In this conclusion of the Four-Colour Words interview with What It Is author Lynda Barry, the novelist/cartoonist/teacher/guru talks about the ins and outs of her writing classes, worries about the editing process, wonders about where characters and creepy pictures come from, and gushes about how awesome comics are.
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Have you thought of doing drawing classes the same way that you do your writing classes?
I have, if I could find a way to do it. I said to the audience [at her book festival talk], “Think of your first phone number,” and for most people it’ll come spontaneously and then they have a feeling about it. That’s what I’m trying to have happen when you write—unexpected memory. The memory is so strong that you write about it without thinking about your writing, just like people said their numbers out loud but nobody was going, “Now, did I use the right voice when I said that?” You know what I mean? It just happened. So with writing, I can demonstrate much more easily and privately that state of mind that I’m talking about. What I do in my class is, I have them start with unexpected memories and then by the end of the two days we’re writing fiction. Once they’re used to how that feels I pass out envelopes that have pictures in them, like from National Geographic, and they’ll be somebody in a flood, or somebody running from a house on fire, or somebody just sitting there smoking a cigarette. But the students are so used to it that I can say, “All I can tell you about this picture is either you’re in it, or this is what you’re seeing,” and I ask them to go through the exact same exercise we do when we’re writing from actual memories. What’s amazing is how seamlessly they’re able to get into it. With drawing, I haven’t yet quite figured out how to do that same thing—to make people able to instantly make spontaneous images.
Do you think people are more self-conscious about their drawing?
Yes—because there’s such evidence, right?
You can look at a picture and immediately say, “Oh, I don’t like it.” Whereas with writing you actually have to get into it.
Exactly. I think that collage might actually be my little answer, but it’s so hard to even set up a class. That’s what my friend, Kelly Hogan, and I, we just decided we wanted to do this as—
Sorry, did you say Kelly Hogan, the singer?
I’m so glad you even know her name! She is my best friend and the best singer on earth and funnier than hell. Actually we became friends because I was so interested in singing and interested in how singing and writing are the same, so I just started to ask her all kinds of things about singing. She’s funny as hell, articulate, she swears a lot, she likes to drink, so we can really get to it, you know what I mean? She uses the word “boner” all the time. And it turns out she’s one of these insanely organised people. She was the publicist for Bloodshot Records and she used to book shows all the time. She’s been in bands since she could walk, basically, so she’s really good at finding the venue and signing people up. So I said to her, let’s do these classes. We’ll split the profits straight down the middle—if you can set it up and get these people registered, I’ll teach the class. Our goal was always to find the least expensive, sort of interesting place to teach so we can keep the prices really low. We have this whole formula, depending on the city we’re in and how much it costs us to get there and how much it costs us to rent the room, that’s how much the tuition is. So yeah, I did say Kelly Hogan.
I wanted to ask you one of the questions that you actually have in your book: Is there a toy that you still think about?
Oh, yes. Well, gosh, there are a bunch of them. You know, a gal who was standing in line to get her book signed yesterday, she has a grown daughter—her daughter’s probably in her early twenties and she was coming to her mom’s house to clean out the last bit of stuff she had in the basement. Her mother said that she’d happened to come around the corner as her daughter was putting everything in bags and [the daughter] picked up a koala bear that she had been very attached to. She came around the corner, she saw her daughter as she was about to put the bear in the thing, saying, “Don’t look at me with those eyes!” But I had a blanket—my mom didn’t like any kind of attachment; nobody should have any attachment to anything but her—and I can remember it vividly, what it looked like, and I was compelled to reproduce it. Just a square this big [holds hands apart a couple inches]. I had to get yellow fabric and paint these little kittens and balls, and I got the flannel on the back. So I had this thing and it kind of satisfied me. And this little kid—she was probably about seven or eight—she asked me about it and I told her what it was and she told me about a doll that she had that her mom got rid of. And I said, “Well, you can make another one.” And she picked up my blanket and she goes, “It’s not really the same, though, is it?” [laughter]
What can you say to that?
