The XX Factor

How the Hell Did Lynda Barry Get Forgotten?

Portrait of cartoonist Lynda Barry at the Alternative Press Expo 2010.

Photograph of Lynda Berry by Guillaume Paumier/Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever happened to Lynda Barry? The ugly, eccentric, and misunderstood figures in her cartoons formed the backdrop to my adolescence; they made it okay to be all of the above. Her sensibility was dark – much darker, I think, than the work of her contemporary Matt Groening, who was writing Life in Hell while she was writing Ernie Pook’s Comeek. Barry’s settings were domestic and her plots filled with mundane details, but those qualities only made her cartoons more relatable. She wrote about sadness, about regret, about missed chances, about being less of a good human being than you wanted to be. She wrote about big issues in little ways. There was little redemption, little nobility in Barry’s drawn world.

The New York Times Magazine has a story about what happened to Lynda Barry, which is only a little weird because the newspaper carried a rather similar story in 2008. But anyway, it sounds like times are tough for her. The money for her alt-weekly strip dried up, and she stopped drawing it in 2008, after nearly 30 years. She’s written some books, and she sells her art on eBay. (By contrast, her buddy Groening, of course, became the hugely successful creator of The Simpsons.) Barry also teaches an unorthodox class on creativity and writing at Miami Dade College, pushing her students to let go of narrative conventions; to write and think simply and with attention to detail, like children. It sounds like pre-school for adults. It sounds wonderful.

At one point in Dan Kois’ profile, Barry tells her class about why she loves creative work so much. “I mean, I don’t have health insurance,” she says, “and dental work is really an issue, but the feeling that life is worth living? Being in this class gives me that in spades.”

When you’re a child you just assume that people are rewarded for their talents; that those who contribute beautiful, poignant things to the world are valued in such a way that allows them to, say, get their teeth fixed. But man, if the ruthlessness of becoming an adult doesn’t knock that naivete straight out of you.