For more than 20 years, Lynda Barry has written and drawn Ernie Pook's Comeek for a number of big-city weekly newspapers. Legend has it that the first publication of her work happened without her knowledge, submitted to an Evergreen College newspaper by friend and classmate Matt Groening, who dedicated his first several Life In Hell books to her. Barry's stories are filled with text, and the art often limited but lush with movement and dynamic energy. Her fictional stories, mostly centering on siblings Maybonne, Marlys, and Freddy (a.k.a. Skreddy 57) hit a greater truth about childhood than most autobiographical cartoonists do: Life is rarely fair for children, and it can often be frightening and overwhelming. But Comeek also often spins into such strange and humorous forays as bug interviews, trailer-park reporting, and the musings of a beatnik-poet poodle named Fred Milton. Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster published Barry's second novel, the childhood road comedy and horror story Cruddy, as well as the comic anthology The Freddy Stories. Through a series of sketch-covered faxes, Barry recently gave an interview to The Onion.
The Onion: Your writing focuses primarily on childhood. How would you characterize your own childhood?
Lynda Barry: Long. It went on and on and on. Beyond that, um, I actually don't like to talk about it much. I'm very glad it's over.
O: Cruddy was a dark novel filled with characters that have been battered physically and psychologically at every turn. Does this reflect a conscious desire to explore the darker material hinted at in your strip?
LB: Really, there is nothing conscious about it. It was about as conscious as a pinball game. I just tried to keep the ball in play, keep the story going, and try not to freak out about the dark parts being too much for my editor to handle. I live in constant fear of being fired or dropped for that dark part of my work I can't control. But Cruddy was also hilarious, at least to me. I laughed a lot during the writing of it. I don't think it was so different than a fairy tale. If the story of Hansel and Gretel were told on the news or in the newspaper, it would be horrifying. But in our minds, we can make a place for such stories, and to me Cruddy was in that place. I really enjoyed writing it. I'm always jarred when someone mentions how dark it is. The experience of writing it wasn't at all.
O: Is it difficult to switch between the visual emphasis of your strip and the descriptiveness of your novel?
LB: No. They are really similar in that one word suggests the next, one line invites another, and I try really hard not to think about the work unless I'm actually doing it. Because then it's like planning how you're going to act at a party or at dinner, and that never works. It's more exciting to accept the part of making something that is alive and might die. It's a living relationship that doesn't always work out. Sometimes the work is DOA. Sometimes it's so surprisingly alive that I feel I had very little to do with it.
O: Everyone in your stories survives by either banding together with a like-minded person or creating one in their minds. No one ever comes to the rescue. Are you of the mindset that there's no room for heroes today?
LB: I never thought of that. I guess that's a point of view I would have to admit is autobiographical. (I had to stop here and get a pinch of Copenhagen to calm down from this jarring observation.) In my own life, no one ever did come to the rescue for anything. Ever. Probably the most important people for me, the heroes, were my teachers. But there is only so much they can do, and I was not an especially likable kid. I was oversensitive and freaked out easily, and I looked like Alfred E. Neuman. And I fell down a lot, so you kind of had to be a certain kind of person to like a kid like that in a time when the average classroom size was 32 to 36. I had a first- and second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lesense—I had her for two years—who I really believe saved my life. She let me come in early. I was normally at school before even the janitor then. I remember going a couple of times at like 4:30 in the morning and just twirling in the dark on the monkey bars and waiting for Mr. Gunderson, the janitor, who let me push the rolling trash can and help open up the classrooms. Mrs. Lesense let me come into the room early and draw, and I stayed until she drove away in her car. She was a hero to me. She liked me, and it made a huge difference in my life to experience that. But after her, it wasn't until junior high that I had another teacher who liked me: Sally Wilma. And then high school, Mrs. Hughes. Cleta Hughes. But I got in well with my counselors. I actually went to them like kids were supposed to—to, um, rap. When rapping wasn't rhyming. But other than those people and my art teacher in college, Marilyn Frasca, there wasn't anyone who came to the rescue. I clawed my way out. If Jimmy Carter hadn't been president when it was time for me to go to college, I couldn't have gone at all. There were easy ways for kids with no money or parental support to go to school then. So he's a hero to me. Seriously, I love Jimmy Carter. And [The Chicago Reader's] Bob Roth, for that matter. He came to the rescue. But when I was a kid, no one did besides those teachers, and maybe that's why I can't even imagine it for my own characters. Sorry about this long answer, but your question surprised me. I'd never thought of it before.
O: Who influenced your cartooning style? And your prose style?
LB: Well, I'd hate to insult anyone, but Dr. Seuss, Don Martin, Dave Berg, R. Crumb, Tom Robbins, Grimm's fairy tales, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Anderson's fairy tales, hippie music, Peter Maxx, the Broadway musical Hair, Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, The Family Circus, Archie, Nancy, and, um… books in the library that I stared at while I waited for most of the other kids at my junior high to go home so I could walk home without getting beat up. The library was open for one hour after school let out. I hid there, looking at art books and reading poetry.
O: Did you run with a cartoon posse at Evergreen? If so, did you rule with an iron fist or a benevolent touch?
LB: Well, I knew Matt Groening, and we were both just embryonic in many ways. He played bridge and listened to what I thought was Muzak, but it turned out to be Nino Rota's Fellini soundtracks. I was moving from Neil Young (whom I still adore) to Patti Smith and dyeing my hair bright red and being a painter, and Matt was a philosophy/journalist guy, and I think he looked down on me but found me amusing. I did not look up to him, but I found him really fun to irritate, so we got close through this kind of interaction. He was really so much more ahead of the times, but I thought he was kind of straight—not lame exactly, but certainly rigid in his worldview. I mean, he was not a hippie or a punk, and I was both of those things in my own lame way. So that was my posse. I went to high school with Charles Burns and thought he was the world's best artist, but I don't think he thought much of me beyond as a pest. I still think he's the best cartoonist in the world except Chris Ware, who is Michael Jordan.
O: At what point did you decide that you could be a cartoonist for a living?
LB: When Robert Roth at The Chicago Reader called me in Seattle and picked up my comic strip. The Reader paid $80 per week. My rent was $99 a month. Lordy! I was rich. This was when I was 23, so around 1979-ish. Punk time. Actually, a little post-punk time. Punk time for me was college. So it was, uh, new-wave time. I remember my comic strips being called "new wave." It bugged me. But being called anything (except "Princess Kitty") bugs me. "I live in constant fear of being fired or dropped for the dark part of my work I can't control. But Cruddy was also hilarious, at least to me."