I said, “You’re right. It’s not really the same.” What’s weird is that I think we’re so in it that it’s hard to think about it. Like, first, I thought if I had an unconscious, I’d know about it. Then I thought it was probably about this small, at some little part of my brain back there. And somebody was talking that’s really smart about this stuff and said that she thought of her unconscious as an ocean that she was about that small in, and I think that’s more accurate. Because I think that the conscious part of our brain is the newest part and it was invented by the rest of the brain. I don’t think the rest of the brain would invent something to just let it have at it. I think it serves a function—like, I think it needed a driver. [laughs] “Let’s invent this and let it go—it has to think it’s running things, right on!” I do think that mental health and a feeling that life is worth living relies on it. When I do that thing of telling people to say their first phone number, I wish you could be with me on stage to see how people look after they say it. If you want to warm up an audience, that’s all you have to do, is have them say that and they’ll like you. “She’s magic!”
I definitely felt myself smirking without expecting to.
What the hell—what is that? Those numbers contain something that actually changed your mood just by speaking them. It’s so easy to turn this into some flaky psychic jiveass stuff—“Oh, my aura”—then it becomes useless. It’s something with us everyday. I have this image of a monkey that’s usually driving the car—I’m locked in the trunk and the monkey smoking the cigar is driving. That’s my unconscious.
You’ve taken to drawing yourself as the monkey though.
Yeah, actually there’s one of the things in the Best American Comics—the nearsighted monkey. That’s my new little book. She’s an awful guest, the nearsighted monkey. Like, if you had to get up and go to the bathroom, your beer would be gone—she’d have drunk most of it, maybe left a little, with no apology. Just super self-serving.
So she’s another character who’s not you, but kind of drawn from you.
She’s me at my most mischievous. It’s not autobiographical, but we all know about these people, and I don’t mind being that person. Your house guest who comes a day early, hogs your remote, wears your clothes, eats everything, and then does something really nice. So you really want to get rid of them but they’re kind of nice. I don’t know where she came from but she just came about when I was drawing one time.
And what’s the Sea-Ma part of you?
Well, Sea-Ma’s the teacher part of me. Like, I’m sitting here going on about brain stuff—like I know! “Another proclamation from Sea-Ma!” So Sea-Ma’s full of herself. It’s so fun having characters because they really do come with their own names. It’s not magical—you just notice that they’re there and they suddenly have a name. Yeah, she’s a blowhard, and I think sometimes I am a blowhard, there’s no doubt about it.
That’s good, to be able to channel that part of yourself into something.
And then you cringe about it later. Blowhard—cringe. Blow—cringe. That’s like my rowing chant.
Me too, for sure.
Really, you cringe about stuff?
Oh yeah. Everyday.
Isn’t that wild? And it’s physical—it actually feels bad. It’s like you’re getting a cattle prod. I’d love to do the cringe index of any city to just watch when it’s at its highest.
Sea-Ma kind of scares me.
Oh yeah, she’s terrifying!
And there’s the creepy owl.
All the characters. Stick Arms Stan—he’s really a drag. [flipping through the book] Look at that—that’s horrifying, what the hell’s that, and look at these dudes!
This creeps me out the worst, when you draw over people’s pictures. But they’re here as, like, a benevolent force?
No—well, they are and they aren’t.
You introduce Sea-Ma as a demon.
Yeah, she’s a demon, and here’s some weird larva with the word “image” on it. These guys are horrifying. But I have to tell you: I love drawing scary pictures.
I love seeing them, because it’s so rare that somebody’s able to
Make horrifying pictures? But there’s no part of me going, “Oh, I’m making something scary.” I get giddy the creepier the thing is, but I don’t know why I do. I really couldn’t tell you. Like, this was actually a picture of a guy with a gas mask on from World War I. National Geographics have a slick, shiny top coating—it’s a shellac—and I found, if I took a whitening toothpaste—and, by the way, I just want to make a comment that this is the only time in history that people’s teeth have been whiter than the whites of their eyes, and it’s a really bad move—anyway, so I would take that toothpaste and a toothbrush and go in there and it would take the layer of shellac off and once it was off I could paint over it at will. This one, for instance—there was a hippy standing here smoking a cigarette and looking out the window. So I was able to just take off that layer of shellac and paint over it. Yeah, but creepy! Look at that—upside down. That’s horrifying. There’s the little eyes.
