An Interview with Lynda Barry

The richly talented Lynda Barry has produced sixteen books, such as the coloring book Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies! (1984).

It has fifty-four pages of black line-art of women and a narrative about Playboy and boners. Her comics collections include Girls and Boys (1981), Down the Street (1988), Come Over, Come Over (1990), and It’s So Magic (1994).

Barry’s two novels are The Good Times Are Killing Me (1988) and the gory Cruddy (1999), which the New York Times called “a work of terrible beauty”.

Her “best of” comics volume, The Greatest of Marlys!, was published in 2000, introducing her beloved character.

One Hundred Demons (2002) followed as an experimental autobiography in color and collages. Her latest work, What It Is, was released this year by Drawn & Quarterly, which also plans to reissue five of her out-of-print titles.

This year marks her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek’s thirtieth year._

Barry, the editor of The Best American Comics 2008, is occupied with two projects: a novel, and The Nearsighted Monkey, a joint effort with her prairie-restorationist husband, Kevin Kawula.

The couple resides on a farm in Wisconsin, embracing a lifestyle that is almost completely off the grid: they cook with wood, heat with wood, bake their own bread and grow their own food.

The titular character of the book is an avant-garde version of Barry: “She is like a guest that arrives a day early; when you get home from work, she’s wearing your clothes and doesn’t show any reserve about drinking your beverages – however, you still like her.”

During the summer of 2007, I took a “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop given by Lynda and afterwards I interviewed her in New York City over two days in June of 2008.

To begin, we convened at Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW Books & Graphix office in SoHo the morning after attending the Post Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang! symposium, with Lynda as the headliner.

The next day, we had breakfast at M&G bar in the Village, where Lynda indulged me by watching the French Open on television before we talked.

— By Hillary Chute


At what point did you recognize the desire to pursue a career in art?

In my childhood, drawing wasn’t something that was considered important by anyone in my family. I enjoyed reading and stories, but not in the same way that other people seem to have had a defining moment when they knew they were destined to pursue a passion.

My concept of myself was that I was not doing anything to my fullest potential. Even when I went to the library, I would just grab a random book without any real consideration.

I never felt the same way other writers talked about the way they felt when they read. For me, any book was the same as looking at classified ads.

When I went to college, I pushed myself to be smart in the classic sense. I remember in seminars, people had highlighters and I had no idea what it meant, so I decided to use a highlighter too.

I would highlight the same paragraph that everyone else did, but when it came time for the seminar, I was always the one who had not highlighted that paragraph.

Despite that, I still studied the history of science and the Renaissance and the idea at the Evergreen State College was to study one subject in depth.

I was in a financial bind during college and was sitting in the lunchroom drinking coffee and contemplating how to stay in school when one of the art teachers came in.

I figured I was already proficient in drawing and thus wouldn’t need to spend money on classes. He was agitated and asked if I modeled, which I hadn’t but knew a friend who did and realized it paid quite a bit.

I said yes and followed him with my heart racing, as I was about to enter a room and take off all of my clothes – the only nude modeling I had seen was in Playboy.

BLVR affirmed in the affirmative…

LB revealed that she had to take all her clothes off and climb onto a table for a photoshoot. She was instructed to do short poses and assumed a few Playboy poses, but was encouraged by the photographer to make them a bit less dramatic. It turns out that she really enjoyed the experience and could hold poses for an extended period of time, which she attributes to something she had as a child.

Creating a doll-esque look of yourself.

LB discovered they knew exactly how to do the task, and they enjoyed sitting still and watching people draw. The only issue was they had to be nude, but that was okay.

While modeling for Marilyn Frasca’s class, LB began to recognize something else was going on in the room.

The instructor would stand with each artist and when they looked up, Marilyn would simply say “Good.” This caused LB to become intrigued with the teacher and one day, while modeling, they started to cry realizing that they wanted to be in the class instead of on the table.

The following year, she was teaching a class called “Images” and had many students eager to participate.

After being accepted into the class, my life changed completely; this was the same class that gave rise to “Writing the Unthinkable”, from which my book What It Is is based.

