Barefoot on the shag

Cartoonist Lynda Barry talks about Dennis Rodman, Matt Groening and her own darkly funny "Ernie Pook's Comeek."

Published May 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Much of the mail cartoonist Lynda Barry gets is adoring, but some, she says, is not: "I've gotten a lot of livid letters about the awfulness of my work. I've never known what to make of it ... why do people bother to write if they hate what I do?" Maybe because, love it or not, her comic strip has an unvarnished authenticity that's impossible to ignore. It could also be because she writes about first love, racial battles, imaginary friends, sexual abuse and mental collapse, all provocative topics.

Barry's strip, "Ernie Pook's Comeek" -- which in recent years has focused on the exuberant "gifted child" Marlys Marcelle Mullen; her sensitive but pragmatic teenage sister, Maybonne Maydelle ("Our mom wanted us to match," Maybonne explains, "which for me is a personal tragedy"); and their hugely creative but fragile younger brother, Freddie -- was first published over 20 years ago when classmate, close friend and fellow cartoonist Matt Groening (creator of "The Simpsons") felt compelled to sneak it into the Evergreen State College school paper without her knowledge. Since then Barry's comeek has appeared in many publications (including, until two years ago, the Village Voice), garnering an enthusiastic following. Fan Web pages devoted to Barry celebrate her in voices similar to her own unaffected prose: "This page is dedicated to Lynda Barry, genius of the comic world"; "A lot of people say [her work is] 'too busy' and 'weird' or 'ugly,' but THEY ARE WRONG! Lynda Barry is the total god of you!"

Less devoted admirers may not know that, in 1988, Barry also wrote a piercingly honest illustrated novel, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," in which protagonist Edna Arkins loses her best friend Bonna to the racial tensions at their junior high. Much to the joy of Barry aficionados, "Good Times" is finally being republished this month by Sasquatch Books, along with a new collection of strips, "The Freddie Stories," starring the youngest Mullen sibling. In the fall, Simon & Schuster will publish "Cruddy," her new novel, so 1999 seems ripe for a Lynda Barry revival.

Salon Books checked in with Barry recently to find out what's been on her mind. The interview began with an exchanges of faxes (Barry worries that in voice interviews she tries too hard to "make the interviewer laugh"), but was finished up during a late-night phone call.

I understand that youre something of a Dennis Rodman fan. (Me too.) Why? And what do you think will, or should, happen now that the Lakers have let him go?

Why I am a fan of Dennis Rodman has something to do with his incredible rebounding but just as much to do with how the trouble inside of him has manifested itself. I have kind of a love-hate thing going with him. I remember him as a thug when he played for the Pistons and then was dumbstruck by his sudden blooming, and then when he came to the Bulls and was with Zen Master Phil Jackson I became very hopeful for him. Hes like a guy out of a fairy tale who never gets to Happily Ever After. Being raised in a white family with a ton of sisters and then dressing like a girl and making all of these flirtations toward men, it was astonishing to watch the NBA include that sort of thing; he seems to be totally without filters. And he is still a thug. When he kicked that cameraman from Minneapolis I couldnt watch him for a while. But recently when he cried during an interview and everyone jeered at him, I found myself crying too. I think he is the personification of internal troubles -- of extreme depression that takes manic form. And I cant help but identify with that, having gone through a very manic period, a long manic period myself. Dyed hair and loud clothes and all.

Im pretty worried about him now. I feel like losing the Bulls family -- especially Phil Jackson, who seemed to have a deeper picture of things -- must be horrible for him. On the news they said the reason he was late for a game recently was because, he said, he couldnt find his shoes and socks. Hes a kid. And I know a lot of people despise him, but I cant. Do you think its interesting that he isnt a drunk or a coke head? His drug is exhilaration and hope. And his hangover must be crushing depression and despair. I dont know what is going to happen to him. I have worried about it a lot, actually. I cant see a way out for him unless he takes up something like mountain climbing or some very physical activity that takes him from one place to another, step by step. Thats the long answer. The short answer is that I relate to him. He seems like an off-balance Marlys to me.

Did you undergo racial struggles similar to those of Edna and Bonna when you were growing up? Do you think that things are any easier or better, racially, for kids today?

My struggles as a kid were a little like Edna and Bonna's, but I was much more troubled than they are. I had a very hard time socializing, and although there were racial conflicts on my street, certainly, they were nothing compared to the emotional ones. I think that before junior high, the racial differences were more circumstantial, like having a difference you could brag on or get put down for. It never felt attached to the world at large, and because of this it never felt hopeless and as connected to violence. On the street where I lived, there were so many kinds of people in so many situations that it wasn't logical to group into a category as general as race.

In junior high, the divisions were much harder. I have always wondered if part of that wasn't a result of being divided into six classes a day instead of one class like in elementary school, where something of a family or clan was established. I think that people naturally tend to herd. I wish we could have kept the one-classroom system until at least high school. All of a sudden there were just too many people, and everything was disconnected, so finding a stable clan seemed important -- and race and class are the easiest divisions. It was very stupid.

