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The incredible legacy of Lynda Barry

Contributed by
May 17, 2018

Some creators thrive on the spotlight, while some insist on living lives of solitude. Most, however, are an odd admixture of both traits, pushing themselves to interact with others before retiring to days or weeks of quiet introspection.

Lynda Barry might live on a farm away from the city and spend most of her time there, but when you watch interviews with her, her online drawing and writing classes, or even her semi-frequent appearances on David Letterman in the late '80s and early '90s, it's not likely that the word “introvert” would spring to mind. She talks excitedly with her hands, telling personal stories with the irony, sorrow, and joy of it all coming through in every sentence. Likewise, her comics are sometimes sad, sometimes endearing, but always beautiful, relatable tales. For decades, she's been challenging the definitions of “what is art?” and “what are comics?”

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As a teenager, as with many artists, Barry felt out of place. Her home life was often turbulent. She was working a labor job by 16 while still attending high school, drawing strips to amuse her classmates. Her mother and extended family weren't supportive of her desire to go to college, but she ended up attending Evergreen in Olympia. There, for two years, she took classes with Professor Marilyn Frasca, who she references in interviews to this day as being hugely influential on her work ethic, requiring her to make 10 paintings a week and several comic pages on top of that. It was there that she learned techniques that she still uses even now. She discusses some of them in her more recent releases, particularly What It Is.

When asked about how she got her start in comics, Barry always tells the tale of how Simpsons creator Matt Groening became the editor of their college paper in Wisconsin and ran an editorial claiming that he would print anything that anyone sent in. Intrigued by the challenge and attempting to find something he wouldn't print, she submitted strips under the name Ernie Pook, later a character in her comics. Afterward, the explosion of alternative weeklies in the '80s made it easy for her to stay employed. People didn't always understand her comics, and occasionally she would receive complaints that her subject matter wasn't funny or that the bad parenting sometimes shown in them shouldn't be taken lightly by a cartoonist. As the comics were intended to be sad rather than funny, Barry continued undeterred. She ultimately drew new episodes of Ernie Pook's Comeek for 30 years before ending the series.

Through their early careers, Groening and Barry were contemporaries, both working for weeklies. Some would hire one but decline work from the other, so the two would work on each other's editors to get the work published. Groening's comic Life Is Hell inspired Barry, who was doing an ongoing story called Two Sisters at the time. In her collection Blabber Blabber Blabber, Barry mentions that, without warning, she told a Two Sisters story set years in the future where both the sisters had tragically died and suddenly ended the strip, upsetting her audience. She wanted to push the envelope given that she was in competition with her antagonistic college peer Groening—but from the start of her career, it was against her inclinations to placate or talk down to her audience even in slight ways. This would go on to be a trademark of her work.

Many of her comics featured stories about her childhood and being raised in a Filipino family in Seattle after her mother moved away from Wisconsin. In an interview with The Rumpus, Barry said, “This was in the 1950s and Wisconsin’s pretty white, so it was difficult for her there.” In Seattle, she lived with many other family members, but because she was mixed race she felt out of place, wanting to look more like her cousins.

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In 1988, she released an illustrated novel called The Good Times Are Killing Me, which was ultimately adapted into a play that enjoyed 106 performances in an off-Broadway run. The story rotated around two young girls, one white and one black, who harbored a secret friendship with one another only to slowly be torn apart by their families and their peers. Informed by Barry's own childhood experiences, The Good Times Are Killing Me never shies away from the casual, cruel racism of adults and the comparative innocence of children growing up too fast in an unfair world.

Barry published another illustrated novel in 1999 called Cruddy, the story of an outlaw father and his socially detached daughter who stows away in his car when he goes on the run in hopes of escaping her mother and her sister. Later, she accidentally participates in her father's crime spree and even starts one of her own. Cruddy is a masterpiece and signifies an interesting point in Barry's career. The story is deeply tragic, incredibly violent, and yet, somehow, hilarious and even heartwarming. Running the gamut from a coming-of-age story to cautionary tale to horror, the dark subject matter and Barry's deep, often profound understanding of how a child's mind works merged completely to create one of the great underrated novels of the late 20th century.

There was a time after 2002, while alternative weeklies and newspapers were shutting down or cutting pages and staff, when Barry couldn't get her work published and went through all the angst that means for an artist. She discussed growing up poor and how she would sometimes use paper from the trash just to have something to draw on. She spoke in several interviews about the apprehension of using nicer paper, which could easily be ruined by a nervous hand, costing precious cash. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and this resourcefulness was a recurring theme in her work.

More recently, within the last decade or so, Drawn & Quarterly has been publishing beautiful hardcover editions of Barry's work, including Syllabus: Notes From An Accidental Professor, Everything and What It Is, all of which feature a great deal of subject matter and anecdotes from her life as a teacher who is part-guru and part-student herself. She insists that no publisher would have touched the books and that they wouldn't exist without Drawn & Quarterly going to bat for them.

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While it might seem surface-level surprising that Barry ended up teaching workshops after years of work as an artist, venturing anywhere from campuses to prisons, it's where she also worked to understand why people are the way they are, conducting her own investigations into how to help humanity be better, grow, and thrive on creativity. Despite her standard refusal to adopt flowery optimism in either work or speech, Barry often refers to art, especially loosely-defined art, as a life-changing and sometimes life-saving gift in all the pain and confusion one might experience as a person on this planet. It's inspiring to watch someone that believes so strongly in the spirit of creativity; Barry claims it changes our perception of how time passes, citing an anecdote when she sat at an airport in grief and began to doodle. The doodling may not have changed the brutal realism of the situation, but it made her all the more aware of the world shifting around her as she drew.

Barry's exceptionalism is directly linked with her experimentalism. She seems to be better known outside of comics than inside the oft-insular world of creators, and her work is seldom found in an actual comic shop, instead usually published independently and sold through bookstores. She herself has expressed bafflement when asked what section of the store her books would normally be found in. Her accessibility is part of why that might be; Barry consistently includes comics in her collections that were drawn on notebook paper, challenging the idea of what has been deemed “professional” by mainstream comic companies and creators. This disregard of convention and her embrace of simplicity might lead some to scoff, but it's exactly what makes her stand out and what shapes her legacy as a comic book rebel.