Did you ever adore a teacher? The type who managed to be candid and encouraging? That’s what the comic artist Lynda Barry is like. Teaching is the cartoonist’s day job now; she discontinued her long-running strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek some years ago. But Barry’s long, ebullient paragraphs sound natural in the classroom.
Her most recent book, called Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, collects the lesson plans from a course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aimed specifically at students who doubt that they can write or draw. “People think if you’re writing a story that you have to follow story structure,” she said at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last week. “It’s like thinking the only reason we have teeth is because there are dentists.”
Barry may feel this urge to encourage others because her own career in comics was not inevitable. Barry’s semi-autobiographical book One! Hundred! Demons! shows her revelling in the dance moves of her Filipino cousins, transfixed by their mastery of hula. But her mother appears as a spiteful, admonishing presence. “My parents were not reading people,” the young Lynda says in another book. “They worked, shouted, drank, slapped, belted and were broke.” She calls it a “really troubled, difficult home. My mom’s side of the family is from the Philippines, so it was all these immigrants, and my dad left pretty early on – not a lot of money, no real sense of how things are done in the States. So when I went to school, it seemed like paradise.”
Barry’s mother adamantly opposed to her daughter attending college at all, so Olympia’s Evergreen caught her eye. It was two hours away from their home in Seattle, but still had cheaper in-state tuition. It was also a radical college with no grades or structured disciplines, and Barry was a hippie-cum-punk. (Evergreen alumni include Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Charles Burns, another future cartoonist.)
One day a fellow student named Matt Groening announced the school paper, which he ran, would print whatever anyone submitted. Barry began writing outraged “letters to the editor” about things that happened to her as a kid, then tried to come up with a comic that Groening might turn down. “He wore a button-down,” Barry explained, “hard shoes with laces, he had short hair, and when he didn’t want anyone to talk to him – he had made this wire thing with an antenna, and he would just put that on. Turns out he hated hippies so much that he went to the hippie school and dressed like a straight guy to drive them crazy … Our relationship is very much trying to drive the other one nuts.” (Groening would go on to create his own comic strip Life in Hell, not to mention a television show called The Simpsons.)
After that fitful beginning at art-making, Barry’s breakthrough came casually: “I had a girlfriend I really loved, she was a lot of fun, and one day, I don’t know why, I drew a little sheep and I put glasses on it and it made her laugh. And she’s pretty beautiful, so all I wanted to do was make her laugh.” When Barry got mistaken for a life model in the Evergreen cafeteria, she decided that she could use the $4 an hour: “Also, I loved to stare at people, and when you’re modelling you can stare all you want.”
Barry makes experimental comics that don’t bellow that fact — text captions in One! Hundred! Demons! routinely fill half a panel, while more recent collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines.
The way Barry runs her classroom is more Evergreen College than state school. Every jumbled-together student, whether sophomore or PhD candidate, adopts a pseudonym (Captain Haddock, Gravelord Nito, Companion Cube). At times she asks them to use crayons or cheap notebook paper. Like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, Barry’s exercises serve to focus an artist and wrestle wayward ideas into place: spend 90 seconds thinking of stories about your haircuts. “I always say to stay behind the image,” she said, “let this thing pull you, versus making it a donkey for you.”
Ever since Ernie Pook’s Comeek introduced its star Marlys, a freckly and excitable girl with hair like bunches of carrots, Barry has returned to the strange geometries of childhood – that moment when someone can simultaneously be friend, rival, and crush. “The ability to exist in pieces is what some adults call resilience,” she wrote in One! Hundred! Demons!.
“I like to work with little kids,” Barry told me, “because I’m really interested in where drawing starts and when it stops.” Her Syllabus course paired up graduate students and preschoolers as co-researchers, stressing that it should be an equal exchange. Barry has an academically heretical belief in the value of copying; she told her charges that all their work would be open-source. “We don’t learn to make an A or a 5 by not copying,” she explained to me. “Why not a giraffe?” And the diaries they kept, a few of which appear in Syllabus, remained idiosyncratic: “Felt weird again at Trader Joe’s. Attended what I did not realise was a cotillion.”
Believing that everyone deserves to make art, Barry has also volunteered in prison education. “The stories that these people wrote were so good,” she said, “and I realized the same thing that got them into jail made them good writers, which was no second thoughts. ‘Is this a good sentence? Yeah! Should I rob this 7/11? Uh-huh!’” I told her about a friend who sends letters to convicts, and the heartbreaking, dehumanizing obstacles involved. “It broke mine too,” Barry replied. “I noticed that all the prisoners wrote really tiny, and finally I asked what was up, and they said they were trying to conserve the book for as long as possible. This is a $1 book.”
Unsurprisingly, Barry is not a fan of MFA programs themselves. “I’m sure not into the workshopping method,” she said. “Obviously, teaching writing works, there are a lot of writers who come out of it, but it’s not a process the way that it’s approached, from the mind down to the hand.”
Her own practice has been formed in reaction to her students’ though, changing how long she thinks about something before drawing it – which is to say, not very much. “I studied with Marilyn Frasca for two years and she asked me that question, ‘What is an image?’ And that has directed my entire life,” Barry said. “The cool part is, now I’m 60, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to answer it, which is great, which means I get to keep chasing it, you know? Otherwise you’re just catching death. ‘I caught ya! Oh, shit …’”