The thing that really struck me when I went to junior high was class. I grew up on a pretty poor street, but the school district I was in included some fine neighborhoods -- so I got to know a couple of the kids from those places and went to their houses and experienced such culture shock. I had no idea what was going on off my street until I was 12 or 13, and it really disturbed me to see how much certain people had, how great their lives seemed to be and how I knew that would never happen to me, ever. I tried to be like the richer kids as much as I could because I wanted to live on their streets, at least hang out on their streets and eat their amazing food and walk barefoot on their shag carpets. I became something of a pest in that way, and in general other people's parents didn't like me. I had a boyfriend whose mother was horrified by me and would correct my manners all the time. She was so happy when it was finally over.

"The Freddie Stories" contains some of the darkest work you've yet published -- it deals with death, trauma and abuse as experienced by children. What made you decide to dive into these themes from this perspective? Or is "decide" not the right verb?

My work has always had a dark side to it. The work people tend to remember me most for is the work I did 15 years ago, but my more recent stuff has dealt with suicide and alcoholism and incest and the whole dark woods. The difference with "The Freddie Stories" is that I was able to rewrite the book [for Sasquatch] so that it read as more of a story instead of as separate comic strips, and I think that makes the impact of what happens to Freddie stronger.

My strips are not always funny, and they can be pretty grim at times, and I know I lose readers because of it but I can't do anything about it -- my work is very much connected to something I need to do in order to feel stable. I can't believe I make a living from it, and most of the time I feel very lucky -- but sometimes I feel miserable, like knowing I am invited to a party to tell some jokes and make people happy but all I can think to say is something dark. The worst time of all is when I spend more time worrying about my work than I do doing it.

In recent years, you seem to have deliberately retreated somewhat from the public eye -- you used to be willing to appear on Letterman and so on, but no more. Why?

My going into the background was something that has happened quite naturally over the last five or so years. I noticed that it took longer and longer to recover from the public persona I put on to get through an interview or a lecture or some of the other things I was doing. It's not hard for me to be funny in front of people, but most of that is just horrified nerves taking the form of what makes people laugh, and afterwards I'd always feel dreadfully depressed, kind of self-induced bi-polar disorder. I used to live a very social life and never spend much solitary time looking at birds or reading or doing the things that sustained me as a kid. In junior high when I met the rich people, one way that I made myself welcome was that I was funny. I could get people to laugh, and I paid my way into that world with that sort of currency. It was worth it, and it was a lot of fun, and on occasion I still enjoy it. What I don't enjoy is how I flip into it instantly. I don't have a choice. It's defensive, and it works well. Going on Letterman is like going off the high dive. It's exhilarating, and it is a thrill, but after a while it wasn't the kind of thrill I enjoyed.

I think that when all of my books went out of print and certain relationships I had had soured, I was able to get really, really depressed, and something good came out of that, which is I am much more like I was as a kid, but without the feeling that something is really wrong with me. My loves were reading, drawing and nature. That's about what they are now -- and making things like quilts and novels.

Colleagues and friends of yours have gone on to world fame. Would that be something you would desire for yourself?

I've been friends with Matt Groening for years. I also went to high school with Kenny G., actually. So Matt G. and Kenny G. are famous guys I've met. Would I want that for myself? Not at all, although I can't say I would mind the money. There are too many people involved with that kind of success, though, and too many meetings. I don't want to go to any meetings. Matt's really strong. He can handle the difficulty. People in that world can be so cruel -- they're not even acting in their own best interests. It's like if you have a pair of earrings that someone wants, and instead of asking you for them, they blow your head off. Matt can handle that kind of behavior, but I start to cry.

The only thing I want to be famous for is inventing a nervous-breakdown gun. You could just shoot it at someone and they'd have a nervous breakdown and start sobbing, in fetal position. Someone like Slobodan Milosevic -- we don't have to kill him. Just give him a nervous breakdown.

You're married! Is this recent? Has married life affected your work or, positively or negatively, your ability to do it?

I have been married for about two years, and I LOVE being married to Kevin, who is a naturalist who works with oak trees and prairie plants and is in love with the natural world. He is also a really good painter and sculptor, and he likes camping and building things, and he is hilarious and makes me laugh a lot. We've been together about six years. I am not sure how much I would like being married if I wasn't married to him. He works at an artist's colony near where I live, and I had a residency there. It's in a pretty affluent part of town, with lots of people driving Jags and BMWs. When I first saw him, he was walking down the street and wearing overalls. Surrounded by wealth, here was this Mr. Greenjeans. I thought, "Who is that? I think I love that man!" The first thing he asked me to do with him was go to a flea market. A man who likes flea markets and isn't gay? I knew I was lucky.

By Pamela Grossman

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