You’ve got a whole classroom full of them at one point.
Yeah, that’s the worst: “What Is Memory.” This is the part that I’m surprised about myself, because I wrote Cruddy with a paintbrush and that’s the bloodiest, most murderous story. I mean, everybody gets killed, it’s almost like a joke, the book is so bloody. And I had no idea. I gleefully wrote that book, and then after that I really realised that I had a gleeful attachment to making monsters. That’s what I think these are, little monsters.
That’s what I mean when I say that they have a benevolence to them, because you’ve got the whole thing in here, “Are monsters necessary?” And it seems like they are necessary to you.
Yeah, they absolutely are. One of the things about play or images I believe is that they always involve anxiety. If you think about a kid playing, there’s always an element of anxiety in it, otherwise there’s no reason to play. I watched a little girl on the plane coming over. Her mom’s asleep and this little girl’s singing to herself. She has a My Little Pony and she’s doing it along the edge of the seat and she’s singing this little song, like, “Tra la la la—AUGH!” Over and over again, she’d do this thing where the pony was feeling fine and everything’s going good and then suddenly some force in this girl was definitely killing the pony and bringing her back to life. So I just think that that’s part of the deal. And if you think of mental health—or, mental health is a crude term for it, but some kind of feeling that life is worth living—one of the only ways you get it is finding a reliable way to manage anxiety, and that cringing, and way bigger trouble, like bombs dropping on your house, which art can’t do a whole lot about. You know, there’s a point where you get drunk enough where you start singing. It’s that weird despair that’s so bad that actually you’re free for a little bit. So I am curious about that. But I do think anxiety management is one of the reasons we’ve created this other world. So you think that when that’s taken away, and then people are given the TV—which, by the way, I love. Also, it wasn’t that there was some evil guy with a long moustache who was like, “I’ll invent the television and we’ll all look at it!” It was a community decision. It’s like, “Big Brother’s watching you”—no, it turns out we will watch Big Brother. You don’t really have to watch us at all because we will watch you. Put it in front of us and let us just sit there and eat—you got us.
At your talk the other day you were saying that it’s been ten years since the last Ernie Pook collection. That was a tremendous realisation for me. I was, like, “Wow, it really has been.”
Yeah, nobody wanted to collect it.
The Greatest of Marlys came out in 2000—that was when David Boring and Jimmy Corrigan and all these great books came out, which is kind of the start of comics being published by book publishers.
And The Greatest of Marlys has some new stuff that was never collected. But, yeah, I couldn’t get anybody to do a collection for ten years or more, actually.
I’m sure you hear it from a lot of comics people, but that’s super surprising. Because [1999’s] The Freddie Stories is still my favourite book of yours.
That’s very good to hear, because they hate it at Sasquatch [Barry’s ex-publisher]. Oh my god, they hate it. Well, I had an editor who just wasn’t attached to the work. It’s sort of like, you like mayonnaise or you don’t, and he really didn’t like mayonnaise. That’s what was so cool about getting with [current publisher] Drawn and Quarterly—aside from the fact that they’re Canadian—was that they really didn’t mind sad stories, or they believe that if something has soul it’ll market. So yeah, nothing’s been collected.
Right after The Freddie Stories came out was actually when I moved to Toronto and I was able to start reading it in NOW, where, because of their boneheaded decision, they don’t run it anymore.
I have no idea what happened.
They don’t run any comics anymore.
