“When kids draw,” Lynda Barry says, “there’s almost always a story that comes with their drawing.” That childlike Eden, where words and pictures arrive in tandem, is a place that the cartoonist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is constantly trying to rediscover. The search for the source of cartooning creativity is both the subject of her new book, Making Comics (Drawn & Quarterly, 200 pages, $25.95) and one of the reasons she has now received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”
“Over the last few years at the university,” she says, “I’ve been able to work very closely with four-year-olds. It’s the age right before drawing and writing split, so kids are using both those languages at once – they’re not untangled. That’s the state I’m trying to get to when I’m working and that’s the thing I’m trying to teach.”
It’s this kind of thinking that merits Barry her MacArthur Fellowship. Recipients of the “Genius Grant” can often breathe a rarefied air, since what they do seems so impossible to duplicate: write great novels, make discoveries in microbiology, secure justice for marginalized communities. But in Barry’s case, her genius derives not only from her extraordinary work – her whimsical, haunting, funky comics are among the greatest ever made – but also from her inspiring ability to impart precisely how she does what she does.
For more than a decade, Barry has been making a series of instructional books – part self-help guide, part doodle-pad, part philosophical treatise – that encourage readers to rediscover and nurture their creativity, to draw pictures or write stories. In Making Comics, Barry shares the fast-paced, playful exercises she performs with her cartooning students (for example, there’s “Let’s Boop It”: draw Betty Boop from memory in only three minutes). Handwritten and decorated with kooky marginalia and the cast-off drawings of former students, the assignment sheets are homespun paeans to the creative impulse, at the same time that they’re entirely practical activities.
Barry spoke with The Globe and Mail about the scariness of creativity, and the ways that making comics can open us up to other dimensions of experiencing the world.
Click here for the entire interview