“How about if we just sit on the floor?”
I looked around. I had wandered down with revered alt-cartoonist Lynda Barry to the basement of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Brooklyn, NY, to talk to her about her newest book, “Picture This,” as well as the fact that her current publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, had recently announced plans to republish all of her past work, including her seminal comic strip, “Ernie Pook’s Comeek.”
We were in the midst of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, however, where crowds were plentiful and chairs, even in the basement, were difficult to find. I didn’t have any particular problem with conducting the interview on the floor, cold though it may be, but it hardly seemed the best way to talk to someone with a career as lengthy and lauded as Barry’s was. Was she sure, I asked, she wouldn’t be uncomfortable?
“I’m comfortable anywhere,” she said, proving it by flopping down in a tiny alcove, across from a rather large bag of garbage. From there we proceeded to discuss “Picture This,” a sequel of sorts to 2008’s widely acclaimed “What It Is.” Part memoir, drawing class, self-help book, collage and activity book, “Picture This” looks at the reasons why people draw when they’re little and why they stop when they grow up. Getting to talk to Barry about the book and her reasons for making it, as the hot dog vendors added more bags of garbage next to us, turned out to be one of the highlights of my year and I thank her profusely for taking the time to talk in such smelly situation.
CBR News: My understanding is “Picture This” started out as one of D&Q’s Petit Livre books and then grew into this other project. Can you talk about how that happened?
Lynda Barry: I was actually working on a novel, which is the book I’m going to do next. I had been drawing these monkeys and I would leave them on the kitchen table and my husband, who’s a really good artist, would draw the backgrounds, and we were cracking up and not doing anything with them. I sent them to my friends, and they really liked them, and then Chris [Oliveros] at Drawn and Quarterly thought “Well, maybe this would make a nice, little book.” I thought so too.
But then all of the sudden I thought, “Boy, I want to talk about drawing.” Because I had done the one about writing [“What It Is”], and I wanted to make a book about drawing that doesn’t really give instructions but gives more activities. Also I wanted it to be like those magazines at the dentist’s office called “Highlights.” When you’re at the dentist office when you’re a kid, you’re under stress, so almost anything you look at seems fascinating. ‘Cause I don’t think “Highlights” was very good, but I loved seeing it. So I thought, “I want to make a book that’s kind of like that,” a magazine where you can flip to any page.
I pictured my reader as being someone who is getting their oil changed at Jiffy Lube. [Laughs] You know, you’re in this little room and the coffee smells really burnt and you’re looking for anything to read. There will be a “People Magazine” with Tom Selleck on it and you’re like, “Thank God — there’s something to read.” I thought if I could make a book, I could put in [the Jiffy Lube] and someone would just start thumbing through. My goal was to make them forget they were waiting for their oil to be done. Not completely forget, but make the waiting part not hard.
And then, all of a sudden I started to think about the role of drawing in transforming our experience of time. This idea of doodling — you know how people doodle? This idea of, why do they do it, especially people who don’t draw. And why do they do it during very boring meetings? Or when they’re stuck waiting for the cable guy to pick up the phone? I think it’s about transforming time, transforming the experience of waiting. Because I’ve asked them, “What would happen if you didn’t doodle during those meetings?” and they say they’d go crazy. The way I always describe it is it’s not a giant change, but it’s the change that’s the difference between time feeling like a cheese grater on your face and it feeling like Brillo. That’s not a huge change, but it’s enough so that your skin is still there at the end.
It seems like one of the big themes of the book is art as therapy, art as a therapeutic experience.
Can you talk about the idea of art as therapy, then, and what it means to you? You talk in the book about how you started drawing these characters after there was a tragedy in your own life.
Yes. Therapy, kind of, but I think it’s much more like our immune system. Just as the body has an immune system to fight off bacteria, we have the world of images to fight off assholes. [Laughs] They’re a lot like bacteria, but they’re more like viruses, actually. We have this autonomic nervous system that helps our bodies stay warm, gives us saliva and reminds us to blink. I think the use of images is kind of an external immune system, an external autonomic nervous system, and that human beings don’t exist without it. I started to think, especially when I was working on “Picture This,” I started to think, where’s Batman? Where is he? Where’s Eleanor Rigby? Where’s Scrooge? They’re in some place, ’cause I can say to you those names — Batman, Eleanor Rigby and Scrooge — and you know who I’m talking about right?
