Lynda Barry likes to say things that most people shouldn’t or couldn’t. A short conversation about her job as a teacher gets very interesting very quickly.
“I’m into Chewbacca in a very inappropriate way,” she says, three minutes into our interview. “I love Chewbacca. And not just as a friend.”
The creator of long-running comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Barry is one of America’s most beloved cartoonists. But she started out making comics and cartoons for her student newspaper, testing how far she could push the editor.
“He made this announcement saying that he would print anything that anyone submitted,” she says. “I read that and I thought, ‘Really?’ And I tried to come up with stuff that he would not print.”
Barry slipped what she thought were unprintable drawings under the door of the newspaper office at night, signed under a pseudonym, “Ernie Pook”. This, it turns out, was the beginning of a life-changing friendship.
The editor of Barry’s student newspaper was Matt Groening, who would go on to create The Simpsons and Futurama.
“He printed my comics,” she says. “That’s how it started.”
Barry and Groening arrived on the scene in a bizarre moment in comics history, when the ability to make weird drawings and say honest, confronting and/or inappropriate things was a genuine asset. It was the late 70s and the tail end of the underground “comix” movement, when staying hip meant you had to be into weird comics. Small alternative newspapers were popping up in every city in America, opening up doors for cartoonists with unusual sensibilities.
“Comics were still considered to be an important part of any newspaper, and I just happened to be right there with a body of work,” Barry says. “It really worked out for me and for Matt.”
The friendship was galvanised on the weekly grind of the syndicated cartoonist. Ernie Pook’s Comeek is funny, as you would expect, but it’s Barry funny, which means it’s also tragic, morbid and depressing. One of the themes of her career is finding words and visual forms that express the unspeakable and the unthinkable. The strip often follows the inner world of children, but it’s not Peanuts: this is a world of alcoholic parents, sadistic bullies, inept teachers and a stint or two in juvie.
The strip ran for almost 30 years and at its zenith was published in about 70 alternative weeklies. At the time Groening was working on an equally popular strip, Life in Hell, and the friendship developed over the phone during long hours at the drawing table.
“If one of us was working on our strips and we just got stuck and needed a punchline, we would always call the other,” Barry says.
Barry’s career spans a period in which the job description of a cartoonist changed dramatically. When she began drawing Ernie Pook, newspaper comic strips were a relevant media form, in conversation with the current culture. But when she finished it in 2008 they had become an atrophied parody of themselves. Readers had stopped going to the newspaper to find interesting comics. They were looking on the web, in zines, or in the graphic novel section of the bookstore. There was no place for alternative voices in the quickly consolidating alt weeklies.
“A parent company would buy the successful weekly papers in different towns, and the first thing they would do was kick out the cartoonists,” she says.
If saying things you shouldn’t say was what sparked Barry’s comic strip, it was likely also the thing that ended it: “For someone who had just acquired a weekly paper to have to read these really sad stories about childhood – I can understand why they would replace me with sudoku.”
Since Ernie Pook’s comic ended, Barry has found a new forum for saying things that you can’t say: the classroom. She has become a teacher and theorist in a field where plain language commonly falls short: the study of human creativity. Barry’s line of inquiry is the search for what she calls “the biological function of this thing we call the arts”.
“People ask me, ‘Do you think everyone is creative?’ and to me it’s like asking, ‘Do you think everyone has a liver?’ ”
Her task is to find ways to talk about what’s going on in and around our bodies when we are drawing pictures and making up stories. For Barry, research tactics might include: conducting automatic drawing exercises with people who claim they can’t draw; making PhD candidates explain their research to a five-year-old; getting novelists to try writing their books with a paintbrush instead of a word processor.
It’s kooky, no doubt, but Barry’s classroom at the University of Wisconsin is not a creative writing workshop for career storytellers. It’s a place where science PhDs and business undergraduates learn how to write and draw. Her approach to unlocking creativity in the non-artists is informed by her punk rock and DIY beginnings: she believes in a culture of simply making stuff.
“We don’t spend a lot of time in theory or in critique,” she says. “We spend a lot of time making things and looking at each other’s work, but not exactly talking deeply about it.”
Barry is a sparkling extrovert in conversation and in the classroom but, like most cartoonists, she describes herself as a hermit, preoccupied with rich interior worlds and the solitary craft of making little drawings in boxes.
It’s probably for this reason her career path diverged decades ago from that of her old friend Groening.
“To me Matt’s life is hell,” she says. “He’s working with the most difficult people: the people in the entertainment industry. Matt has always loved butting heads with difficult people. He’s the only person I know who loves getting a solicitor calling on the phone.
“We both disdain each other’s lives and that makes for a very fun friendship.