If you want to have a long, successful career in the creative arts, the best favor you can do for yourself is to find a friendly rival early in life. That, at least, was my takeaway from Thursday night’s conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music between Matt Groening and Lynda Barry.
As the audience took their seats for the talk, titled “Love, Hate & Comics—The Friendship That Would Not Die,” proof of the cartoonists’ long collaboration was displayed on the big screen in the form of a flier for a Groening-Barry comic-book-signing from almost precisely 30 years before. The pair met at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, in the 1970s, and judging from last night’s performance, they’ve been perfecting their loving, needling banter ever since.
The evening centered around an old-fashioned slide show, which started with their baby pictures and early inspirations and ended with their most recent work: Barry’s research on the biological function of creativity, and (for Groening) clips from a TV show Fox airs on Sunday nights. The early childhood scenes they chose to share—the terrifying tales Barry’s Filipina grandmother told to get her to clean up her room and Groening’s stories of dad Homer, mom Margaret (nee Wiggum), and sisters Lisa and Maggie—clearly resonate in their later work, but it’s debatable if the general public would ever have seen that work if they hadn’t met back in Olympia.
Groening first sought out Barry because he heard that she’d corresponded with Joseph Heller. She had sent the author of Catch-22 a marriage proposal, and Heller’s response was encouraging: He’d marry her, but he didn’t want to live in the dorms. Back then, Groening was the editor of Evergreen’s campus paper, the Cooper Point Journal, and he told Barry he’d publish anything she gave him. Barry proceeded to test his promise with a string of hastily scribbled cartoon figures accompanied by nonsensical, typo-ridden captions. In turn, Groening assigned Barry, a vegetarian, to review all the hamburgers available in Olympia. The resulting piece, “Master Burgers on Parade,” ended her vegetarianism but kick-started her writing career.
At Evergreen, both writers met their mentors. Barry’s teacher Marilyn Frasca asked her the question she’s been attempting to answer ever since: “What is an image?” And Frasca’s good friend Mark Levinsky shaped Groening’s future efforts when, at the conclusion of an intensive fiction-writing course, he told him, “You do what you do adequately well. Now you just have to ask: Is it worth doing?”
After college, Barry returned to Seattle where she worked on her strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”; Groening headed to Los Angeles, where he got a rookie cartoonist’s dream job, working in a copy shop. The shop’s Xerox machines were responsible for the first issues of Groening’s zine Life in Hell, which he later turned into a long-running alt-weekly cartoon. Among the artifacts projected onto the big screen Thursday night was a postcard Groening sent to Barry during that period. He described his life in Southern California and the work he was doing, and then he pointed out a couple of misspellings from her last missive.
“We disapprove of each other,” Groening said, after he revealed that he’d once asked Barry to marry him. (Her response: “THE HELL!”) She hates his swank Malibu house, and he calls Wisconsin, where she lives, “colder than Scott Walker’s tit.” “We’ll never fight over each other’s homes,” he declared. Still, is there any better motivation for a writer than an old friend who’s in the same business? Just listen to Groening’s response to Barry’s proud observation that she drew “Ernie Pook” for 31 and a half years. “I did ‘Life in Hell’ for 32 years,” he said, smiling.