Essay from The Awl on graphic autobiography, featuring Seth, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware

“Penis Rays, Self-Loathing and Psychic Voodoo: Autobiographical Cartoonists on Truth and Lies” / Kim O'Connor / August 14, 2012

...Exploratory autobiography is the specialty of my imaginary best friend, Lynda Barry (who was not, in real life, available for an interview). Barry is such an icon that just thinking about her makes me want to tie a red bandana around my head to get more awesome by association. I spend a disproportionate amount of time wondering what her dance moves are like, and if she's any good at Charades.

Barry is a shining light in the world of alternative comics, which can be a dark place. It's not that she hasn't known trouble. But unlike most of her peers, even when Barry's subject is grim, the world rarely seems bleak; her work has the same verve that animates her being.

Barry's graphic memoir One Hundred Demons is an episodic look at her life: short meditations on games of kickball, hula dancing lessons, and the way her neighbors' houses smelled. The book begins with a handwritten disclaimer: "Please note: This is a work of autobifictionalography." The tone is playful, not probing. What, exactly, she means is unclear, and that's by design. It's just something to think about.

Barry's other explicitly autobiographical book—What It Is, an array of collages and comics and guided writing activities—is more difficult to categorize. (The artist has said it was once sold by Amazon as science fiction.) It feels like a mystic text, which is not to say it's impersonal. In part, it's the story of how Barry's imagination helped her weather a difficult childhood. "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality," she wrote. "We create it to be able to stay."

Memories of things that never happened, the long hours she spent exploring other (more friendly) worlds in books and TV shows—these non-events shaped Barry as much as her physical circumstances. As she excavates the layers of her imaginary past, readers are encouraged to do the same. When we think of our lives in terms of succinct entries on a timeline, we overlook a critical area of experience that's less logical and linear. A person's fictions can reveal as much as, if not more than, her facts.

The final section of What It Is is an activity book that's based on Barry's renowned workshop, "Writing the Unthinkable." (The cartoonist reinvented herself as a teacher after the market for syndicated comic strips dried up.) It contains exercises that explore the connection between memory and creativity—quirky writing prompts (your first phone number, other people's mothers) followed by questions that are designed to tease out sensory details. "We notice that when people tell the story of their lives it often sounds like an obituary," Barry wrote. "A lot of general information but almost no images." The real story of who we are is not in what we experience, but how we experience it.

...From his vintage suits down to his very name, which he gave himself in the 1980s, the cartoonist Seth (b. Gregory Gallant) comes across as a character. Like Amy Sedaris or Pokey LaFarge, he has a strong sensibility that seems rooted in a past that never quite existed. It's the sort of affectation that seems charming against all odds.

When Seth began drawing his long-running series Palookaville, a comic that is beautiful and subtle and sad, he worked in an autobiographical mode. "After my first couple of issues, I realized that the stories I was telling were more anecdotes than anything," he told me. "They were lacking something essential." He decided to try something different.

The storyline that followed, which was eventually collected as the graphic novel It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, followed Seth as he pursued the cold trail of an obscure cartoonist called Kalo. While many of the particulars of that story (a sick cat, a weird breakup) were true, it turns out that Kalo, a sort of Keyser Söze figure, never existed—a revelation that left some fans feeling disappointed or even betrayed.

"If anything, it was simply a device to make the tale more engaging," Seth explained. "It was never my intention to put anything over on the reader. I was seriously failing in my earlier autobio attempts to get at the heart of my own life or personality. By adding a fictional plot, I ended up getting much closer to a true portrait. It was still a rough inaccurate portrait, but nearer than before.

"After Good Life I started to work in straight fiction—eliminating myself as a character entirely. It is in these works that I think I have gotten the very closest to showing my 'true' self."

Years ago, a profile for Toronto Life magazine described the way in which the line between life and art—between self and character—seems more permeable for Seth than for most people. In the apartment the cartoonist shares with his wife, "there is a whole shelf of trophies, all of them awarded by Seth to himself, the brass plates on the bases recording one disappointment after another—'Never Called a Boy Wonder, Seth, 1962–1987' is just one of them." The sign outside the door says "Palookaville."
What does autobiography mean to a man with a living room like that? Whatever it is, I don't think nonfiction has the capacity to capture it...

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