Thursday, February 24, 2011
Late last year, I met with Lynda Barry to discuss her new book, Picture This, for The Paris Review. But Barry is an inveterate talker, and in addition to the book itself, we covered bad editors, the glory of Drawn & Quarterly, gaps in comics history, and her giant crush on Charles Burns. That part of the conversation continues here.
* * *
Where did the near-sighted monkey in Picture This come from?
Well, I like to draw monkeys. I had been drawing a lot of the meditating monkey—I talk about it in my book—and then I started drawing that monkey with glasses on it. It’s definitely a self-portrait. So I had drawn one and we were broke, so I was trying to figure out stuff to sell on eBay. People will buy monkeys and I like to draw them, so this seems like a natural. I did this little near-sighted monkey and asked my husband if he would do some of the watercoloring. (My husband’s a brilliant watercolorist. He’s so good. He can draw everything far away. We always say I can draw stuff close up and he can draw stuff far away.) So when I got it back, the stuff he had done in the background was just like, Whaaa! We probably did about twenty of them back and forth, and I’d sell them on eBay. Then I was sending them to Drawn & Quarterly, just because they were funny and cute, and I think it was Peggy who really liked them, so they wanted to do a little book of just those pictures. But I had this whole other idea. So the book kind of expanded out of just the monkey pictures.
The pages in What It Is are heavily collaged and the images in Picture This are much simpler. There are obvious reasons for the difference—you’re showing readers how to draw in the latter—but do you find another kind of inspiration for your prose writing in the very layered, textured drawings?
There isn’t any difference for me. There might be a difference in the way that, you know, some days I’ll just mostly paint and other days I’ll collage. I could collage all day long, it’s my favorite thing, but I just felt like I couldn’t just do that, people would feel ripped off. [laughs] I wanted to make a book where you really made it from stuff you have around the house or you can get at the drugstore. So it’s just white glue, scissors, and paper from the garbage, and glitter glue, because I do love me some glitter. And there’s other stuff in there that no one will ever see: I love using glow-in-the-dark paint, and no one will ever see it but me.
And you know, there’s no other publisher who would let me do what they let me do. I can tell you, because I tried to find ’em. I don’t think either of those books would exist if I hadn’t found Drawn and Quarterly, because there’s no way to explain that book before you make it. You need a publisher to just trust you and give you a big skating rink, and that’s how I felt. Chris [Oliveros] would say, How big of a rink do you need for this one? Well, I’d like a rink that is 100 or 224 pages long. So that made a big difference.
Had you shopped the book around elsewhere?
No. In 2002, after I did One! Hundred! Demons!, that publisher didn’t want to do another book with me, and then nobody did, so I didn’t have anybody until 2008. I realized that if I waited for someone to offer to find me a publisher, the likelihood was I would have to conform the book to whatever they wanted. So I thought, I’m just going to start anyway with this idea that I had about collage and images, and that’s when Chris contacted me to reprint all my work that’s out of print. And I said I had this other book and it really looked crazy as hell, I mean, crazy, and I sent it to him and he was like, Okay. I had him on the phone and had to look at myself in the mirror, had to hold the phone to the mirror and was like, Really? Okay, well, I’ll get it done.
And because of that, this whole book happened—both of ’em. I just don’t think they coulda happened if I’d had a traditional publisher; they would have made me at least outline it, or they’d need to know what it is, and that didn’t happen.
What did you show Chris?
I had some collage stuff, and then I just sort of explained it to him, but mainly he trusted me—which was amazing, I mean, he really trusted me, and he never made me feel stupid, which, I have to say, my other publisher . . . I mean, editors can be crazy. The reason the guy at my previous publisher didn’t want any more of One! Hundred! Demons! was because he said my work was remedial. I’ll show you something remedial! I got my boot cocked in remedial mode! Yeah, remedial. And the editor at Simon and Schuster told me that this book I wrote called Freddie . . . he goes, “I just need to tell you, I think this book is stupid.” I mean, without hesitation, they’ll tell you that stuff.