Well, you know what, then it might have been a financial decision. I mean that’s most of the situation for alternative comics. I used to be in 70 papers. I went on sabbatical two weeks ago for the first time in 30 years, but as of then I was down to four. That’s the situation for almost anything. The weekly alternative comics that I always think of, the pioneers—not the pioneers, but the ones that I was aware of were the first guys in the Village Voice like Jules Feiffer and Stan Mack and Mark Alan Stamaty. And it just so happened that alternative papers came about at the same time Matt [Groening] and I graduated from college, and the idea that we had any kind of career at all doing that is a fluke. It’s like, Kelly Hogan has this story. She was on tour one time and as she was walking back to the tour bus, somebody had dropped a creme-filled donut on the ground. And she stepped on it and slipped and fucked up her ankle really bad, but she said her bandmates went out to look after she was in the bus and they came back and one of them said to her, “At least you rode it for a while.” [laughter] And that’s how I feel about my cartooning career—it’s a fluke.
You stepped on the creme-filled donut of life!
And I rode it for a while. But it didn’t exist—for some people it does. I think Tom Tomorrow is still making a good living—or not necessarily a good living, but he still has a job. But most of us don’t. Matt still does. And especially when the Bush administration came in and Fred Milton started going off about how awful it was, I started getting kicked out of papers. I mean, it was a couple a week. It was so wild to watch the media cave so hard. I just didn’t believe it was possible, but it happened.
And when that damn poodle starts telling the truth then that’s the time to kick him out of there.
Even in San Diego, they told me, “We’ll print all your strips, but not the rapping poodle.” So I put, “Banned in San Diego!”
You said that you would start at the end with the Ernie Pook collections, so I wanted to ask what that collection would entail. While I’ve been reading it, it doesn’t seem like there’s that same kind of overarching narrative that there is in The Freddie Stories. There’s kind of like one strip at a time—there’s a Fred Milton strip this week, there’s a Marlys instructional strip this week, and then there’s one about how Arna’s dealing with stuff. So I was just wondering what the actual book will look like.
I want to make a lot of original work for these books. So, for instance, when I do a book, the first thing I need to know is what’s the size and how many pages. If I know those then I can build the book. Once I have that in mind then I kind of know how to structure it. The most beautiful thing is, there are some strips I’d never ever want to see reprinted because that week I was busy or it truly was just bullshit, and I want to do some strips that I just wasn’t able to do. So that’s why I want to do it backwards. But you know, all the other collections never had an overarching thing either. Well, The Freddie Stories did.
And Come Over, Come Over.
Come Over, Come Over has in it a long piece that Art Spiegelman actually got me to do [for RAW]. The Freddie Stories, those aren’t the original comics. The original comics are very similar, but when I realised that they finally agreed to do a collection—and that was the collection that made them decide never to do another collection of mine—the story was kind of told, I sort of knew what it was, it was drawn in a lot of different styles, and I thought, I just want to sit and draw this book again. So that’s what I did—I redrew it. It’s sort of like visiting a town, and when you first land there you don’t know where everything is but after you’ve been there for a little while you know just how to get to the post office. So that’s how I felt when I was working on the book—“Oh, I know what the story is now.” So I just wanted to try drawing it over and see what happened. My poor editor really hated me—and I was, like, super-nice! The other thing about me is, I never use a telephone so I’ve done all my books since Cruddy without ever, ever speaking once to any of the people—like, [Drawn and Quarterly publisher] Chris Oliveros and I have met, but we’ve never talked on the phone. My editor at Sasquatch couldn’t believe that part of the agreement was that we never talk on the phone. But I refuse to talk on the phone because I’m really friendly and just because of that I can get talked into shit. When I did Cruddy I’d never talked to my editor—lots of faxes. I had a great editor, and then he left and I had a new guy who hated the book. He told me it was dumb, it was really stupid. I was like, “Yeah, well you paid for it and it’s about to go to press so let’s see if we can wiggle this in.” He was a reference guy who had come to take my editor’s place and he really didn’t like the book, and you can’t fault him for that. I mean, there’s lots of books I don’t like. Sadly, he was asssigned to work with me, and I wanted to put pictures in the book—novels used to always have illustrations. He just couldn’t figure it out—so many of those people tried to have an intervention with me to convince me that this would really destroy the marketability of my book, to have pictures in it. So, yeah, I never talk to editors on the phone, so you can kind of see why they would want to get rid of me. I’m not hard to work with, but I’m pretty strict about certain things. With Drawn and Quarterly, I was really petrified when we started working just because I was really worried about getting into another one of these crazy situations. It had never occurred to me that those guys deal with cartoonists. My editor at Sasquatch, when I gave him The Freddie Stories, each page of original art was in a little plastic sleeve and he sent me a fax complaining about how long it took him to get those all out of the plastic sleeves and put post-its on them so he could read them more easily. When I got them back, sure enough, they had post-its right on the drawing! They don’t know about original art, they don’t know how to handle it, and he was just pissed they were in these plastic sleeves. So it was good that it finally worked out and he had the sense to say, “Not again.” Have you ever watched American Idol, or Canadian Idol?
