wanted to be very ghostly, shy, pale …
Rumpus: Blonde hair and blue eyes?
Barry: Actually, no. I grew up in a Filipino family and looking like that was not the coolest thing. My cousins were beautiful. I really wanted to be the super shy like really smart quiet person and instead…
My mom is from the Philippines. She’s half American, half Filipino, and so she joined the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], and my Dad was in the Navy so they met in San Diego and then she moved to Wisconsin but couldn’t hack it. This was in the 1950’s and Wisconsin’s pretty white, so it was difficult for her there. Her family, meanwhile, was emigrating to Seattle. We were often going to be with her family. I’d get on a train and go with my mother who speaks English, and by the time we get there [Lynda adapts a heavy Filipino accent] “Come here Lynda, Come here! Come sit by me! Oh you have to try this … I know it smells very bad but it is very, very delicious.”
Finally my Mom said that she couldn’t live in Wisconsin anymore, she wanted to be with her people. And my Dad tried to do that. Filipinos tend to live with extended families, four or five families in the house. It’s a tangle. Once we got there, it’s like, everybody becomes your parent, you know? But my Dad couldn’t hack it. So he went back to Wisconsin. I just grew up in that family.
I never had that feeling about the white girls, the blonde white girls. Because I grew up with these drop-dead beautiful cousins and that’s what I wanted to look like. And I was looking more and more like Alfred. E. Newman everyday!
So I took hula dancing lessons—my teachers were Hawaiian dancers, and very good ones—and I thought “That’s the way I’ll get there!” I took hula lessons twice a week for six years when I was growing up.
Rumpus: Do you still hula dance?
Barry: Sure do. There are some really interesting studies from Hawaii. They studied these kids for 20 years—kids who did the hula and kids who didn’t. Kids who came from troubled back grounds. And the kids who did the hula by far had better outcomes. In everything.
I think that there was something about that rhythm and song in a reliable safe place. There was something about just being there in that environment that repeated over and over and over again for six years that I think had enormous amount to do with me being able to make it out of the circumstance I was in. Because it wasn’t a good circumstance, at all.
Rumpus: It sounds like the experience you’re trying to provide in Picture This.
Barry: One of the things I’ve been really interested in is how we go from everything we call the arts—whether it’s dancing or singing or drawing, all those things that, as a kid, helped me so much—and then at a certain point they turn into “art” and they become less and less helpful, until we start to think that “art” can only happen in a gallery or a museum, or it can only happen if you’re a really good singer.
It was mainly through teaching that I came to understand that this stuff has an absolute biological function, the same function it had when I was little. So I started to get interested in what’s actually going on with the brain when we’re engaged in creative concentration or play. I believe we have something like an external immune system. We have this internal immune system that fights off bacteria and fungus, and comes to the site and prevents infection.
I think that the image world—that’s what I call the “art” now, because “art” is not the quite right word for it, since “art” is a pretty new word, and images have always been around for people—has the same sort of function. But instead of it providing stability for our body, I think it’s for our emotional and mental health. And I think it’s always been with us. The quickest way to explain how people know this is if I was sitting here with a person who is 40 years old, and I had some paper and some paint brushes, and I said “let’s paint!” She’s 40, and she doesn’t want to, she’s freaked out. We all understand that. On the other side, there’s a four-year-old girl. If I say to her, “let’s paint!” and she doesn’t want to, we worry about her. Emotionally.
What the hell’s that? We worry about her emotionally because there is a tacit understanding between being able to do this and being a stable person. So I’m curious as to what happens when we stop doing making images, and I would argue that we never do stop. You’ll see it in people who say, “Oh, I wish I could draw.” And then I’ll say, “If you’re stuck in a boring meeting, and you have a pen, and there’s a piece of paper, don’t you doodle?” And they say, “Yeah.” And I say, “Isn’t there something that you doodle over and over again?” “Yeah, eyeballs.” Or, “I do a little guy,” or “I do stars!” Everybody has their own little thing.
And then I say, “Why do you do it?” It’s very hard to articulate, but I would bet, I’d bet, that if we could do a functional MRI of someone who’s doodling, we’d see a shift in the brain that has to do with how we’re experiencing time. There is something about hand motion that changes our experience of time, even if it’s just a micro shift.
That’s the stuff I started to get really interested in, and I’ve found that it’s something I can talk about with anyone, so I started to see if I could go to these different circumstances and teach this idea. So a week and a half ago I was in this medium security prison in Philadelphia.
