Yesterday the cartoonist and legendary demigod Lynda Barry taught my comics class. I had been looking forward to this day with a kind of sickness: I didn’t want the day to come because I enjoyed looking forward to it so much; when it was over, what was I supposed to look forward to? Now that the day has come and gone, I can answer that question with some confidence: Post-Lynda Barry, I am looking forward to, enthusiastically, the rest of my life.
I haven’t always loved Lynda Barry (who I will be referring to as Lynda Barry throughout this entry, the way you never call James Dean anything but James Dean, because he’s too far above both “James” and “Dean” singular). When I was first getting into comics, I dismissed her work because I thought the pictures in them were a little grotesque; back then I bought Adrian Tomine comics en masse because he drew girls who looked very pretty, and in that way, reading an Adrian Tomine comic was not unlike reading a very beautiful and spare fashion magazine with talk bubbles.
Tomine’s comics, while well-drawn, lack a certain spark — his stories are lonesome on a level that never quite feels human. Had I not discovered Craig Thompson at that pivotal young adult age when reading “Blankets” “changes your fucking life, man,” I might not be the comics-obsessed person I am today.
But really, it was finding and falling in love with Sam Alden’s comic work that accelerated everything for me. Because Sam was a comics artist who was willing to talk with me for long periods of time, my interest in the genre moved from sidebar to homepage and stayed there. Sam was the person who bought me my first Lynda Barry book. It was her first novel, “The Good Times Are Killing Me:” a skinny, sad book with very few pictures. Sam had picked it up at his favorite coffee shop and read it in one sitting. He sent it to me with some desperation: “This book is perfect. It is actually perfect.” I read it in one sitting, too; and yes, it was perfect.*
A few years later, my grandma Susan gave me Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus” for Christmas. “Syllabus” looks and feels like a basic composition notebook that someone has filled and decorated the way girls with crushes fill and decorated notebooks when they are young — with color pencil drawings and taped-in bits of hair and other wonderful, gross, obsessively human things. I put “Syllabus” in my backpack and read it on my red-eye flight from Portland to New Orleans that year. Ten pages in, I felt like someone had punched me in the chest: This book was the Bible belonging to the god I had been seeking since I lost the Catholic one in high school. By the time I finished “Syllabus,” I was bawling. I felt transformed. And so I read it again.
I bought ten copies of “Syllabus” and gave them away to all my friends. I photocopied the pages to use in the classes I taught to children. I filled my own copy with notes, and bought another one so that I could show it to people without being embarrassed that I had written, “I’M HAVING AN ORGASM!” next to a sloppy doodle of Batman. I read interviews with Lynda Barry and copy-pasted quotes of Lynda Barry’s onto the tops of my Word documents to keep myself motivated enough to finish them. The word “love” does not begin to describe what I felt for Lynda Barry.
I came to the Art Institute of Chicago because I wanted to practice writing, but secretly, I wanted to make comics. My fear was that I was not good at making comics. I have gotten pretty good at copying photographs with brush pens and watercolors (see above!), but comics artists had to know how to draw things without looking at pictures. Once Sam said that he loved drawing because you think you know what a toilet looks like, and then you start drawing and realize that you have no idea what a toilet looks like at all. That was why I hated drawing. I was so embarrassed about all the things I didn’t know how to render when there wasn’t a flat version of the thing in front of me.
This semester in my comics class, my instructor (who — I can’t help but name-drop — is Chris Ware) has spent a good deal of time trying to convince me to unlearn my fear. He sits calmly next to me and looks at the drawings I’ve done from pictures next to the spaghetti-people doodles I hide in the margins of my notebooks and tells me that the spaghetti-people are alive in the way that the copies of pictures aren’t. He says, “Don’t be afraid of that voice of yours. You are the only one who can say things in pictures the way you do.” I have to tell you, this is like going through very intense psychoanalytical therapy for six hours at a time once a week in a room full of other people. I am often sitting at my workspace quietly sobbing because I can feel a broken part of myself healing so intensely that it hurts.
Chris Ware knows how to teach like that, he says, at least in part because of Lynda Barry. I believe this. Yesterday, Lynda Barry led us in “exercises” that were unlike anything I’d ever see anyone do in a school setting. Really, she did impossible magic tricks. In the three hours she was with us, I traveled back in time and inhabited my seven-year-old skin so completely that I could feel the brick wall of my elementary school and smell the weird rubber-hamburger stench that wafted from the cafeteria there at 11 in the morning.
She had us write stories and read them out loud. When we read out loud, just as she had advised in “Syllabus,” she had all the non-reading students draw tight spirals on sheets of white paper so they didn’t look at the reader, while she perched herself at the top of the reader’s desk, listening intently, looking uncannily like the drawings she has done of herself listening intently. After we were done she would say, “GOOD! GOOD!” And then the next person would read.
There’s a story Tara Brach told on her podcast a few weeks back about her friend who is an art teacher. The art teacher taught painting to college students; he also had a five-year-old daughter. One day, the daughter asked, “What is it that you really do, Dad?” He explained that he taught college students how to paint pictures. The little girl looked at her dad, puzzled, and said, “You mean they forgot?"
Lynda Barry’s entire mission in life seems to be that of an anti-art teacher. She has no interest in teaching people how to paint or draw; she is only interested in gently reminding us that we already know how.
She said to our class, “How sad that we spend so much time deciding if we like our work or we don’t like it. When I say that I don’t like one of my drawings, I imagine it looking up at me and, saying, ‘Why don’t you like me? And what right do you have?! I don’t like YOU!’ If you think that your work has no opinion of you, well, I think that’s very hilarious.”
Lynda Barry will not draw on fancy paper and she will not type her stories out on computers. She loves her hands, and she does not think that art should be fragile or delicate. Children need to create in order to live. Adults are only children that seem to have forgotten that. She gave her presentation like an enlightened person standing on the other side of a wall, winking and indicating that the wall wasn’t really there at all; that you could just walk through to her side if you wanted to; no one was going to stop you.
Toward the end of Lynda Barry’s most important book, “What It Is” (by the way, if you don’t have it already: BUY THIS BOOK THIS INSTANT, YOU CRAZY PERSON!), there is a single page that I will try to describe — although I will not do it justice. It is a comic that shows Lynda Barry talking to a blue ghostlike thing that is floating above a can of pork and beans. The words say, “If you opened an old can of pork and beans and found a genie inside who said, ‘Boy is it great to be out of that can!! Thank-you! In return, I would like to release you from your can!’ Would that make sense to you? If a genie offered to free you from your can, what would you say? ‘Can you make me rich?’ ‘No.’ ‘Famous?’ ‘No.’ ‘Really cute?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, can I at least make a living from it?’ 'Probably not.’ ‘Then — what’s the point?’ ‘The point is - - - in the can or out of the can?’"
Out of the can. I would want to be out of the can. Lynda Barry says you already know all this stuff, deep down, but you will forget it over and over again, and you will have to remember. She’s letting you out of the can; so get out of it, before you look back at your life and wish you had done it sooner.
* I’m not going to go into why this book was perfect. If you want to know why it was perfect, you should buy it. It is very cheap and it is very wonderful. You will not regret your purchase. And then you will go on to buy “Cruddy,” her other novel, and you will think that is perfect, too.