One of my prized possessions is a 1989 playbill from Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me. Before the play’s award-winning off-Broadway run, it was produced here in Chicago by City Lit Theater Company at Live Bait Theater. My sister plucked the playbill from the magical chaos of Ravenswood Used Books and gifted it to me on my 28th birthday. It quickly became the crown jewel of my comics collection. This odd piece of ephemera, with Barry’s drawings of angels and vinyl records spinning across the cover, created a direct and physical tie between me and my favorite artist. Before I came to Chicago to make comics, Lynda Barry was here chasing the same life.
This year, comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly is rereleasing three out-of-print Barry titles. In February, they dropped Come Over Come Over, which originally came out in 1990. The book is dedicated to Robert Roth and the city of Chicago—that is, to a cofounder of the Chicago Reader, and the city where Barry made her name.
You don’t have to dig deep to find Chicago in Barry’s history. She got her big break publishing her newspaper strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek in the Chicago Reader. When she started publishing Ernie Pook, she was still living in Seattle. The weekly strip paid $80 a month—which was almost enough to cover her $99 rent. She moved to Chicago in the summer of 1989 to live closer to other comics creators. Around this time, she created the comics in Come Over Come Over. Many of the bylines are followed by “Chicago, IL.” Some were cowritten with her then-boyfriend Ira Glass. (Barry wrote about their disastrous relationship in her book 100 Demons—and she also gave some piping hot breakup gossip to The Reader back in 1998.)
For the uninitiated, Come Over Come Over is a great introduction to Ernie Pook. It follows the lives of 14-year-old Maybonne Mullen and her precocious little sister, Marlys. The four-panel strips switch between Maybonne’s diary entries, homework assignments, and notes to her best friend. Marlys butts in with a fantasy sequence or bingo card of observations. Maybonne tries her best to see the good in things, but sometimes it’s hard. Her dad drinks too much. Her best friend dumped her. Boys ask her to do things in the park after sundown that leave her feeling used. The linear narrative is a timeless portrait of girlhood, as easy to read as any classic YA novel.
It doesn’t feel like much of an exaggeration to say that Lynda Barry is the reason I started drawing comics. I checked out her book What It Is from the public library when I was 19. That same year, I published my first zine. The colorful and complicated pages of What It Is made my brain buzz. Her mix of collage, auto-bio comics, writing prompts, and earnest questions about the nature of images felt almost biblical to me, as a teenage studio art minor. I loved how she described creativity as something joyous and alive. I wrote this Barry quote on the inside cover of my first zine-planning notebook: “To be able to stand, not knowing, long enough to let something alive to take shape.”
I started hunting out other titles—including collections of old Ernie Pook strips. I didn’t immediately love them. Barry didn’t try to make her characters look polished or beautiful. Sometimes, they looked almost grotesque. I felt put off by the messiness of her lines—something I tried to avoid in my own fledgling work. Then I read a strip where Marlys doesn’t get invited to a birthday party—and I found myself crying on the edge of my dorm room bed. From there, I learned to appreciate Barry’s style. She isn’t preoccupied with mathematical proportions or perfect precision. She’s working in the realm of gesture and emotion, humor and heart.
The Mullen family never has enough money. A humongous rift separates the adults and the children, a chasm that can rarely be bridged. Teachers and parents mostly exist to scold, harm, disappoint, and abandon. In one of my favorite Come Over Come Over spreads, Marlys insists that the sisters throw their mother a surprise birthday party. Maybonne is skeptical; she doesn’t want to spend their meager cash on a Betty Crocker cake their mom doesn’t even want. But when they execute the surprise, their mom starts to cry in gratitude. It’s a perfect Barry strip—a mix of sweetness and melancholy, an immediate nostalgia for a moment as it passes by. “I’ll always remember that night as a perfect night,” Maybonne narrates. “A perfect night when I saw her happy.”
Come Over Come Over
Reissued version and other Barry titles available now from Drawn & Quarterly
I see echoes of Lynda Barry in my work all the time: When I abandon pretension. When my lines aren’t perfect, but I don’t really mind. When my process feels especially electrifying, I can usually trace my thoughts back to something Lynda Barry wrote.
Chicago is rich with underground comics influences—but Barry remains my North Star. I like thinking about her living in Chicago, in her 30s, selling comics to the Reader. Of course, now I’m doing the same thing. I’m grateful I discovered Lynda Barry when I did—and I’m grateful more of her titles will be back in circulation by the end of the year. They belong on bookstore shelves.
I actually have the original Come Over Come Over, published by HarperCollins in 1990. I found it at the dearly departed Bookworks, a used bookstore that was one of the last remnants of Weird Wrigleyville. I was young in the city, still finding my way, reveling in bus lines and bookstores. It felt good to find a Lynda Barry book on the shelf, dedicated to the city where I was building my life—like the universe set that copy aside just for me.
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