Barry: It was awesome. I have a really peculiar absolute sense of comfort in prison. I don’t know why it’s like, “Hey! This is my kind of atmosphere!” [Laughter.]
The cool thing about being a middle-aged woman is that they asked me if I wanted the security guard inside of the room or outside of the room, and I said, “Outside.” And the guard said, “You’ll be locked in, there’ll be no way for you to get out.” And I turned around and there was 21 guys looking at me. There’s something about being a middle-aged woman that just totally… I can rock the Auntie Lynda or grandma thing now. [Impersonating an old woman] “Now, you sit down! I don’t care about those tattoos! You just sit down.” [Laughter.]
I really loved it. These are the people that I would venture to say probably went to public schools, probably went to difficult public schools, and now they’re in prison. Their ability to focus and write these stories was amazing; I mean their stories are.… I think the same thing that can get somebody in prison is the same thing that could make them a really good writer. Impulse control. There’s no, “Is this a bad convenience store to rob?” [Laughter.] “Is this a bad sentence?”
I’ve been trying to teach in every circumstance I can find. I’m really interested in working with elderly people who feel like their memories are gone. It’s like an ocean. You can get lost in the ocean, but you can’t lose the ocean.
Rumpus: I’ve been reading lately about deep play in terms of gambling addicts, who go in way too far and end up losing homes or destroy themselves or get killed, but at the same time I can see how allowing the imaginary to drive the car could be productive.
Barry: Gambling—that’s a really interesting comparison. I’d say gambling is a form of art that’s not working for someone. It’s working in a certain way, in that it brings up all of that hope. That’s what gambling is, this whole thing of, even in the face of knowing this thing is not gonna happen, maintaining an intense hope about something coming through. That’s what’s so interesting about gambling, it is that same thing but it’s not working. I mean, it’s not working if it’s tearing apart your life.
The one thing I can say about images and work with images, if I can put their function into one sentence: it’s the thing that gives you the feeling that life is worth living. Which is step one, I’m not saying it’s really worth living or it’s fantastic. I’m saying it’s also the thing that will keep you from killing yourself and others. So it’s a public service, I think [laughter], to engage in images.
I wanted to do Picture This because in my writing class, when I teach writing, I have my students do two things when they’re listening to other people read: One, I won’t allow them to look at the person reading. And, you have to draw a really tight spiral, the kind of thing we all used to do when we were kids? You know, how close can we get to the line without touching it? I always say, “What you have to concentrate on while this person is reading, is if the line touches, you get electrocuted.” [Laughter.] Everybody wants to do it then! It’s like, “Oh I can’t draw, well I’ll—oh no, ahh! I almost died!” Something happens there where that piece of paper and that spiral has gone from being this thing of whether I’m good or not, to this thing of: “maybe I’ll get electrocuted, maybe I won’t,” while I’m listening to a story.
Which I think exactly mimics what we should be doing with our hands when we’re listening to a story that’s coming from the inside of us. I started to notice that within a few days into the class people were drawing. I mean it went from the spiral to all of this other stuff—they just started to draw. I saw that there was a real basic interest in drawing, even in people that had given up on it. The trick was to find games, like the spiral, or let’s just draw a chicken and cover it with dots. It’s almost like the stuff we got shamed out of. I grew up in the 70’s so there was this idea that coloring books were bad and tracing was bad and …
Rumpus: Feminists … [laughter]
Barry: Hippies, it was a damn good try. But I think that going back to that exact same thing: coloring stuff in, tracing, and then I’m really interested in the Chinese Brush, which is one of the major discoveries of my life time. I wrote Cruddy with a brush and I thought, “I’m going to blow everyone’s mind.” It turns out there’s 3,000 years of Chinese culture to blow my mind.[With Picture This,] I wanted to make something that made people itch to make something themselves, and I wanted to use material that was easy to find, like white glue and paper from the garbage.… With the exception of the Chinese ink, I think everything … you can get it at the grocery store and the office supply store.
Rumpus: You write a lot about finding paper in the garbage and using it.
Barry: I can work on garbage paper, no problem! If someone hands me a really nice piece of paper, it’s not any fun! All I can think about is, “Five dollars, this paper costs five dang dollars…” I think that comes from growing up with no money, you know? Somebody said something once that one’s relationship with money never really changes.
Rumpus: Have you come to a place where you’re more comfortable?[She laughs.] I’m still broke, man! I mean, my attitude hasn’t really changed. My husband and I are both self-employed and there are times when there is just no money. None! You’re sittin’ there goin’, “Ahhhh, where’s the cow?” [Lynda is suddenly distracted by something behind me. There’s nothing behind me but a shelf of books and some geegaws, but she has stopped talking and is staring about six inches above my head as if I am about to be attacked.]