It’s a really horrible show that I’m completely addicted to. The only part I like is the very first, where it’s crazy people coming to sing, because those are the ones that really move me. Like, there’s some fat dude who actually is Madonna when he sings “Like a Virgin.” And they destroy him.
So maybe you feel like your editors are Simon Cowell.
That’s exactly it! My favourite people have always been the odd ducks. That’s how I feel—when I come in, that’s what I must look like to them. The truth of the matter is, you can’t talk somebody into liking somebody. I’ve tried screaming people into being in love with me and it somehow just doesn’t work.
Now you’ve been an editor yourself, though, with the Best American Comics.
Yes, and I loved it! Best job I ever had.
You worked with a couple other editors for that.
I worked with the series editors, who are very good cartoonists themselves.
Jessica Abel and Matt Madden.
I don’t actually know them, and they were not allowed to speak to me on the phone, so we only emailed. I don’t know how much we have in common, but I think it was really hard. They were doing their best to just send me the best stuff for me to edit, but it turns out their taste and my taste couldn’t be further apart. What a nightmare for them, if I was the person who said, “These are the only ones you can see!” So it got a little tense and crazy. Actually, I think they should be able to edit it themselves, they’re both cartoonists, they both know what they’re doing. So I wanted to see everything, and I also think the Best American Comics is a chance for stuff that has never been seen to come on out. I wanted that more than anything.
What I don’t really get about the series is what kind of audience they’re aiming for.
They don’t get it either, though. The only way they can know is doing it over and over again.
Otherwise they’re just printing the same strips that all the comics readers have already read, or—
But if you think of the first two volumes, those never existed before. So it makes sense that it would be these particular people. I only got one chance at it—if I could do it over I would not have relied on my co-editors to send me work. I live in Wisconsin, so I really did rely on them. I would’ve started much earlier in the game. I would’ve totally gone to MoCCA—I would’ve gone in a heartbeat. I just thought they’d go and collect everything in a trick or treat bag and sent it to me. So there was a miscommunication there. Did you know that single panel comics aren’t allowed? How about that? Sorry, you’re a small person. You’re a little person. You must be at least this high to be in this book.
That’s the tricky thing with comics, though, is everybody has their own definition.
My feeling is, is there a drawing? Are there some words? That’s a comic. That totally eliminates so many people. Family Circus, for example—that’s why I had to get it in there myself. And they really didn’t want superhero stuff to get in. The one that I was almost able to get in was Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100, and then DC wouldn’t allow it.
It’s a weird, cliquey kind of thing that goes on.
It’s ridiculous, and that has to be solved. The person who’s doing it this year is Charles Burns. I went to high school with him, I’ve known him forever and ever, and that dude could draw like that in high school. He did a snaking mural that was as intricate as anything you see now, and all I can think about now is, I know as soon as we graduated they painted right over it. But so Charles and I were talking and I told him, they’re doing their best but you’ve got to tell them you want to see it all. An editor has to have that option.
You were saying, the weekly strips, that would’ve been something you would’ve had to collect yourself.
They would never have done it.