We’ve never really met, but you know whom I’m talking about. Ok, can we get rid of them? And if we can, how would we get rid of them? And I started to think, “No, you can’t get rid of them.” They’re going to be around after I’m dead. I started to think there is this place, it’s not that it’s supernatural, but there is this place where we make these characters and so you and I, who have never met, are walking down the street and I’m describing an old boyfriend who was just like Scrooge [and] you know just what I mean, right? I don’t need to say my old boyfriend was really tight with money and hated crippled children. [Laughs]
So I started to get more and more interested in what the function of this was, the biological function. I started to get interested in what happens when we use our hands, which I call the original digital devices. They are! They’re wireless, bio-fueled. Everything we’re after. No battery to run out. I started to do research about the brain and finding that the evolution of our hands, and in particular our thumbs, and our brain and our face. That these things are so bound together, particularly when we’re developing in the womb.
You know when you see a little kid who’s drawing and he sticks his tongue out? They’ll even do that in a cartoon; show a kid drawing with his tongue out. Well, it turns out that during the neurological development of our spine and brain and the nerves, the thumb and the tongue are totally together. So when you’re seeing a kid do that, what you’re seeing is, as he draws, he’s activating his tongue. Which is really interesting, right? Then you think about the role of language and the importance of the tongue. And there have been all these studies about scribbling and drawing. What kids do before they can even talk is they’ll scribble. Then, when they can start to talk they’ll scribble and they’ll tell you it’s a cow. Or it’s a car. And you believe them. But when you think about it, what you’re looking at right there is an astonishing thing, which is that the kid knows that the crayon is not a car, he knows that the paper is not a car, he does this [Barry gestures] and he says that’s a car. He knows it’s not the car that they drive around in. The word “symbol” almost cuts the balls off the whole idea. It’s not symbolic, it is the thing. It’s an image of it or it’s that living image.
The best way I can describe it is, this neuroscientist named V.S. Ramachandran, whose particular interest is in phantom limb pain, he had a patient who had a very intractable case. The patient had lost his hand, but his sensation was that the fist was still there, balled up. So nobody knew what to do with the guy, and he was losing his will to live. Ramachandran had this idea, he built this thing — I always think of it as a big shoebox — that you looked down into and he tilted a mirror [to the side] and he put a hole in one side. So he has a tilted mirror and a hole and you’re looking down into the box and he had the guy put his hand in the hole and make a fist. So when the guy looked down, he saw the reflection, [as if it were] of two fists, right? And then [Ramachandran] said “Open your hand.” This guy opened his hand and saw the other one open and the problem resolved.
I think that’s what images do. I think that in the course of human life, just like we get infections and we need an immune system, things that happen, like kids lose their parents when they’re very young or war or a very stressful household. Sometimes I think the only way that can be taken care of is to see it reflected either in your work or someone else’s work. And it doesn’t have to be the literal situation, but it has to be a reflection so you can. [Barry opens her hand]
I think it’s what keeps us sane. I think about how, if I’m sitting here with a kid who’s four years old and I have all these markers and I say, do you want to draw, and that kid’s too freaked out to draw, we’d be worried about that kid a little bit, wouldn’t you? We’d be worried about them emotionally. OK, on this side I have a 40-year-old, same situation, she’s too scared to draw, but we’re not worried about her. Why? Because there is a tacit understanding that something is going on when kids are playing or [drawing] that has something to do with their mental health. All of us know that if a kid is not allowed to play till he’s 21, he’s going to be a nut. He’s going to be a psychopath, actually. The brain studies they’ve done of kids in deep play show that their brains are identical to an adult’s brain that is in creative concentration. We know that play is essential for mental health. I would argue that so is [drawing].
What’s weird is that when “What It Is” came out, Amazon didn’t know where to shelve it, so they classified it as science fiction, which was so boss, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Don’t change it, don’t mess with it, let it be there!” But if I was going to write a science fiction story, I think one where an entire species was talked out of doing the very thing that would make them sane, that’s a good science fiction story.