This class taught that writing, painting, and the other forms of art all stem from something vibrant. Thinking about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, one can ask if the characters are alive; though not in the same way as us, they are not dead.

Take a look at this. We did have reviews, but the reviews were that you’d come and the artwork would be displayed. We simply had to sit and take it in.

BLVR: Not utter a word?

LB recalled not speaking up, and they learnt to observe instead. This discovery that the work happens anyway was an epiphany. During that year, they took a course on “Images” and then had an individual contract with Marilyn, studying on their own.

The comic strips were made to amuse their friend Connie, but LB had prior knowledge of R. Crumb from being in seventh grade and finding their first Zap. They copied the drawings and looked for the kids’ version, but the S. Clay Wilson pieces scared them.

When I saw Zap, I was filled with a chaotic emotion, but then I encountered Crumb’s comic strip Meatball.

It was just a silly comic, but had tiny details like a store in the background with a sign that said something like “Men from Mars 25 cents”. It showed me that comics could be drawn about anything, however, the sexual content was daunting.

When I look at Crumb’s work, I am reminded of my second novel, Cruddy, which is filled with murder and lots of knives.

BLVR: It’s fantastic.

LB: Does this signify that I’m an individual who ponders over murder? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do contemplate murder frequently. In actuality, when I’m conversing with people who are infuriating me, I often dream of them having an ax in their forehead while they are conversing with me.

I am aware that this is my individual association with murder and blades and blood. That does not signify that I must go carry out that.

II. In this show, the characters were women conversing with men, who were represented as giant cactuses, trying to determine if they should be intimate with them or not.

BLVR: In what publication were your initial comics featured?

LB recalled that during high school, he had a few of his comic strips featured in the school paper. When he was in college, he had two friends – Matt Groening and John Keister – with the same birthday. Interestingly, neither of them were believers of astrology.

Groening was the editor of the Evergreen State College paper, while Keister was the editor at the University of Washington paper during the summer. These were LB’s two closest male friends.

At the same time, both Matt and I were in charge of newspapers and I would send him silly comics that lacked sense in the mail.

I was intrigued by him due to his conservative nature, but in fact, he was into doing anything that could irritate the hippies who were the majority during that time. If you look at his work today, it still revolves around opposing the majority and those in power.

Matt has always had that goal. Even with The Simpsons and its ever-evolving giant fungus, his mission of standing up against the majority is still present despite the numerous writers working on it.

I have always had an antagonistic relationship with him, and we would often lie about each other in interviews prior to The Simpsons. For example, I would make up stories about his hobbies and lifestyle, and he would make my birthday wrong on his calendars.

Despite this, he was really important to me; he was the first to print my work, and he encouraged me to keep drawing. Matt is incredibly supportive of comics and cartoonists.

BLVR: So, what was the transition from having your work printed by him and John Keister to making it your career?

LB mentioned that they had begun a series of comics called Spinal Comics which were based on a bad breakup they had experienced.

The theme of the comics featured women conversing with men, but instead of men, the females were confronted with giant cactuses. The idea was that the women had to decide whether or not to sleep with them. The same joke was repeated over and over again.

BLVR enthused, “It’s a great one!”

LB said that the men would be surrounding the saguaro cactuses with cigarettes and beers, talking to them in a sweet manner and the women would think “Perhaps this could work, I could have a relationship with this guy.”

After graduating college and moving back home to Seattle, I was aware of the newly established paper, the Seattle Sun.

I wanted to see if they would print my work and decided to drop it off at the old, disheveled house where people were working for no money. When I left, the woman in charge phoned me.

It sounded as if she wasn’t pleased with my work, so I went back to talk to her. She said the comics I submitted were the most racist she had ever seen and she believed I was mocking Mexicans. I was shocked, as I didn’t realize this.

This image displays a cactus with several spiky protrusions that are characteristic of the plant. The picture is of an individual Barry cactus, a species native to the deserts of the Southwest United States.

BLVR: Could this be due to the cactuses?

LB was perplexed by the situation they were in. “What?” was all they could think as the woman yelled about Mexicans and white women.

