Lynda Barry’s Making Comics is part memoir, part self-help, and a passionate call for introspection. Most of all it’s about creativity. Call it yoga for your head.
Also, it’s about comics.
“Have you given up on drawing?” asks the note scrawled on the back cover, matchbook style. “Would you like to give it one more try?”
Every page is full color, hand-lettered and illustrated by Barry, associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department at UW-Madison. Student work is occasionally featured. “Following the exercises in order will be something like being in my comics class,” she promises.
That’s true, but Making Comics, published late last year by Drawn and Quarterly, is much more than that. “Making comics saved me so many times,” she writes. Note that she speaks of the creative act, not the finished product.
Barry may be best known for her syndicated Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which she drew from 1979 to 2008. It developed a loyal following in the alternative press, including Isthmus. In 2012 she became the artist-in-residence for the UW-Madison Arts Institute and Department of Art, co-sponsored by departments including the Center for Visual Cultures.
Barry has won every top award the field of cartooning can offer, and she’s authored at least 15 books. In 2019 she was named a MacArthur Fellow (sometimes dubbed a “genius grant”).
“I hesitated for a long time before teaching a comics class,” she recalls. “I never developed a fast, easy style and was often told I couldn’t draw — or that my style was ‘faux naïve.’”
Her characters were criticized as ugly, her panels overloaded. “All of these things were true,” she writes, but only “in the same way ‘flashy vehicle’ describes a fire truck or an ambulance.”
Most “how-to” cartooning books are pretty poor. They tend to concentrate on drawing and ignore the words part. A notable exception is Clare Briggs’ 1926 How to Draw Cartoons. Arguably the inventor of the first daily comic strip, in 1903, he saw the medium spread, and its conventions standardized — and recognized. For example, a few parallel, horizontal lines behind a ball mean nothing, but we came to read it as flight. Cartooning is a language of its own.A veteran of comic strips’ developmental years, Briggs sometimes philosophized in his own how-to book. It’s perhaps no accident that he grew up in Reedsburg, near Barry’s home town of Richland Center. In many ways, especially in their affection for experiment, whimsy and small moments, the two are cartooning soulmates.
Barry’s exercises reflect her initial hesitancy to teach. “I knew I couldn’t teach the kind of cartooning that people call ‘professional,’” she writes, “but I wondered if I could teach what I knew about the power of comics as a way of seeing and being in the world and transmitting our experience of it.”
That’s what her exercises do, slowly. The reader starts with scribbles. Gradually Barry adds more and more cues, as if providing suggestions to an improv comic, inviting extemporaneous stories. As the reader grows more confident, the storytelling becomes more autobiographical. The alchemy of marrying words with text is recognized as more than the sum of its parts. Her students aren’t really learning to draw cartoons; they’re learning to speak a unique language.
“Our first task is to get to know this state of mind and find ways to sustain it,” she writes. On the printed page those words sit next to a skateboarding wiener, captioned “feel free to copy this hot dog.”
Every cartoonist will tell you that the most common question they get is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Scott Dikkers, cartoonist and founding editor of The Onion, years ago came up with the perfect response. “I subscribe to Ideas magazine,” he’d tell the curious. “Every month I get a new issue, just full of ideas for people to use.”
Now we don’t have to wait for someone to invent an actual Ideas magazine. We have Barry’s Making Comics.