Making art is like a Ouija board for the subconscious, only without the supernatural. So says cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry, whose new book Making Comics, due in November from Drawn & Quarterly, offers readers methods for learning to tell stories in pictures while plunging deep into their memory banks to unlock creative connections.
Barry has had an amazingly varied career. Her weekly comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek was a staple of the alternative newspapers that flourished in the 1980s and early ’90s. Since then she’s written two acclaimed novels, made one into a play, and, in her latest incarnation, become an in-demand educator who helps people discover the creative language of art.
Making Comics is Barry’s latest collage of comics and instruction, drawn from the course that she teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison art department, where she’s an associate professor. In the book, exercises are interspersed with views on creativity and storytelling, with illustrations based on the simple but inspiring scrawls of her students. It’s both exhilarating and challenging as it asks students to draw themselves as Batman or make a comic about their life in a few hours.
Barry’s previous three books—Syllabus (2014), Picture This (2010), and What It Is (2008)—all explored various aspects of creativity, mixed with narratives and some of her best-known characters. Making Comics is more of an actual course, with instructions and a list of materials; but as in everything Barry creates, her language and art are studded with haunting allusions.
For Barry, making art is about more than just appearance. “I guess that’s sort of my obsession right now: showing people that drawing is this other thing than just how it looks,” she says. “It’s actually a language, a way of thinking. It’s almost like having this extra brain. I’m trying get my students to see past how their drawing looks and see it rather as communication.”
Barry’s teaching style is inspired by Marilyn Frasca, a teacher she encountered while attending Oregon’s Evergreen State College in the 1970s. Frasca’s method, Barry says, is based on understanding “the living thing at the center of anything we call the arts or a good conversation or deep play.” She adds, “It’s something that’s very, very old and very, very human. And it seems to make people very happy when they are able to do it. I mean, even when I show people of any age how you can make somebody look very angry by pointing the eyebrows down, it’s unbelievable! It’s like giving them a car!”
The art in Making Comics is repurposed from the work of her students—sometimes abstract scribbles that Barry finds delight in. “There’s something so fresh and vital about a lot of them,” she says, “and that uncorrected hand is just amazing: it’s vibrant with life.”
Barry is fascinated by the fact that people often stop drawing at age four. “That’s when writing and drawing usually split,” she says. “But there are two working languages in human life. One is sort of top of the mind, what we’re conscious of. The other is this unconscious stuff that we might not know about or have access to. The way we access it is usually through this thing we call ‘the arts.’ Unfortunately, that has gotten removed from the regular daily experience of human life. What I’m trying to do is to show that there is a way that they can come together, and that you can make things in a way that makes you actually feel alive and present. That’s what I’m after: feeling alive in the world.”
Indeed it’s hard to imagine someone who comes across, in conversation at least, as more fully alive than Barry. Her enthusiasm and energy are like an electrical storm swirling around her, palpable even as she talks via Skype from her Wisconsin home. Clearly, she’s her own best student and has absorbed the lessons of how to tap into her unconscious. Her imagination is formidable.
Barry grew up in Seattle with emotionally distant parents, but she was nurtured by her mother’s extended Filipino family, which she alludes to in the adventures of Marlys, the desperate but hopeful eight-year-old heroine of many of her comics. At Evergreen, a famously liberal college with a loose curriculum even for the 1970s, her classmates included Simpsons creator and lifelong pal Matt Groening, as well as Charles Burns, creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Black Hole, and Steve Willis, a lesser-known cartoonist who pioneered the form known as minicomics.
Barry became associated with alt-comix cartoonists of the era, such as Groening and Gary Panter, whose work could be found pinned to the refrigerator door of every hipster worthy of the label during the ’80s and ’90s. The work of this gang of cartoonists had various names, she recalls. “First it was punk, then new wave, and then alternative. Now it’s graphic whatever. I think we can just call them comics.”
The advent of the internet gradually killed alternative newspapers such as The Village Voice and The L.A. Reader, where Barry and other cartoonists’ comic strips thrived. But at that same time, Barry was branching out into other media with her novels The Good Times Are Killing Me, about an interracial friendship, and Cruddy, about a youthful murder spree. She also turned The Good Times Are Killing Me into a successful play and became a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman.
One! Hundred! Demons!, collected in 2002 from comics originally serialized on Salon, was another breakthrough; it is a visually explosive collage of what she called “autobifictionalography”—mostly true tales of her life mixed with some fiction. But the publisher had no interest in her follow-up, the book that would become What It Is. “So I didn’t have a publisher, and I couldn’t find anyone who would touch my work,” she recalls. “Nobody wanted to print it.”
Luckily, Drawn & Quarterly approached Barry a few years later to reprint some of her strip work; she mentioned What It Is to them, and Barry’s literary resurgence began. “I feel like they saved me, because my career had kind of fallen apart in 2002,” she says.
Since then, most of Barry’s published work has centered on unleashing creativity. “It turns out that the only thing I can really write about while I’m teaching is teaching,” she says.
All of Barry’s work is concerned with memory, and the exercises in Making Comics often call on the subject to find some flotsam floating in a sea of memory and put it to paper. “A memory changes every time we think about it,” she writes. “Or it changes depending on why you’re remembering it. But to me that actually gives you the idea that there is a core memory—and there isn’t.”
Barry’s teaching has had at least one success story: at her first class in 2012, Ebony Flowers, another writer/educator, was a student. Hot Comb, Flowers’s graphic memoir about black women and the sociological ramifications of how African-American hair is viewed, was published in May by D&Q, to wide critical acclaim.
When asked about the benefit of learning from her method, Barry can barely understand why someone would ask such a question. “Imagine if you found out that you could speak Turkish,” she says. “It’s like asking what’s the benefit of having a liver!”
Making Comics may be Barry’s last educational text for a while. She’s just begun a sabbatical and is taking the time to work on a long-delayed graphic novel. “I need to have at least a year of uninterrupted time to be able to finish it,” she says. “It’s kind of a chimera. It has too many words to be a comic and too many pictures to be a novel. I don’t even know what to call the thing.”
Surely, if anyone can find a word for it, it’s Lynda Barry.