Her words had nothing to do with the comics. As they were descending the stairs, they heard the sound of feet coming from behind them. It was a man who ran the back page and hated the woman.

He asked what the woman had been yelling about and LB responded that she hated their comics. The man then said he would print them, only to make her angry, without even reading them.

BLVR: This is quite humorous.

LB: This is the way it all played out. The Newspaper Association of America united a number of alternative papers and proposed the idea of them all sending each other their papers. It was an excellent chance for them to have a gathering and have a good time.

At the time, Matt had relocated to Los Angeles, where he was employed at a copy shop. This is when he began making his Life in Hell comics. He would make copies, and then send them to us, but he never intended for them to be sold.

Later on, he was hired by the L.A. Reader and had to write. He was quite skilled at it, and wrote a piece titled either “Neat” or “Dumb” – I can’t recall.

It was about how supposedly inferior things can be fashionable. It was a ground-breaking article, and he even referred to me, though I was presented as someone…

BLVR: Was there something initially considered dull that ended up being amazing?

LB remarked that the person he was friends with had acted as if LB was some kind of well-known cartoonist, which was not true.

Robert Roth, a great guy who was running the Chicago Reader, saw LB’s work and contacted them.

He paid LB eighty dollars a month for it – and that was enough for LB to pay for their apartment and leave their job as a popcorn girl at the movies, so that they could focus entirely on their art.

Is this happening in Seattle? BLVR posed the question.

When I was living in Seattle, I was paying only $99 a month for rent. I would often try to get Matt’s work published in the papers and magazines I was involved with.

Whenever I got accepted into one, I would always make sure to include his work, Life in Hell, which I still love. We would help each other out by pitching each other’s work whenever either of us got into a paper.

After becoming familiar with Gary Panter, the renowned “King of Punk Art” who is a painter, cartoonist, and designer, Matt had me come down to Los Angeles to meet him. Gary was wholly ahead of the game and you wouldn’t even know that you were competing.

And that’s why I kept going with my work. It wasn’t just me, Matt’s connection with Gary was a great help. Gary was always coming up with new ideas, and he’d pass them on to Matt to report back to me. Between those two, Gary indirectly and Matt directly, I got a lot of backing for what I was doing.


BLVR: Could you enlighten me about the experience when your first book was released? From then on, did you begin appearing in any papers?

Before I published the Girls and Boys book, I already had this other book, which I self-published.

BLVR: Astonishing, you have a whopping sixteen titles!

LB: Does it count as a memorable comic? I created it myself and just printed out copies. It was called Two Sisters and featured twin girls, Rita and Evette, which people seemed to really enjoy.

In the distant past, Rita and Evette were very well-known, and they were quite humorous. At that time, copy shops had just opened, so I decided to copy their entire collection and put it in a manila envelope that I had decorated. I then sold them for $10. Someone who bought it would open the envelope and find the comic strips inside.

BLVR: Did it end up being sold just by word of mouth?

LB stated that he planned to put an advertisement in his comic strip, asking people to call him to purchase something. He would then visit the copy shop to make the copies and include the orders in the comic.

Unfortunately, his strip had to come to an end since it was so popular, as it sometimes happens.

BLVR: What was the situation with them?

LB: They were a pair of twins, but their mother never showed up. They were peculiar children who the world couldn’t comprehend. Once that ended, I began to make the first comics for Girls and Boys.

The very first one depicted two kids left alone, with one jumping on the furniture and saying, “Mom’s going to be mad when she gets back.” The other then responded, “Mom’s never coming back, she’s going to marry a bum.”

The illustrations were very crude in comparison to my later works, Rita and Evette, which are more gentle, although not sugary sweet.

BLVR: Is it more circular in shape?

LB has gone through a few different phases in their career. Initially, their art was labeled as “punk” and then underground, funk, punk, new wave, alternative, and finally “graphic novels” and “art comics.”

The artist often delved into topics that were not commonly seen in comic strips at the time and the lack of a punch line in their work would lead to angry letters to the editor.

