Cartoonist Lynda Barry makes a case for phone-book doodling

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For someone who's been told she can't draw, Lynda Barry has made quite a 30-plus-year career out of drawing and writing. In the late '70s, she first introduced a cast of misfit preteen girls with her comic strip Ernie Pook's Comeek and, in 2000, garnered accolades for her brutal novel Cruddy. For her 2002 graphic novel, One! Hundred! Demons!, she put her own spin on a Zen Buddhist exercise and faced her personal demons in comic-strip form. Also a teacher, Barry puts on a writing workshop called "Writing the Unthinkable," which she translated to yellow lined legal paper for a how-to book called What It Is, a mashup of memoir, drawings, Elmer's glue collages, and writing exercises.

Now, Barry is making her first appearance at the Alternative Press Expo, where as a special guest, she will debut yet another one-of-a-kind how-to book, this one for all the people who've been told they can't draw. She'll present Picture This: The Nearsighted Monkey Book, published by Drawn & Quarterly, in a slideshow workshop format. This year's APE -- which in 16 years has become the world's largest convention for alternative and independent comics -- also features underground hero and Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, a discussion on the history of Bay Area comics, and a new event called "Comics Collaboration Connection" designed to connect writers with artists.

Barry spoke to me about her new book and some of the drawing secrets she'll be sharing at APE.

LH: Tell me about the book you're going to debut at APE.

Barry: I wanted to find a way to do a book about drawing that wasn't just writing about drawing. Or you know, those instructions that always make me feel tired right away, like how to draw a picture of a glass of water and the color wheel and all those things that just make you go "Huhn-uhhh!"


At the dentist when I was a kid they had Highlights for Children, and they weren't very good, but there were certain things I really loved, like "Goofus and Gallant" and I really liked "find the hidden whatever" picture. So I wanted to make a book that had that same kind of feel, sort of like a magazine, something that you could flip through, that has no real starting point necessarily.

picture this cover

LH: What inspired you to publish these how-to books?

Barry: When I was 19 at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, my teacher Marilyn Frasca got me thinking from the very beginning about how everything we call "the arts," whether it's a novel, or a painting, or a song, all contain something that she called an image. Her idea was once you understood what that was, the form you gave it was up to you. In her mind, there wasn't a lot of difference between writing or dancing or singing. And I believed her -- because I was 19 and I wanted to believe in magic. But it turns out I've found it to be absolutely so.

After I published What It Is, I started getting interested in why people are so terrified of drawing. I was at this design conference, with all these hotshot designers, and I had stepped out and just started painting, so people would come by to talk to me. Then I would hand them a paintbrush to see if I could get them to draw with me. To my surprise, these designers were terrified and none of them would take the brush. Then I drew a square on a piece of paper, and I divided that square in half, and then I divided those halves in half. I said this was a game, to see how many times could you divide those halves, and if the lines touched each other, then you get electrocuted. As soon as I told them you would get electrocuted, then everybody wanted to do it. And I thought about that, and this other question about why do people start to draw, why do kids start to like to draw, and why do we stop.

I really believe this stuff, whether it's writing or drawing -- the stuff that my teacher called an image -- I believe it has an absolute biological function. I don't think it's decoration, and I don't think it's an elective. I think it's the corollary to our immune system, except it has something to do with regulating our moods, and our ability to be in the world -- you know, be able to stand it.

Do you draw at all?

LH: No, not really.

Barry: But if you're stuck on the phone ...

LH: I doodle, yeah.

Barry: You do, right? You doodle. Almost everybody does. The reason I think we do that is there's something about it that makes the unbearable hanging on the phone waiting for cable guy to come back on, it makes it bearable. That's the little place for most people who've quit drawing, they still have a little thing that they usually draw when they're stuck.

Part of Picture This is taking drawing from that starting point, from the doodle part, or the scribbly part. It's also championing things like tracing, and coloring books, and copying -- all these things we were told were really uncreative. What's sad is because of all these strict ideas about what creativity is there's a feeling the scrapbook trend is not creative or coloring a coloring book as an adult isn't creative. I think that people have it backwards. I think it's a state of mind that that brings you, not so much the result.

LH: Your book One! Hundred! Demons! was intended as a cathartic exercise, to let your demons go?

Barry: Or letting them in. I'm opening the door for 'em, "C'mon in!" They're there anyway. I'd rather draw about them then accidentally date them. Because that's what I think happens. Unless we have this place, the image world, and we can work stuff out there, which is what part of our biological makeup gives to us, then I think that we're fated to try to date them or marry them.

A scientist named V.S. Ramachandran has done some astonishing work with neurological problems he's actually solved with a mirror. He had a patient who had lost his hand, but the patient's experience was that the hand was still there, and not only there, but it was in a really tight fist -- you know, painfully tight. This guy was miserable; he couldn't get away from that feeling. Ramachandran made a box, tilted the mirror in there, and then he put a hole in the other side. He asked the guy to stick his hand in the hole, the fist that was still there, and look down. So what the guy saw was his fist and then the reflection of it, which was like his other hand. Then, he told him to open his hand, and what he saw was the reflection of his other hand opening, and it solved the problem.

That's a perfect example of what images do. My feeling is that in the course of life there are certain things for us that are like phantom limb pain, like a horrible, horrible parent who dies before you ever work things out with them. And I think the only way that those things can be worked out is through something that's akin to that mirror box -- except it may be a fairy tale, or it may be a painting, or it may be a song you can remember from when you were 14 and you had to play the same song over and over and over again, like 400 times in a row. Yeah, what are you doing there? You're opening your fist. You're looking at a reflection.

The arts, sadly, have kind of become separated from all the tools we use to just take care of ourselves normally. But that's what they do. Rather than it being this acclaimed creation that you either get a prize for or you don't, it's more about blood sugar balancing or temperature balancing of your body.

LH: Are you familiar with Esther Pearl Watson and her Tammy Pierce Is Unlovable comic?

Barry: I love her. She's something. I love her drawing style and I love how balls-out it is. She just lets it happen.

Do you think that Ernie Pook's Comeek was a big influence on her?

Barry: Well, maybe. I think that kind of squirrelly drawing can happen anywhere. I ran into a cartoonist a couple months ago. We were meeting for the first time, and he said he'd done a really mean parody of my work, like, 20 years ago, And I said, "I'll bet it was hard." And he said, "It's really hard to parody your work. It just looks like bad drawing." I guess it does to people.

I've always been told I can't draw. I think it's because my characters are homely and they're female. And I always think that people must assume that if I could make them pretty, I would, that the only reason that they look as gnarly as they do is that I can't make them look any better. That's not true; I certainly could, but I felt that way when I was a kid. I felt kind of like a gargoyle. I can draw some pretty girls, but it's not as interesting to me.


Alternative Press Expo 2010 runs 11am to 7pm Saturday, Oct. 16 and 11am to 6pm Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. The Spotlight on Lynda Barry runs Saturday, Oct. 16, 4-5pm. For tickets and information visit