Why are people talked out of it, then? Why don’t people draw more? If making images is so important, why don’t we appreciate them more?
Well, you know, I have some ideas about that. One idea I have is, the big change that happens in drawing is when a kid is drawing, the paper is a place for an experience. At some point, the paper transforms into a thing that is good or bad, rather than a place where the paper itself isn’t — you’ve seen kids draw and they don’t give a shit [afterward], they just leave [the drawing] on the table. An adult spends the same amount of time [drawing] and they don’t know what to do with it. What’s it for? They get freaked out about what this thing might be for because there’s this idea that it’s for something. They don’t do that when they take a walk or a bike ride. They don’t take a bike ride and then go, “Man, what do I do with this now? I don’t know if that was really good. I felt like this was a good bike ride,” but then they saw this video and, “No, it wasn’t a good bike ride.” [Laughs]
I don’t exactly know why people stop it, but I do know that culture prior to this time in our lives always supported that sort of activity, when people did things by hand. Because I think that even mowing — well, they didn’t mow the lawn back in ancient times — but I do think that there are activities done by hand that will do the same as a drawing and I think that those things are getting less and less [valued]. Including handwriting. Gone. Do you know they don’t teach longhand in elementary school in Wisconsin anymore?
In Wisconsin? Because I was going to say that my kids learned handwriting in school.
Are they learning longhand or are they learning cursive?
My daughter is actually teaching herself cursive, but I’m pretty sure they’re doing it in the school.
Well, handwriting in the state of Wisconsin is really being phased out. I think that’s a real tragedy because for a lot of people that’s the last place –
Well, you make the connection between the spoken word and written language by writing it down. That’s how you learn what the letter is. You have to make it in order to know it. Then you own it. That’s the only way to do it. If you type it on the computer, you’re not going to know it.
And there’s all kinds of differences in what’s going on in your brain when you’re drawing a letter “A” and when you’re just pushing your index finger to have one appear there [on a computer]. I have to say at this age, when I’m almost 55, it’s been a delightful thing to start to think about and figure out. I didn’t expect it to get so interesting as I got older.
What effect has being a teacher had on your work?
Everything. There are certain things I really cannot figure out unless I’m teaching it. I can have questions like, “What is an image,” or, “Why do so many people say they can’t remember their childhood,” and I can just sit down with them and ask them if they grew up in the same house, and if they did I ask them, “Let’s draw their bedroom, what was the shape?” And you’ll watch and I’ll say, “Where was the bed,” and they’ll know that. Then there’s this moment where they’ll remember this Winnie the Pooh rug that got burned, but you watch this change. It’s like a physical change, and then I realize, “Yes, they totally remember their childhood,” and I can show it to them over and over again. So why isn’t this thing — I don’t know. I started to get really interested in this whole thing about memory and who we are, but not in a flaky way.
In a physical way, though, how did teaching affect your approach to making art? Because “What It Is” and “Picture This” are markedly different from how you’d been doing comics before.
Well, I guess the most important part would be the thing I teach people — to maintain a certain state of mind and to maintain it over time. I think that’s had a big effect on my work. Story structure, for example. I remember reading about when you start to deconstruct stories for the first time and they’ll talk about the story arc and the inciting incident. The only reason I thought I needed to read those books was so I knew how to do that. It never occurred to me that the only reason we know about that is that that’s how stories are told. It’s sort of like, the only reason we have teeth is someone showed us some dentures. [Laughs] It’s completely backwards. So I started to think of story structure as being natural reliable. That’s the thing that I think has changed my work, because it’s allowed me to rely more on my intuition when I’m working, and not think so hard. It’s really reliable. I’ve taught everywhere from colleges to prisons and it is absolutely reliable that when someone has an unexpected memory, that’s an associative memory. Like when I say, “Think of a car from when you were little.” In a weird way, your brain realizes it has a lot of choices and it’ll lay one on you. Can you picture a car from when you were little?
Are you inside the car or outside?
I’m in the back seat, lying down.
Day or night?
Spring or summer.
Where’s the car?
We are going to my grandmother’s house.
[Laughs] Where the hell was that sitting, right? And what’s directly in front of the car?
