Lynda Barry is now officially a genius. She was bestowed with the title MacArthur fellow this September along with 24 other creative people from a variety of fields. The fellowships, commonly referred to as “genius grants,” reflect the achievements and prowess of the individuals who receive it, but her fans have been calling out her genius for years.
Despite this lofty title, Barry has a reputation for being humble that dates back to her college years in the 70s at Evergreen State in Washington, where friends Matt Groening and John Keister secretly published Barry’s first comic strips in their college newspapers without her knowing because they all knew that she would never do it on her own. They called Barry’s strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, and their gamble paid off—the strip eventually ran weekly in newspapers all over the country (starting with this one), and Lynda Barry’s characters made their way into books. Barry’s 1988 graphic novel The Good Times Are Killing Me was adapted into a play that did well both here in Chicago and off-Broadway in New York.
Readers of Ernie Pook’s Comeek can attest to Barry’s abilities without hearing about any of these accolades. Her characters travel through awkward interpersonal emotional landscapes and, in the case of Marlys especially (the tween little sister with freckles, glasses, and the mind of movie director), create new worlds for themselves when the existing world doesn’t deliver on its potential. In a 1986 strip titled “Talent Show,” Marlys and older sister Maybonne are stuck visiting cousins, and we see the variety show that they perform for each other, doing their best vampire impressions and getting the family dog involved out of boredom. “I will now eat the six raw hot dogs without stopping till they are gone,” Maybonne announces into the broomstick that she reimagines as a microphone. “The music to it will be ‘Revolution’ by the Beatles.”
Barry, who’s associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been teaching and sharing her craft for the last few decades. Her newest book from longtime publisher Drawn & Quarterly is this fall’s Making Comics, which is both an instructional course in storytelling through the comic strip format and a guide to centering one’s thoughts in creativity. Her instructions in Making Comics seem less from Professor Barry (the book’s 2014 predecessor, Syllabus, gives us a little bit more classroom structure) and more from Lynda, the friend who secretly created Marlys and Fred Milton the Poodle and sometimes has cruddy days too (but here’s a pen and notebook paper—just draw yourself in a Halloween costume and let’s get through this together). It feels like taking a class from Marlys while stuck in the living room at your cousin’s house, and it’s a delightful, shed-your-inhibitions-about-your-talent kind of instruction. v