Wednesday, August 17, 2016

D&Q: Lynda Barry's Syllabus and The! Greatest! Of! Marlys!

One of the best things that's happened in comics the past decade or so is the generalized acceptance of Lynda Barry as one of the undisputed greats of the cartooning canon. A big part of that, I would posit, is an increasingly sophisticated understanding on the part of the alt-comics reading public regarding the differences between illustration and cartooning. Barry's spontaneous and dense line is not in the style of popular, representational draftsmanship. However, it is expressive cartooning at its finest, conveying gesture, movement, emotion and character interaction at the highest of levels. Simply put, her pages are alive. They are immersive, demanding that the reader patiently allow the images to reveal themselves.

One of the reasons for Barry's recent success has been in this reevaluation of her life's work from her alt-daily days and the acknowledgment that it's been an enormous influence on several generations of cartoonists. Another reason has been the emergence of Barry's second career: as an interdisciplinary professor of creativity. Her first book for Drawn & Quarterly, What It Is, was a masterpiece that somehow included autobiographical material, page after page of collages, drawings, doodles and a rock-solid method of teaching how to write and bust through writer's block. From a series of workshops came being named a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, creating a Syllabus for an interdisciplinary course that reached out to writers, artists, actors and scientists in an effort to get them to use the simplest of methods to create an atmosphere that fostered creativity and asked each of them to tap into previously dormant parts of their brain.

The result of this is documented in Syllabus, a collection of her syllabi and methods used over the years in her classroom, focusing mostly on her "The Unthinkable Mind" creativity class that addressed writing and drawing. Printed in what resembles a standard composition book, the same tool that she had her students use throughout the class, Syllabus has a wonderfully intimate and unassuming appearance for what is in reality pretty close to a formal textbook. Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning text was a clear inspiration for Barry and is in fact an essential part of the course. Like Brunetti, Barry's course is all about the doing rather than going on about theory, but it's not a mechanical guide on how to draw. To be sure, Barry is careful to introduce a variety of drawing implements during the course of the semester, but Barry's concerns are more phenomenological than anything else. The class is an explanation of the questions she raised in What It Is: What is art for? Where do ideas come from? Why do people stop drawing after childhood? What is play and what is its purpose?

In other words, Barry's interests go beyond Brunetti's (who is interested in teaching cartooning) and into the realm of aesthetics itself. The philosopher Immanuel Kant described the experience of beauty as being a manifestation of "the sublime", something belonging to a higher realm. What Barry makes clear is that both the experience and creation of the sublime is tied to time, place and effort. Syllabus notes that one can't simply summon ideas or even characters from the ether without it feeling forced or laborious; instead, it's the simple movement of the hand that acts as a kind of summoning force that paradoxically is tied to time and place yet is not perceived that way in the moment of the sublime experience of either creating or observing art. She notes that "muscle memory" is key for artists in the same way it is for athletes, orienting the hand to the page as well as engraving neural pathways that make accessing creativity easier as one keeps practicing. So long as one doesn't start off a session worrying about "good" drawings or asking what a drawing is for (appraisal and critique of art has nothing to do with creating it), then one can continue to create. In the course of the book, she asks, "what is art good for?" The answer is that it's part of being human.

For both student and potential professor, Syllabus is a gold mine of theory and practice. Barry's own methods are laid bare in her inimitable fashion, but she also provides page after page of examples from her students to go with each hand-drawn syllabus page. It also provides a glimpse of Barry's relationship with pedagogy, as she comes to understand that one of her teaching decisions regarding the use of crayons and her advice on how to use them was a mistake. She also notes how surprised and delighted she was to see the work of her students, especially those who had stopped drawing years ago, and how much it had affected her own work.

Speaking of which, The! Greatest! Of! Marlys! is the first "big" collection of Barry's classic Ernie Pook strip for D&Q, reprinted in a big hardcover that lets her drawings breathe. The genius of Barry's work is not just her eye for detail, but her ability to express that in a poetic manner. There's an earthy, almost grotesque quality to her drawings that is complemented by the concrete nature of her words. To some degree, her class is a kind of reverse-engineering of her comics, as Barry's ability to visualize a time, place and a particular activity and simply follow it where it goes is obvious on the page when one thinks about the strips, and encouraging others to do the same with their own observations is the key to her teaching methods.