The Long Island Expressway.
See what I’m talking about? That was beautiful, by the way. Because not only do you know which car you’re in, you know you’re lying down. Where was that [memory] sitting?
I wanted to ask you, what’s the significance of the “Don’t” cigarettes in the book? The reason I ask is because it seems negative — “don’t draw,” “don’t do this” — but it could also be taken the other way, as a positive, like, “don’t inhibit yourself.”
That’s right! You nailed it. That’s exactly it. I wanted to piggyback on the idea about cigarettes being bad for us and I wanted to piggyback on the idea of not drawing being bad for us too. But I didn’t want to wreck that in-between space, when somebody looks at something and they kind of don’t know what the interpretation is, so you kind of make up your own. So you nailed it. Your response was exactly what I was hoping for — it could mean this or this.
You utilize a lot of different artistic styles in the book. Collage, of course, and you use the Chinese brush and I think I even saw some crayon.
What do those tools give you? What does that approach give you that you didn’t have when you were doing “Ernie Pook?”
Well, I always have done stuff like this. With my comic strip, the only way a comic strip can be printed, especially early in my career, was black and white on newsprint. You couldn’t really do collage back then. I did a little collage, stuff from the “National Enquirer,” which used to be black and white. With my other work, I’ve always made pictures for no reason and used a lot of color. But I’ve always been somebody who’s had a terrible time using good paper or real art materials, ’cause I grew up in a poor family and there was always this feeling of — Ok, this is how crazy it was — “Don’t use the vacuum cleaner because we don’t want to wear it out.”[Laughs] And so I have paper that I bought in my 20s that’s really nice, that I still don’t feel confident to use. But once something’s been in the garbage, no problem! Sometimes I throw stuff in there so I can pull it out and use it. [Laughs] Sort of just dragging it in the car down the street and going, “OK, now I can use it.”
Does it give you a new approach? Do you find yourself trying different styles, like the Chinese brush for example, did that give you a — I’m fumbling about, but does it give you a new way of thinking about how to draw?
Well, actually for me, I don’t really think stuff out. But I can tell you the brush — I had been trying for 10 years to write this novel on a computer. I wasn’t getting anywhere and I ended up trying to write it with a paintbrush. And then I started to get somewhere. I wrote “Cruddy” with a paintbrush and then I thought, “I’m going to blow everyone’s mind in the world with this.” Then I found out that no, I hadn’t discovered it. That, like 3,000 years of Chinese culture — and it’s not just Chinese culture — in the darkness, they were writing. There are instruction books for how to use a brush that are 2,000 years old. There’s one called “The Mustard Seed Garden” that’s ancient. What they all said was, it’s the state of mind. That the most important tool you have when you’re using a brush is a certain state of mind. But the brush will give you that. You don’t have to get the state of mind first and make the picture. It seems like not a very big deal, but that was a huge revelation to me, that I don’t need to be in a mood to draw. I just need to draw and the mood comes from that. It’s sort of like this lady I just read about; she doesn’t have anybody planned for a husband but she said, “Fuck it, I’m just going to start planning my wedding now.” She has! She bought her dress. She just figures the guy will show up. “I know what it’s going to look like, how I’m going to do it,” but yeah, there’s no dude. You can use a sock puppet maybe.
How long did it take you to do “Picture This?”
About a year.
Wow, that’s pretty good.
Actually, I could have done it faster, I was working on other stuff.
Now you’re working on a novel too, right?
Mmm-hmm. That was the novel that was I working on when “Picture This” jumped the line and shot out through, so yeah, I’m working on a novel.
How’s that coming along?
It’s good. I’m actually sort of aching to finish it. I have a little more than half done. It’s called “Birdis.”
What’s it about?
Oh, I can tell you where it takes place. It takes place in Chinatown in Seattle. It starts in the late ’60s. For the longest time I thought it was going to be stuck there until maybe the ’70s. But I realize now, since I’ve been working on it, that it starts there and the narrator is contemporary. It’s the first time I’ve had somebody who’s my age in time [as a] narrator. It’s, you know, murder and mayhem — a lot of murder. I love murder! I had no idea. That was the other thing that came from using the brush.