Then why did they publish it?
Well, he didn’t want to. There was another guy who was my editor there who jumped ship. And then I inherited this guy.
I’ve heard bad stories about inheriting editors.
If you love your editor, you can have it in your contract that if they go, you go, too. But this guy hated the book, and he really made it hard. It was almost done, and he made it very, very difficult. And he was a reference guy; he’s like one of those guys that has some ideas about lit-er-a-ture. So he talked about it being a picaresque novel. He goes, it’s not quite picaresque. And I made some comment, you know: I’m not as educated as you. What does that word mean? And I knew exactly what it meant. And he goes, Oh, that’s okay—because he really did assume that I was that dumb.
I finally met him and we had lunch, and I swore that I was just going to look at him like this [staring unblinkingly] the whole time, like no matter what, like I never took my eyes off of him—kill him with my little eyes. Cause it’s unnerving, right? But he couldn’t say, Stop lookin’ at me! That was fun.
But those are people who have no attachment to the work. And before Drawn and Quarterly I never had an editor that was attached to my work, at all, ever. I had people who’d publish it and sort of liked it, but they didn’t have any curiosity about it. When Cruddy came out, the guy who was my editor, the one who liked the book, wrote a description of what the book was about, and he wrote something about a white father with a black child. Nothing that he described is in the book. And he had this whole idea that it was a book about race; it’s not, it’s about a serial killer, it’s not about race at all. But what was amazing is when I get the manuscript and the copy editor or someone sends it back, she read the back description and just assumed that it was about race. There’s a character called the “spooker” in it, and she says, “If she’s black, she would never use that term spooker.” She is not black! Find a place in this book that says she is black!
The great thing, though, is that you get a Dewey decimal number at the library, and that rocks, that totally rocks. When What It Is came out, Amazon didn’t know where to list it, so they put it under science fiction, which is so boss. I was like way into it. I was so excited that they listed it under science fiction. Because if I was gonna write a science-fiction story, I’d think this was a damn good one, a society that shames people out of doing the very thing that will make them sane.
I like that Picture This deals so much with a kind of art that we all already do—doodling. It’s an unconscious act: when you’re talking on the phone, you hear a voice but you don’t have anything to attach it to, so you end up walking around or rearranging things or doodling—doing something concrete.
You’re right, you’re right.
And in doodling on a piece of paper, it’s always a little surprising to see that you’ve made a picture, that there’s something there.
It’s in a sort of transitional phase: it’s not completely in you, it’s out into the world but it’s some other thing. You’re absolutely right about that, that’s so interesting. Especially now that everybody has their wireless phones. It is wild, like at an airport, you see people having to move and gesture while they’re talking.
I think often, too, we want to assign meaning to abstract shapes, like Arna and Marlys staring at the ceiling looking for pictures in the shadows and stains.
It’s wild, isn’t it? And that’s why I’m sort of upset or curious—I try not to be upset—about everybody looking at these little screens now. Remember how you had to find ways to cope with boring time when you’re on a road trip? And now everybody has these little DVDs so the kids can watch some stupid thing instead of having to find a way to cope with time, with the passage of time. Chris Ware did the best Halloween cover for The New Yorker last year. It was the little kids going up to the porch to trick-or-treat and the parents are all looking at their devices in the blue light. That was brilliant, wasn’t it? I love him. He’s so smart and very sweet and he thinks he can’t draw. So if he thinks he can’t draw it turns out that’s the normal state of things.
I was on a panel with Chris, and Dan Clowes, Kaz, and Charles Burns. We all had had a couple drinks and I was feeling a little mischievous. So when we were talking about drawing, I said, “You know one thing I always wondered about you guys is why there’s always a page in your sketchbooks, where you draw yourself with a huge dick and then you’re jacking off and then you look depressed afterwards.” I said, “I was really confused by that, until last night, I drew myself with a huge dick, jacking off, and I was depressed afterwards, and then I understood.” Cause you know they all have that moment, Oh no, I jacked off and I’m depressed. It was so funny giving them shit about it. They were all mortified [laughs].
