LYNDA BARRY in the SF Examiner

Writers and Artists to Follow: Lynda Barry

SF Examiner    |    James Defebaugh    |    March 30, 2009

I had the supreme pleasure of meeting Lynda Barry a few months ago when she came to speak at The Booksmith, one of my favorite bookshops in San Francisco. She gave a fascinating, untraditional presentation about the importance of play and creativity to the human psyche (a big chunk of which can be found on her Marlys website.) Barry’s latest book, What It Is, largely deals with these themes as well.

If play is the key to mental well-being, Lynda’s got to be the sanest person on the planet. I say this because from a visual standpoint, it’s very clear from Barry’s work that her inner child is alive and flourishing. Her use of yellow notebook paper, glitter, sequins and lots of knick-knacks creates a lovely homemade aesthetic with the illusion that you could do it yourself. However, anyone who has actually attempted such an endeavor with said materials knows Barry’s true mastery of her craft.

Some people will be turned off to Barry’s arts and craft aesthetic from the get-go and that is their prerogative. However, I would urge those people to take a second look for two main reasons. First of all, Barry’s visuals contain many subtle, thematically crucial details that can easily be missed upon first glance. This is especially true in the ornate collage pages that run rampant throughout One! Hundred! Demons! and What It Is.

Secondly, the true genius of Barry’s kindergarten-on-crack visuals is in how aptly they fit the narratives she portrays with them. Like the visuals she evokes, Barry’s storytelling style combines equal parts whimsy, innocence, nostalgia and ghostliness. Acting as perfect thematic complements, her art and text seamlessly integrate so that the resulting narratives are breathtaking and spellbinding. Together they possess the uncanny ability to evoke all the terrible, beautiful and awkward aspects of growing up most of us have so readily forgotten.

This brings me to what is perhaps Barry’s absolute best quality as a writer: to genuinely, flawlessly capture the voices of her teenage and child characters—and in doing so, to take her readers back to a time much less familiar than they think. In her comic sequences in works like What It Is, One! Hundred! Demons!and Ernie Pook's Comeek, her economy of language is impressive enough considering the scope of sentiments, ideas and detail she gets across with it. But the fact that she’s constantly accomplishing these feats in the voice of youths is what’s really astonishing. If you’ve ever read Cruddy, her illustrated novel (which, despite certain graphic novels being mislabeled as such, actually is a novel with illustrations), you know her verbal talent for getting into character extends beyond captions and dialogue.

Barry defines her writing as autobifictionalography, a term which I think would also aptly apply to the myriad other loose memoirs and pretend-autobiographies on the shelves today. A number of recurring motifs, themes and stylistic elements can be found throughout her work, including teenage angst and rebellion, cruel or abusive parents, self-reflexivity, personal vices, socioeconomic status, ageism, and creativity.

Lynda Barry is quite prolific, so I’m just going to focus on a few of my personal favorites in my recommendations. Her newest book, What It Is, is the perfect read for any creative type who sometime finds him or herself confronted by writer’s block or similar frustrations. It contains many helpful exercises to stimulate the creative self and thus keep the rest of the self sane.

As much as I enjoy What It Is, I would say that One! Hundred! Demons! is actually the quintessential Lynda Barry work. Here she is in top from as a storyteller, using a unique Zen Ink painting exercise to exorcise the various metaphorical demons that plague her semi-autobiographical protagonist. These include her mother, regret, self-consciousness, drugs, and Ira Glass. How could that not make for a great read?

If you’ve never read her work before, I’d recommend you start with one of those and then move on to the other, followed by some collections of her strips such as The Greatest! Of! Marlys! or The Freddie Stories and then maybe to her novel Cruddy. If you find yourself desperate for more Lynda Barry after devouring all of these and reading all her work on Salon.com, you can check out this huge list of all the work she's done and then maybe buy some of her original drawings on ebay.



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