So you wouldn’t know what Ben Katchor’s doing, you don’t know what Kaz is doing, you don’t know what Tony Millionaire is doing…
They like Tony Millionaire, they sent me a bunch of Tony Millionaire stuff. But Kaz, Derf—who I think is so under-recognised—there’s a bunch that I really regret. In the end it came down to this three weeks of screaming and I realised that I failed in a certain way and I feel bad about that. I got talked out of a couple comics because they convinced me the format wasn’t correct for it. Because the comic would have to be laid sideways. Then all of a sudden I realised, Chris Ware has to be laid sideways, so what if somebody has to go like this [turns imaginary book on its side]? There’s one, and I can’t remember the cartoonist [Malcolm Sutherland], but it was called Oola Dug—it was this amazing comic strip they convinced me would not work because of the format, and I swallowed the hook.
Comics come in this size and that size, so
it is difficult to get it reproduced in the book in a way that compliments it.
But it’s not impossible. It’s certainly not a reason to exclude somebody. So I have real big regrets. On the other hand, I’m really happy that I got some of the people. It was the best job ever. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
I loved his stuff. There were these two friends [Shawn Cheng and Sara Edward-Corbett], it was a tiny mini zine about a crab and a monkey, where the monkey ends up being murdered—they were really good. I’m really bad with names, but I loved theirs. I loved that one guy [Evan Larson] who does “Cupid’s Day Off,” where he gives the bow and arrow to his secretary and he comes back and there’s an alien fucking a football and the mummy fucking a whale—that one was amazing. And Kaz’s stuff, of course—mindbending. There’s a bunch of stuff that I saw and loved and was able to put in. There was one called “Cousin Granpa” [by Michael Kupperman], and then the one about the woman who worked in a coffee shop and she hooked up with a junkie [Sarah Oleksyk's "Graveyard"]. There was a lot of really sad stuff in it that I really love. Then there were a lot of people that—for instance, Anders Nilsen, he wrote an incredibly moving, tear-your-hair-out thing, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, and he didn’t want to include it. There were a couple people who felt the same way. Dan Clowes, who I adore, he had open heart surgery that year and so he didn’t make anything. So there were a couple people that didn’t work out. American Born Chinese, that book is fantastic! It was the happiest thing. The way that I edited it, when I’d find the pages I wanted I’d xerox them, scan them, then I’d cut them out and Elmer’s glue them onto legal paper so it actually looked like making the book, and then I’d write little notes. I’d remember them a lot better, and I could kind of feel it. Well, I loved everything in that book.
I imagine that you don’t normally read that amount of comics.
I would if they were around. I love comics. Because of where I live and the way my life is, I don’t see very many. When I went to MoCCA this year, I just felt sick because I was so happy there. I wish I had gone before, I really do. And I read anything anybody sends me. I really have an open door policy. If somebody’s just drawing something and writing words next to it, I’m already there—they’ve already got an in. One of the rules I made for myself for Best American Comics was that I’d read everything at least twice, because it could be a bad day, it could be the stuff you read the day before, it could be that it didn’t sink in—and that really helped a lot.
It’s not that much of a commitment to go back—
It’s a pleasure! And I really fell in love with this cartoonist, there were a couple I wasn’t able to include, there was one called Gilded Lilies—
Oh yeah, a Canadian cartoonist, Jillian Tamaki.
She’s fantastic! There’s a couple I regret—the daily strip, Mutts. By the time I realised that, trying to get all his stuff and read a whole year’s worth, I was out of time. He’s somebody who definitely should have been in. The Perry Bible Fellowship—that guy I saw too late, but I would’ve put him in, in a hot second.
He’s bowed out of the alternative weeklies now, too.
He’ll come back. Everybody does. Just like Julie Doucet not doing comics—I was like, “Riiight.” Okay, you’re an elephant and you will not use your trunk. You promise? You’re just going to keep it nailed up by your forehead? You know what, they’ll lower it and start eating peanuts. You can’t not do it—it’s your language. It’s not an option.
There was actually just one more short question I wanted to ask.
Lay it on me.
Chicken or cheese?
Chicken. It’s sad, but I have bizarrely high cholesterol. I’ve actually trained myself to not even look at cheese—as much as I love cheese. So, chicken.
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