There is a creature behind you. Is it smoking?
Rumpus: Um. [I look, and grab the geegaw to inspect.] Well, there are a bunch of seashells, yes, that are having a smoke.
Barry: They are smoking, right? Ha ha! Everything looks better with a cigarette.
Rumpus: One of the best inventions in Picture This was Don’t brand cigarettes. When did you invent them?
Barry: Maybonne was smoking in one of the comics. She had a cigarette pack and I just called it “Don’t.” Because the ads would be like, “Smoke? Don’t.” Around the time I did the nearsighted monkey, I had found this magazine that was aimed toward elementary school teachers called, the Great Teacher. They came out every month in the 1920’s, probably through the 1960s. I was looking through them and I found that the biggest sponsor for these magazines for teachers was the coal industry. Bituminous Coal. And it was like, “YOU CAN GET FREE POSTERS ABOUT HOW GREAT COAL IS.” The other big sponsor was Asbestos. You could order these canisters of asbestos powder and you could mix them with water and then you could make jewelry for kids and there really are asbestos necklaces, asbestos toys, and you could make them for mom.
So I got really interested in that. Especially in the 1920’s, maybe these people didn’t know about asbestos and coal, but in the 1960’s they surely did. These still were the funders of this magazine. And so I thought that for Picture This it would fun to have a cigarette brand be the sponsor. The cigarette brand is called Don’t. I wanted to piggyback on that idea that people understand that smoking’s bad for you, and as beautiful as it is—I really loved it when I smoked—it really is. No two ways about it. So I wanted to piggy back on that idea that not drawing is also bad for you. Plus, everything looks better with a cigarette. And that’s one of the things I can show people right away: if they can’t draw and I have a sharpie nearby and a magazine I say, “Let’s just put cigarettes on everybody,” and they have a ball.
Rumpus: When did you quit?
Barry: I quit smoking probably in my twenties. I still chew tobacco. I do! And it was funny, on my first date with my husband, we were really hitting it off, and he told me that he chewed tobacco like sheepishly, and I pulled my can of Copenhagen out and I said, “No shit, Sherlock.”
Rumpus: And the rockets went up … [laughter.]
Barry: I know [firework noises]! But he quit chewing and I haven’t yet. I don’t think I ever will because I love it so much. The way I chew tobacco is the Nordic way. It was actually two little Swedish girls that got me hooked. You take a really small amount and you put it up in here. [She points into her mouth.] Also it’s the place where if you’re trying to quit smoking and you use that Nicorette gum they always talk about just putting it up in there. And we don’t have salivatory glands here? So it just sits there quietly and it makes you feel really happy.
The one thing you have to do is be really careful to not smile really big. The first time I met Chris Oliveros, my publisher, it was at the Center for Cartoon Studies. He walked in after I had been taking a break and I had some chew in my mouth. While I was talking to him, it broke and it looked like a thousands ants running across my teeth. I was like, “I know, it’s sorta weird, we just met”, and he was like [she makes an astonished noise]. It’s a very disgusting habit that I’m very proud of.
Rumpus: And still he convinced you to come on board Drawn & Quarterly.
Barry: I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for them. After I did 100 Demons in 2002, I couldn’t find a publisher. Nobody would touch my work. It was over! That’s when I started to sell stuff on eBay. The comic strip market head was gone, and nobody would publish my work. So there’s no place to publish my work—what happens to the work? Nothing. That’s when I felt really—that’s what it’s like being a kid again. Because otherwise I’ll only write a book if I know where it’s supposed to go. Or that it has this place to go. And when I started making the collages for What It Is, I mean, I didn’t know what they were, or what they were going to become.
Rumpus: They are both books that many publishers today would find “risky”.
Barry: Those books would not exist without Drawn & Quarterly. Nobody would have let me do those books, no one, no one, no one. I think that’s still true; I mean even if these books had come out, I still think no one else would let me do them the way they let me do them.
They’re all hand-made. A lot of those pictures have stuff in them that you can’t ever see, like there’s glow in the dark paint in a lot of those paintings. I knew that there’s no way that glow in the dark paint is gonna show up, but.
Rumpus: You can tell there’s some glitter, even if it doesn’t shine.
Barry: There’s glitter, but the glow in the dark stuff…. What’s a gas about that is that after I would work on it all day, I would turn off all of the lights and go back into the house, and this cephalopod would jump out, or these little secret things that only I know about. That made it really fun.