Monday, January 2, 2017

Birthday: "Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke."

When I arrived in Portland, Oregon in August 1980, I was enthralled by everything: the food, the people, the climate, the thought of three more years not in Shelby, North Carolina (when my parents wrote The Prairie Home Companion a year later, asking for a birthday greeting to me, Garrison Keillor obliged, then commented, "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen...that young man...has gone about as far from he can get."

And there was Willamette Week, the local tabloid weekly.

There I discovered Gus Van Sant, just getting started making movies around town; the writer Kathleen Dunn; poetry slams (like the Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a narrative for which the world is not yet prepared); and edgy, innovative cartoon strips like Matt Groening's Life in Hell (are Akbar and Jeff gay? we all wondered); John Callahan's lunatic ravings, and- wonder of all wonders- Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek.

These were revelations to a kid who'd grown up on the comics pages of The Charlotte Observer: one long, dull, four-panel Jay Leno monologue in print.

You'd never see THIS, for example, in The Shelby Daily Star:

So I celebrate the birthday of Lynda Barry- today, and every day, and have for 36 years. Here's The Writer's Almanac's account of her life, which I quote in full because I can't do any better:
It’s the birthday of American cartoonist Lynda Barry, born in Richland Center, Wisconsin (1956). Her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek introduced the world to a bespectacled, freckly third-grader named Marlys Mullen who lives in a trailer park with her family. Marlys calls her world the “Land of Marlys; also known as ‘Butt Island’” and has a penchant for handing out tickets from a book of grievances she calls her “Galores of Violations.” 
Barry grew up in Seattle. Her father was a meatcutter and her mother was a housekeeper in a hospital. Barry started working nights as a janitor when she was 16. There were no books in her house growing up, so she relied on bookmobiles and the school library. About her childhood, she says: “My parents were not book people. They worked, shouted, drank, slapped, belted, and were broke.” As a kid, Barry became enamored of a newspaper comic called “Dondi,” which featured a large-eyed Italian war orphan. Barry remembers having a Bic pen and trying to draw like Dr. Seuss. 
At Evergreen State College, she had a bad breakup with a boyfriend and began drawing obsessively, mostly strange cartoons that featured men as cactuses. Barry says, “The cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” She met Matt Groening, who liked her comics and started publishing them in the student newspaper. Barry was 23 when The Chicago Reader picked up her comic strip and started paying her $80.00 a week. 
Lynda Barry’s collections of comics and books include Girls & Boys (1981), The Greatest of Marlys (2000/2016), and One! Hundred! Demons! (2002), which Barry calls an “autobiofictionalography.”
About the inspiration for the character of Marlys, Barry says, “She showed up faster than I could have thought her up.” Marlys has a sister, Maybonne, who smokes a brand of cigarettes called “Don’t!” and a brother named Freddie who grows mold in jars beneath his bed. Their homelife is tumultuous; Barry became used to people writing her irate letters about her use of child abuse and alcoholism in a cartoon, but Marlys became a hit and Barry even appeared on The David Letterman Show several times. After her book The Good Times Are Killing Me (1988) came out, she received a lot of attention from Hollywood, which she said made her feel like “a woman author with a pork chop on her head in a room full of dachshunds.” 
In the beginning, Barry stuck with a four-panel structure for her comics, with deliberately misspelled words, doodles, stick figures, and scrawls that represented childhood. Over the years, her hand began to hurt, so she switched to a brush and ink, which culminated in the publication of her groundbreaking novel, Cruddy (1999), which features disturbing, luminous illustrations and examined issues of abuse and addiction.
When asked why she chose comics as an art form, Barry answered: “If it’s all just drawing, it’s too quiet; if it’s all just writing, it’s too lonely. So, it’s about the two coming together.” 
On her unconventional style, Lynda Barry says: “People think if you’re writing a story that you have to follow story structure. It’s like thinking the only reason we have teeth is because there are dentists.” 
Lynda Barry’s most recent book is Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (2014).

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