Friday, June 22, 2012

Answering The Two Questions: Everything, Vol 1: Blabber Blabber Blabber

It's heart-breaking to think how close Lynda Barry's works came to falling into complete obscurity. A mainstay of the dwindling alt-weekly newspaper market, her collections were all out of print and no publishers were interested in her books. To the rescue came Drawn & Quarterly, publishing two original books based on her creativity course, the excellent and inspiring What It Is and Picture This. D&Q's next project was reprinting her complete works, in a series of volumes aptly titled Everything. The first volume, subtitled Blabber Blabber Blabber, is a new kind of comics reprint. It's a reprint that features new annotations by Barry done in her unique mix of handwriting, collage, painting and comics, the style she used for her past two books. It's an approach that makes the book look constructed as much as it's drawn, and puts her comics into historical and personal contexts. Given that What It Is was as much autobiography as it was instructional book, it's obvious that the simple act of drawing is the single most important factor in understanding Barry and how she reacted to a clearly fractious childhood.

Barry sadly notes that there aren't many of her actual childhood drawings that are extant, so the bulk of the strips here are from ages 25-28. The comics in this volume can be divided into roughly three sections that are all quite different.  The first features the early years of "Ernie Pook's Comeek" and mostly tend to be sweet, silly and absurd comics. The second section features "Two Sisters", a strip that merged that early surrealism with a painful verisimilitude that felt too personal too be fictional. The third section features "Boys and Girls", a collection of strips about relationships that tipped heavily on the bitter side of storytelling. Barry talks about trying to balance bitter and sweet in her storytelling, changing her strip depending on which style she felt more affinity with. She also notes that the two ingredients require a third, ineffable quality that is difficult to talk about but obvious when present.

Very early in her career, Barry's style had the "beautifully ugly" quality that she continues to employ in her modern comics. One can see the hand of her friend Gary Panter at work in a lot of her early work, but it's clear that the cynicism of her former college editor Matt Groening inspired her to explore the darkest areas of her mind. Even the darkest of her strips still has a strange buoyancy, in part because drawing itself is a buoyant activity for Barry. When exploring the ways in which a parent can be uniquely hurtful to her children, or the ways in which men and women mistreat each other or refuse to understand each other, there's a cheeriness in the quality of her drawings that makes these strips inspiring to read. It's a quality she shares with Mark Beyer, whose suicidal Amy and Jordan strips were hilarious precisely because of the quality of his line. The raw nature of Barry's stylization brings out what's funny about the darkest of situations, letting us laugh even when her characters are despondent.

The depth and richness of characterization Barry would achieve later in her career with her weekly strip is not present in this first volume of strips, as she mostly flits from situation to situation and character to character.  The exception is in the strange conclusion of Two Sisters, where the unseen mother of the quirky girls is suddenly thrust front and center as she goes back in time to her teenage years, only she has her current memories. It's strange and touching to see her struggle with her life and her sister after seeing the way she struggled as a mother. Barry understandably lost steam with that strip, clearly wanting to explore not only a new tone of storytelling, but she laid the foundation for the kind of comics for which she would become best known. That's probably the best way to look at this book, as the seeds for greater work to come, but there's plenty to like here on its own merits. Anyone seriously interested in her work needs to read this book, especially for her annotations. It's gratifying that this, the Golden Age of Reprints, is not neglecting great and uncollected work from the 1980s, and the fact that Barry is being unambiguously being regarded as one of the great cartoonists is a direct result of the care that D&Q has shown in keeping her work alive.

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