We can’t think of anyone more deserving of a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ than cartoonist Lynda Barry, who was awarded one late last year. Her distinctive blend of pictures and words have inspired many, including her longtime friend (and college classmate) Matt Groening. At his induction into the ComicCon’s Hall of Fame in 2017, The Simpsons’ creator announced, ‘My influence is Lynda Barry.’ Comics historian Hillary Chute has written about Barry in books like Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics and the brilliant chronicle of comics culture, Why Comics? PKM spoke with Chute about Lynda Barry.
Late last year, the cartoonist Lynda Barry was awarded a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. When the foundation called to inform her of this, Barry thought it was some sort of scam or robocall and hung up multiple times, eventually unplugging her phone altogether. That scenario, right there, would make a great Lynda Barry comic strip. It has everything: strange sudden messages, misunderstandings, self-deprecation, goofy humor.
Once the situation was straightened out—Barry had to call the MacArthur Foundation back after she learned of the grant through a third party—she credited her teachers over the years who guided her path on her not so easy road from a “troubled family” to the world of art and literature—a scenario she mined for more than 30 years in her syndicated comic strips Two Sisters and Ernie Pook’s Comeek and in nearly all of her post-strip work since then.
Each year, the MacArthur foundation awards 20 or so grants to Americans who demonstrate “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This, as it happens, describes Barry’s cartooning perfectly. From the early days of Two Sisters and Ernie Pook’s Comeek to self-revelatory volumes like One! Hundred! Demons! and What It Is, her cartooning—which is both a visual and literary feast—has the “extraordinary originality” of a unique artistic vision. Her style is as distinctive as a signature and her stories are both personal and universal. Once you fall under Barry’s spell, characters like Marlys, Maybonne, Freddie, Edna and Arnold, not to mention the angry, sometimes brutal mother and wonderfully weird, chain-smoking grandmother with the cat glasses, become part of your own life.
Barry grew up in Seattle in a multiethnic and multilingual household and neighborhood. She herself is part-Filipino and part-Norwegian, which is likely why she has such an uncanny ear for how people, particularly kids, speak. Her classmates at Evergreen State College included Matt Groening. Like Groening, Barry floundered at bit after college, taking odd jobs (Groening moved to L.A.) and trying out different styles and self-consciously “edgy” themes before hitting their stride with Ernie Pook’s Comeek and Life in Hell, respectively, both of which were widely syndicated in alternative weeklies. The overriding theme of Barry’s comic strip work was perhaps best summed up by one of her characters, the moody, 14-year-old Maybonne: “It’s mainly about how life can magically turn cruddy then turn beautiful and then back to cruddy again, then it just keeps on evolutionizing you.”
By the late 1980s, Barry had become well known enough to be a regular guest on Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman had a thing for eccentric cartoonists and other oddballs, apparently, because Harvey “American Splendor” Pekar was a regular guest around the same time.
You can sort of chart the transformation of Lynda Barry from her persona as a wacky creator of eccentric comic strips to her present-day status as a great teacher and thinker (and MacArthur “genius”) by checking out two videos, the first of one of her appearances on David Letterman’s show and the second one of her from this year, an older, wiser and far more interesting person.
On this one, from 1988, she tells a funny story about going to a Dead concert but is only peddling one of her calendars.
In this video, prepared by the MacArthur foundation, an older and wiser Lynda Barry claims that she does not really teach cartooning, that she really just shows “people that they already know how to do this. If you can draw comics, you have access to all kinds of stories.”
This transformation can be seen in her art and writings, too. On nearly every page of her later autobiographical works, Barry poses questions that are ostensibly about art, writing and creativity but they probe deeper than that, sounding like the sorts of questions a Zen master would pose to a novice:
“Who knows which moments make us who we are?”
“What are thoughts? What are thoughts made of?”
“Where do sudden troublesome thoughts come from?”
“Why is there anxiety about a past we cannot change?”
Her answers are also provocative:
“I find myself arguing in my head with people I haven’t seen in 15 years. Or apologizing or trying to explain…it’s like there is a place in me where it is all still alive.”
“I believe a kid who is playing is not alone. There is something brought alive during play and this something, when played with, seems to play back.”
Lynda Barry is not just a cartoonist, but also a novelist (Cruddy), playwright (The Good Times are Killing Me), and teacher (currently, at the University of Wisconsin). And, oh yes, a genius. The MacArthur Foundation only verified the obvious.
PKM spoke with Hillary Chute, author of Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere and English and Art + Design professor at Northeastern University in Boston about Lynda Barry.
PKM: As you no doubt know, Lynda Barry was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” late last year. The MacArthur Foundation says the criteria for recipients of these grants are that they “demonstrate extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” I think that describes Lynda’s work perfectly. How do you think she meets such criteria?
Hillary Chute: Lynda was doing the kind of work Lynda does long before she got the kind of mainstream recognition of which the MacArthur is a primary example. I think of Lynda’s career as starting in the late 1970s, around the time her comic strips started appearing in alternative weeklies and she published (through photocopying!) her first book, Two Sisters. So she has been carrying out her vision for over 40 years—she’s definitely “self directed.” Her career has had highs and lows over the forty-plus years in terms of public reception and attention, but she has never changed her work to suit audiences. She’s been doing it all along, impervious to fashion. Her work never feels like it’s taking its cues from anything trendy. It feels like it’s taking its cues from Lynda’s sensibility and history and immense powers of observation and empathy. And I think that’s part of why people respond to it so powerfully—it feels original and unencumbered. It’s the opposite of affected.
