Janesville73.1°

Alternative cartooning icon enjoys simple life in Footville

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Catherine W. Idzerda
August 11, 2009
— First came the stories of childhood.

The dusky evenings playing kickball on a quiet suburban street. The stories of being 8 or 9 or 10 years old and trying to understand the mysteries of the universe—the cool girls table in the lunchroom, kind teachers and cruel ones and the unpredictable moods of parents.


Then came the stories adulthood—funny, awkward, tender.


Finally, other people's stories. Not the big ones—like the time we won the big game right at the buzzer. But those small, framed moments of life: The barber putting a wooden board across the arms of the barber chair for a child to sit on for a haircut.


All those stories come from—and are encouraged by—the heart and mind of Lynda Barry.


Lynda Barry and her husband, Kevin Kawula, live quietly on a farm near Footville. He restores prairies; she teaches writing, writes and illustrates her own books and, until recently, produced a weekly comic strip.


Her artwork isn't easy to describe. It's a mixture of cartoon panel drawings, ink and water color on paper and collage. Even the script in the cartoon panels carries emotional weight.


Barry was born in Richland Center in 1956, but her family moved to Washington when she was young. She attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she met Matt Groening of Simpsons' fame. He was the editor of the student newspaper and published her comics.


Barry started her career as a cartoonist during the hey day of alterative newspapers. They wanted something sophisticated, edgy and funny, and she obliged with "Ernie Pook's Comeek."


The comic told the stories of Maybonne, Marlys and Freddie, preteens struggling with the vicissitudes of childhood.


Sometimes, the strips were straight up funny, other times strange, poignant, disconcerting, but most often, they were all of the above—that's the way childhood is.


Barry became an artistic celebrity, a leading alternative cartoonist. Collections of "Ernie Pook's" comics were furious sellers.


Over the years, however, alternative newspapers began to close, losing ground to the Internet, and Barry had trouble finding outlets for her work.


In 2001 she created a series of cartoons called "One! Hundred! Demons!" for Salon.com., and it was later published in book form.


The work is kind of artistic devotion developed by Buddhist monks. Its goal was to exorcise personal demons by giving them form on paper.


It sounds like a grim exercise—but it's actually about telling stories, and those stories can be really funny, especially when they involve self-involved boyfriends, insane roosters and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.


The first demon in the compilation is "Head Lice." It's a story about your first crush, the uncomfortable life of fifth graders and looking back with chagrin at the relationship you had with that self-absorbed jerk with the ponytail.


In that self-absorbed jerk, Barry creates a universal metaphor for every wienie anyone has every dated.


And though Mr. Pony Tail doesn't get his comeuppance, he does get head lice, which is almost just as good.


The opening panel reads "Although head lice have been with us since Neanderthal days, they seem to have skipped my neighborhood in the '60s. Was it all the TV dinners we ate? Or the candy so loaded with preservatives it never went bad?"


Several panels later, we meet her boyfriend, a "somewhat gifted" child from the suburbs who is reading the "Lonely Genius Gazette."


"Although I'd been making my living from my writing and art for years, he saw a lot of room for improvement," Barry writes in one panel.


His doubts about her fitness to be his partner only seem to increase her love.


After an extended stint volunteering in a fifth grade classroom, she catches head lice from the kids.


It's a horrible and hilarious moment: "He was frank with me about this feeling that I was not his peer in many ways, now I had to tell him I'd given him head lice."


In the cartoon bubbles above their heads, she says, "There's no easy way for me to say this."


He says, "You don't have to. This relationship isn't working for me, either."


She says, "No, I have head lice."


It's funny, but also reminds us of the people we've dated who didn't recognize our worth. Worse, it reminds us that we continued to date them even after we knew the truth.


But Barry forgives our frailties by showing us her own: "I wish I could say my revelation made an instant difference, but head lice are much easier to get rid of than bad love. It's been true since Neanderthal times, I'm sure."


In 2008, "One! Hundred! Demons!" was one of three books picked as required reading for the Stanford University Class of 2012.


At the end of the book, Barry encourages readers to paint their own demons—to tell their stories.


In 2008, Barry published "What It Is," an entirely different work with a similar theme: Tell your story.


Each page is its own artwork created with ink, watercolor, scraps of text photos and images cut from books, magazine and newspaper and a variety of other items. It's visually complicated and tremendously engaging.


The first half of the book is like a graphic novel: With images and words she tells readers about the creative life—where it comes from in childhood, how it disappears and, most importantly, how to get it back.


On page 138, a multi-eyed sea monster brandishing a pencil announces, "Welcome to Writing the Unthinkable!"


"Useful, distinctive and inexpensive," announces another line of text that looks like it was cut from a pamphlet.


What follows are lessons Barry uses in her writing classes.


"We notice that when people tell the story of their lives, it often sounds like an obituary," says the cartoon bubble next to the multi-eyed sea monster. "A lot of general information, but almost no images."


Those images hold the key to our ability to tell stories. Instead to trying to remember the details of a childhood trip to the Corn Palace, start with the image of the station wagon. Vinyl seats? A big space in the back for a fort made of suitcases? The smell of Aunt Mary's cigarettes?


Those kinds of images loosen up our brains, taking us back to the rich world of childhood, and those framed moments in time that, in the end, are the only ones that matter.



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