They noted that some of their strips could be really sad and this was not something people were used to seeing.

BLVR affirmed in the affirmative.

LB encountered considerable difficulty, while simultaneously creating comic versions of his work. Many individuals commonly produce minicomics, and he would take his comics from the printer and then…

The newspapers reduced my comics, so I Xeroxed them. I created small comics and sent them to Printed Matter, a well-known store in New York that sells books made by artists.

It was the first zine printer, and I sent them some comics while I was receiving the worst feedback from people who despised what I was doing.

BLVR: Due to the fact that…

LB: The darkness. I got a response from Printed Matter that they really liked what I was doing and would purchase them.

I was selling them for fifty cents each, so I think they bought them for twenty-five cents, and were getting a hundred of them or something like that.

That letter completely changed my outlook, because I believed comics were a way to write about really sad things and tell long stories, yet there wasn’t anyone actively doing it.

So whoever it was at Printed Matter–I don’t know if I still have the letter–transformed my perspective, since they comprehended it, and I thought, Alright, somebody else is understanding this.

BLVR: In what year did that occur?

LB recollected that it was likely toward the end of the ’70s when people began to appreciate his comics, as it was published in ’81.

He understood he could express anything through the comic strip, even if it was poignant, and that people eventually understood he was not mocking the issue but rather expressing it through a song.

BLVR: I was taken aback when I found out some of your earlier works were categorized in the YA section or got a YA label. I was like, what is happening in this situation? Is someone being raped at a shindig, or something? It was confusing to me.

LB: It is really nice for me because I had the potential to discover it that way. It is also highlighted on the list for those who are not fond of reading. One Hundred Demons has some wild, like…

The projects that you create all carry a lot of weight.

LB: People usually say that they’re getting it for their son when they buy it, so I always ask them how old he is. If they say he is seven and loves comics, I tell them that the book contains disturbing material such as incest, suicide, and drug-taking.

They usually respond that he is very mature for his age. I understand, as when I was young I would look at S. Clay Wilson for as long as I could stand and then look away.

I would much prefer to be in the Young Adult section of a store, rather than the “graphic novels” section. In the event that I was presented with the option, I would much rather be in an area where people don’t feel the strain….

After their appearance at Printed Matter, they then began to produce books.

I was not the only one to take notice of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell material being overlooked. We were both releasing books at the same time and his was much more popular.

When we attended book signings together, he would have a huge line while I had none. People would even approach me and ask where the militaria section was located.

I may be overly sensitive, but that remark really hurt me.

LB commented that the contrast between his and Matt’s work resulted in one having a longer line and the other having a shorter one.

He likened it to selling full dinners versus condiments, and emphasized that he was not disheartened in the slightest.

An image of a hundred demons is presented, which is 1920×1969 in size.

What is it that sets your writing apart from the rest? How did you come to specialize in creating stories with casts of characters that contain many children?

LB noted that the characters in his work just kind of appeared without him having to think about them.

He marveled at this as he grew up without a sister and didn’t know how characters come about. He liked that he could ask questions in What It Is that he didn’t have answers for.

BLVR affirms that the book is written in a questioning style.

LB has no clue where characters come from, however they appear to originate from playing around.

One of the most incredible things he ever witnessed was two street-theater performers performing Shakespeare using random objects found in the streets.

They would use a cigarette butt, bottle cap, and other garbage to create the Globe Theatre, and as they acted out the scenes from Shakespeare, it was almost as if they were really Romeo and Juliet. He believes it is an innate human trait to be able to create characters.

As a child he was always disturbed by seeing shoes without feet in them, as he could see the mouth screaming.

This fear of inanimate objects was also why he had difficulty with math, as the numbers 3 and 5 looked like they were screaming and fighting. He was only comfortable with the numbers 35, as the 3 and 5 could not see each other.

He believes his ability to animate objects stems from when he was a kid, and he can look at anything and put eyes on it.

A photo of a toy with its eyeballs gazing is depicted in the image.


BLVR: Something that stands out to me in your work is the dialogue of the characters.