You’re of the generation with Burns, Gary Panter, and Matt Groening. There are formal and thematic connections between your work, but do you feel a kind of generational relationship with them?
That’s a good question. I don’t really feel that separate from those people, but I also feel there were other cartoonists like Matt and Charles and me and Gary that are almost never mentioned. There were the people at the Village Voice who were kick-ass: Mark Alan Stamaty, Stan Mack, Jules Feiffer. In the National Lampoon there was Mary Kate Bishop. They always talk about me being this first woman cartoonist. No! There were two really amazing women who were big influences for me. One is M. K. Brown—Mary K. Brown—and the other is Shary Flenniken, and she did this wild strip called Trots and Bonnie, that looked like almost a Krazy Kat strip, really naughty and wild. And Trina Robbins! So there were all these people, and I think what’s really strange is how they’re left out of the history of comics. It’s like there’s this huge gap. I can’t believe that none of those guys are in the books, that none of those guys are in the histories. So I feel like I was a generation—not necessarily a generation, but they were seniors when I was a freshman. And that’s how I feel about the other cartoonists: it’s like we went to the same high school, but I was a senior when some of these people were a freshman.
Who were the freshmen when you were a senior?
People who are doing comics now, like Chris Ware. I feel like we went to the same school. I was the older chick who kept hanging out by their lockers: [batting her eyelashes] “Oh hey, Chris.”
I love to give Charles Burns shit; he loves to be teased a little, he does. He could totally draw like that in high school. Our high school had a staircase that was in a hallway. He painted this mural that wrapped around two floors. It was fabulous, and he had this kind of big Art Garfunkel afro, right? I was just smitten, I mean wrecked, over this guy. It was just a head-on collision, but I was two years younger. So I go up, like, “Hi, Charles. What are you painting today?” He said, “You know, I remember you.” I figured he was thinking, Oh no, it’s that girl. So for me it’s like Charles, Charles, and for him it’s like this mosquito bzzzzzzz and he’s scared. But I love to give him shit about that because it makes him really embarrassed—and happy, I think.
You knew each other at Evergreen, too.
Well, I knew him [laughs]. He knew there was a mosquito that seemed to show up constantly.
How did you come to meet Matt Groening at Evergreen?
He took over the school newspaper, and I always loved newspaper and journalism. But even in our little junior high–school paper I was really into it. So he took it over and when he took it over he printed a thing in the paper that said, I will print anything that people submit, and I thought, Ooohh, okay, let’s see how wild I can get. And he did! I would sneak stuff in at night, just through the slot in the door. I wrote fake letters to the editor, being outraged over something that happened to me when I was six, like on some camping trip. He would print everything. And then I started doing comics and submitting them, and he would print them. This was a hippie school in the seventies, but Matt looked like the straightest, squarest guy ever. I mean, he wore a buttoned shirt, he had hard shoes, we were all like, Who is this square? If you know The Simpsons, he’s somebody who loves to figure out what will drive the people around him the craziest, and that outfit, totally. It was hilarious to him.
He dressed that way on purpose?
Yeah, to mess us up. And he would always be playing this crazy music. It turned out it was Nino Rota, the Fellini soundtracks. But I’m like, What is this damn music! And then we had this fight—we fight about it all the time. See, I really was kind of a person that you had to … you had to ditch me if you really wanted to have a good time in the evening, because I was just like, I’m here, I know where you’re going. So I remember one time—Matt was pretty groovy, he had groovy fruits—and I remember one time they were going to play bridge. And I didn’t really want to come and play bridge. Then it turns out he was lying. He was just giving me shit. But he swears up and down he never said that. But how could I make that up? You can’t make that shit up. You’re in a hippie school, but no, it’s our bridge night.