PKM: When Lynda’s strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, started appearing in alternative weeklies around the country back in the 1980s, I took immediate notice of it because it was unlike anything else in the City Paper (I lived in DC). The combination of homegrown, almost “outsider art” drawing with the flood of words just sort of held me spellbound. What were the components of these early syndicated strips that pointed to her current “genius” status? What made her strips stand out for you?
Hillary Chute: Two things: first, they were dark. They had what Lynda calls “trouble” in them. There was dark stuff about families, dark things happening with kids. I feel like she completely reinvented the idea—the rhythm and depth and balance—of four-panel gag strips. She told me once that in that era she was thinking that comics could be a like songs, where some are happy, and some are sad, and all sorts of emotions in between… she made it this way for comics. Also: they’re FUNNY! It’s so hard to be funny. Lynda’s comic strips are effortlessly funny. Kids dancing! All the goofiness. And she put the darkness and the funniness together—the strips have such a range.
Her ability to speak to people who feel left out of “art” is moving and exceptional and exemplifies the vast democracy of her (hilarious, dark, compelling, human) vision.
PKM: In recent years, Lynda Barry has charted new territory for comics through her teaching and workshops and books like What It Is and, most recently, Drawing Comics. These books are fascinating for anyone who creates, in any discipline or genre. What is the secret to her ability to reach all kinds of people, even people not interested in comics?
Hillary Chute: Lynda is profoundly interested in the power of the image—not in categories, and not in adjudicating what is or what isn’t comics, or what is and what isn’t art. She has what I think of as a profoundly democratic vision about art, and what gets to be art, and who gets to be an artist. One example is her focus on kids making incredible art, and the force of imagination and uninhibited creativity that comes with kids’ drawing, before they start learning to judge themselves. There’s this amazing moment in the short video the MacArthur Foundation produced, in which Lynda tears up when she’s talking about making thinking about and creating images accessible to people. Lynda is one of the most open and least snobby people I’ve ever met. Her entire vision is about accessibility and democracy in art, and learning how to value the kinds of things we didn’t know we could or should be valuing.
PKM: Without question, women are, in general, creating the most interesting and innovative comics today, in my view. Diane Noomin’s anthology, Drawing Power, was filled with work by cartoonists from around the world, most of whom I’d never heard about. You touch on some of this in the chapter from your terrific book Why Comics? In the chapter called “Why Girls?”, you write at length about Lynda Barry and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) in particular. What separates these two artists from the rest of the pack?
Hillary Chute: Lynda and Marjane Satrapi are both artists who have created work that puts the child at the center of stories in a profound way. Their work, then, is about memory and history, in addition to personality and subjectivity: how children perceive family and political history, and how adult creators perceive their own histories—what they inherit, and what they reject, from earlier generations. And both of them balance darkness and humor in their work in ways unique to comics, where their style of drawing—which in both cases is so expressive, and so charming—contribute hugely to how they create worlds that people want to spend time in.
PKM: You called Lynda Barry “one of the world’s most famous literary cartoonists”. She’s as distinctive a writer as she is an artist, a master of two genres. Are there any others that combine the literary with the art the way she does?
Hillary Chute: Totally agreed on Lynda as a master of written prose, and of comics. Her novel Cruddy is absolutely amazing. Her novel The Good Times Are Killing Me (which was later adapted as a play) is incredible. I can’t think of anyone else right away who has published novels, and published single-authored comics, that are as exceptional as Lynda’s. One way to see it is a comment by, I think, Dave Eggers in a review of One Hundred Demons that ran in the New York Times: he wrote, as I remember, that she is as good a chronicler of adolescence as America has had, in any medium. I agree with this totally. Lynda herself has called attention to how similar her work feels for her as a creator working across different media.
PKM: Lynda Barry has, since her comic strip days, pioneered the teaching of cartooning as a sort of life philosophy, and a way to connect with one’s own personal narrative. You’re a professor at Northeastern University. Are other people in academia even aware of her work in this regard?
Hillary Chute: Interesting question! Other professors I know admire her work, although I think even more attention could be paid, both in literature and art department contexts, to her recent four books, which all use collage and are either “activity books” or are explicitly pedagogical, while also being, in parts, personal, intimate, and narrative. It’s hard to describe these books, visually and generically, and that’s a good thing. Lynda Barry is deeply accessible and deeply avant-garde at the same time. It’s something I love about comics that her work exemplifies.
PKM: What do you think will be Lynda Barry’s legacy?
Hillary Chute: It will be huge is what I know! She is a master storyteller, a master of communicating children’s lives, a master of humor, a master of philosophizing images and what she deems their biological function that has helped humans survive! A major figure of twentieth-century and contemporary art and literature and culture in general. Her ability to speak to people who feel left out of “art” is moving and exceptional and exemplifies the vast democracy of her (hilarious, dark, compelling, human) vision.
PKM: One final question. Since this site derives from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, I need to ask something I’ve wondered about for longer than is healthy for me: Was Nancy the original punk comic strip?