LB: My main focus is language, but not of the intentional kind. An important point to remember about my work is that I never plan ahead and never know what the subsequent line will be. My modus operandi is to draw until I can hear it in my own mind.

BLVR: It doesn’t come off as though it was crafted to resemble speech, rather it feels like something that was actually said.

LB: For some reason, I can’t help myself from constantly repeating what I hear.

For instance, I recall walking through a clothing shop where a man was shopping with a female and he said, “Dolores! Dolores!” and then he picked up a pair of pants, held them up and said, “Wear these and you will tear the party up!” Every time I thought about it, I had to repeat it, as it had such a catchy tune.

I am really astounded at your ability to portray a certain kind of emphasis in your writing.

LB discussed the possibility of being from a bilingual family, but where the language of the adults was never taught to the children. He and his cousins knew a few words in Tagalog, but were never formally taught it.

BLVR: You recently obtained it.

I think I might have had an interest in language since I experienced such variety in the way people spoke.

I went from living in Richland Center, Wisconsin, where my mom was the odd one out with her Filipino accent, to Seattle, where my dad was the only white person and everyone else was speaking Tagalog.

When the house we lived in eventually split up, we moved to a black neighborhood, which had its own unique accent, as well as a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Asian people. I heard so many different types of language, from the Wisconsin accent to Tagalog to the unique accent of the black neighborhood.

BLVR: But not highly related to the Filipino culture?

When I was younger, I heard a variety of languages spoken, and I believe that might explain why I feel driven to record what people say and replay it in my mind. I’m not sure, however.


I have a few inquiries related to those you pose in What It Is. Could you tell me where the past resides and what it is?

LB believes that we may have the perception that we’re advancing steadily into the future given that time is linear and we go through a series of developments, from infancy to death.

However, he argues that the past has no particular pattern or arrangement.

What role do visuals play in that idea?

LB stated that “units” or “things” that move through time are referred to in this way. It is believed that time, or the past, progresses from one point to the next.

When considering these images, they can move in any direction and it is impossible to predict when they will arrive.

BLVR asked about the distinction between memory and imagination. What were their thoughts on the matter?

LB asserted that imagination and memory are indivisible. She commented that questions such as “can you remember something you can’t imagine?” make her brain pause. She then asked if a dream is autobiography or fiction.

I’m really fond of that query. BLVR

LB: Yeah, if you’re the kind of person who’s enthusiastic about that sort of thing. What I don’t comprehend is that for lots of individuals, it’s not captivating at all. It’s similar to how video poker isn’t captivating to me, not even the least bit.

BLVR inquired if it was possible to enhance memory.

LB stated “Sure, I believe that it is possible to increase your memory skills. It’s a matter of concentrating on what you take in by completing a simple diary-like exercise. We did this during class where you spend three minutes recording the top ten events from your day.”

It’s fascinating how our minds can often jump ahead of us; we might anticipate writing about major events in our lives such as being in a car accident or finally being contacted by someone, yet instead we find ourselves focusing on smaller, seemingly insignificant details like a potato chip bag on the floor under the bed.

We start to comprehend that there are two parts to our day; one part where our thoughts feel important and another that we may not have paid attention to before.

When we allow ourselves to pay more attention to this part of our day, it leads to a more enriched experience.

Once we become aware of the small, specific things that we are noticing, we can either choose to ride along with it and take in the scenery or remain in the back, not taking anything in.

What was the experience like while working on the 2008 edition of the Best American Comics series?

LB has found a unique way of choosing books to read. He is the opposite of a snob when it comes to reading, and enjoys comics and even works that may not initially seem exciting.

His new method of picking novels is to close his eyes and grab a book randomly from a box of books given to him by a friend whose mother had recently passed away.

He is always happy with the selection he ends up with, despite sometimes thinking “Oh no” when he first picks the book.

BLVR emphatically answered “No”

LB: I recently finished a book called Breath and Shadows. It had a flowery cover and I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into because it had a dwarf and a talking cat.

But I kept my promise and was glad I did because it ended up being really great. I was really upset when it was over. I’ve come to realize that even if you’re picky, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re bringing something to the table.

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