Yeah, because I had been trying to write this very sweet, cure-the-world’s-problems-with-my-magical-love-hippy-thing on my computer, but once I started using a paintbrush it was, “Fuck that, let’s kill people.” So I did. I killed a lot of people and I really enjoyed it. It’s like imaginary cigarettes. They won’t hurt you.
Well, maybe that’s another therapeutic thing about art, too. You can put on paper whatever you want to dredge up and it’s not going to hurt you.
Yes, and it’s not going to hurt others. There are people I really would like to kill. I really would genuinely like to kill, and I’ve thought about how I would do it. Actually one of the questions I like to ask people when I’ve had a few drinks and they’ve had a few drinks is if you had to kill somebody, an awful person — awful, awful, awful — and you’re the only person to do it, what’s your style? What kind of killer are you? Do you know?
You’d have to get a couple drinks in me.
I’m an ax to the forehead girl. See, now don’t you feel better just thinking about that? Sometimes if I’m talking to somebody and they’re driving me nuts, I just picture them with this big ax in their forehead, blood dripping down their face and they’re still talking and I have a CNN crawl in my mind: “This person is such an asshole.” Then I can stand to talk to them. I transform my sense of time. I can stand to get through these next fifteen minutes with this person.
Drawn and Quarterly is going to be reprinting your work, starting next year. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What’s going to be in the first book?
My comics have run for 30 years, so there’s a lot of work. The first book will have my first two books in it, but also I’ve hoarded every letter and everything from everybody, so I’m going to have photos in there and then some letters. Matt Groening and I have been tight, tight friends from when we were 18, so I have a ton of letters from him that are interesting. I have a letter I got from Art Spiegelman, who I adore, he’s a dear friend of mine. Early on, he sent me this letter to tell me how I could make my comic strips better and how they had too many words. I love stuff like that. He knows that I’m going to do that too. [imitating Spiegelman] “Why do you keep bringing that up?” So it will have that kind of ephemera in it and the comic strips themselves. For each year, I’m going to write a lengthy introduction that talks about what was going on at the time I was making the comics and what was going on with comics in general, from my point of view.
It was that heady period of the 70s and 80s.
It was because of the coffee shops and the alternative papers. “The Village Voice” here, which really used to be a great paper. It’s like the job I had doesn’t exist anymore, but it did for a long time. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I don’t know if you saw my talk with Charles Burns today.
I had just gotten in when you were doing it and didn’t get to catch it.
I told the story of how I got into the first paper, which was basically, I submitted my work to somebody who worked at a little alternative paper. She hated it, but the guy at the next desk hated her and he ran the back page. He totally printed my stuff, not ’cause he gave a shit about it but because he hated her so much. All the little alternative newspapers at that time formed a group, and they would send each other their papers. The alternative papers needed alternative comics and saw that mine were in this paper and said, “Will you be in our paper, we’ll pay you $10 a week,” and I’m like “Yes!” And it all came from one guy hating this other person. But that’s often how things happen. I think hate has been given a bad name. [Laughs]
Are you going to be designing all these volumes? How much of a hand do you have in the production?
No, I’m going to have a hands-off attitude. Otherwise it will take forever, and with Drawn and Quarterly — I can’t think of anybody who could do a more beautiful job. But I’ll be doing the introductions and giving them the ephemera and they’ll be doing the design.
How many volumes are you planning on releasing?
Ten. It’s called “Everything,” which has 10 letters. ‘Cause that will just look so cool.
Is it going to just be “Ernie Pook” or is it going to include out of print books like “One Hundred Demons?”
Well, “One Hundred Demons” is still in print.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Don’t worry about it. I wish it would go out of print with all my heart, because then Drawn and Quarterly could print it. [“Everything” is] going to be out of print stuff, but then it’s going to include stuff I did, like I did a book called “Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies.” I have a lot of work that no one’s ever seen. I used to show at art galleries, which I’m not so crazy about and I kind of just abandoned ship because I just don’t like that stuff. I was doing comics back then, too. I would do comics about the seven deadly sins or vices and virtues, so there will be a lot of stuff that’s never been collected. I know it’s going to be pretty, because those guys do pretty work.