To be clear, Marlys, Freddie, Arna, etc. live in a world that bears some resemblance to Barry's, but the details of their childhoods are quite different. As Barry would note, she and the characters sort of stumbled across each other as she was drawing, and stories kept coming. Barry has expressed admiration for the comic strip Family Circus, as it gave her a little world of a perfectly loving and gently mischievous family at a time when she really needed it. In many respects, Barry's work is a funhouse reflection of that strip in terms of the aesthetics and naturalism of her characters, but there's a lovely, almost poetic quality to the way she has the kids in her strip interact. Like Charles Schulz' Peanuts, one gets the sense that they are all different aspects of her personality writ large. Freddie is the gentle weirdo obsessed with nature who is constantly picked on; teen Maybonne is all about love, her burgeoning sense of identity and style; Arnold is an antisocial type who nonetheless wants to connect; Arna is the quiet observer; and Marlys is the flamboyant, over-the-top iconoclast who can't help but share ideas, trivia and nonsense in a relentlessly cheery manner.

A different character narrates each strip, frequently giving the reader little context outside of what's happening at that very moment--the most important moment ever, in essence. Seemingly disparate events start to take shape and coalesce around the characters, who are cousins from two different families. Barry's true gift is an uncanny ability to relate the way children and teens see the world in different, but still magical, terms. The language, logic and especially the play of children is something only truly understood by other children. And if those rules are sometimes cruel and Darwinistic, Barry always injects empathy and humanity into her comics. What's interesting about the book is that while Barry tried a few different page design and format choices for her comic, the quality of her line was almost completely unchanged over nearly a decade's worth of work. If Marlys or Freddie was narrating the strip (which was usually an excuse for Barry to share some awesomely gross bit of information about nature), then the line matched their young, crude hands. If it was being narrated by someone else, then the art was Barry's classic grotesque, beautifully hatched and expressive style.

There's a tendency to think of Barry as a writer who draws (as opposed to an artist who writes), especially given how much text she uses and the ways in which her illustrations seem almost minimalist at times. I think the truth is that they're both a kind of handwriting for her, inextricably bound together. The hand-lettering is expressive and strangely decorative, while her drawings are so iconic that they almost become their own alphabet of sorts. That combination allows Barry to go beyond mere anecdote and deliver strips that are comics-as-poetry. In "Jump Shot", for example, the fourth panel sees Arna adoringly looking out at a boy she likes. The caption for the final panel reads "Him jumping up on the corner, him jumping high and turning in the air under a streetlight with a thousand million bugs flying around it going wild, wild, wild." The image is a wistful Arna surrounded by densely hatched and crosshatched twilight surrounding her, instantly and expressively combining with the text to relate that perfect moment in time, that pure expression of pining. Barry delivers dozens of such moments in the book.

Each character gets time to shine in extended vignettes that usually focus on loneliness, longing and attempts at connection. Arnold the troublemaker gets mixed up with a pyromaniac who wants to kill a hispanic man for daring to date his sister. Arna gets sent to live with her cousin Marlys and deals with the mixed emotions of being with a relative who loves and understands her but also must cope with the fact that her mother abandoned her for a while (which manifested in her wetting the bed). The indefatigable Marlys must acknowledge that the parents of her friend next door actively hate her, and that she stuffs her feelings into a box of items that she steals from those who hate her. Marlys enters into a relationship with a boy whose behavior toward her is exploitative in many ways. There are still jokes thrown in there, but these are painful and awkward stories that expose a deep vein of feelings in these characters and turn them into something far greater than a set of child character-tropes. That pain and awkwardness is also key to allowing Barry to explore issues like homophobia, prejudice against immigrants, and class differences.

I think in part to keep herself interested, Barry shifts the strip from the neighborhood to a trailer park and then has both families move into a huge but dilapidated house together. She shifts the strip from four panels to as many as twelve panels with a decorative framing device and then goes back to four panels. A lot of the strips in here are Marlys offering advice, recipes, news and other silliness in the form of things Barry is bursting to talk about (there are a lot of strips about undersea life, for example). This slowed the book down a bit, as one or two Marlys strips acted as a nice palate cleanser but five or six in a row began to feel like a slog. Still, she is the star of the book and rightfully so: she's a glorious weirdo who wants to be liked but won't compromise her beliefs and feelings under any circumstances. She simultaneously antagonizes and makes connections with those around her. She loves fiercely and has a keen, searching intellect. She is self-aggrandizing and insecure, loud but uncertain, empathetic but sometimes selfish. Barry's weird kids in this strip are real, not just because some of the things they liked and saw and experienced were things that she went through, but rather because the emotions--both dizzying highs and moments of sublimity vs nauseating lows--feel so familiar and so true to life. Her ability to render all of this in her distinct "handwriting" allows the reader intimate access to these people, as though the reader is being let in on secrets that adults don't know. It set the standard for slice-of-life fiction.

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