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A special feature brought to you by

Barefoot on the Shag

Barry An interview with cartoonist, novelist Lynda Barry

By Pamela Grossman

May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 12:53 p.m. EDT (1653 GMT)

(SALON) -- Much of the mail cartoonist Lynda Barry gets is adoring, but some, she says, is not: "I've gotten a lot of livid letters about the awfulness of my work. I've never known what to make of it ... why do people bother to write if they hate what I do?" Maybe because, love it or not, her comic strip has an unvarnished authenticity that's impossible to ignore. It could also be because she writes about first love, racial battles, imaginary friends, sexual abuse and mental collapse, all provocative topics.

Barry's strip, "Ernie Pook's Comeek" -- which in recent years has focused on the exuberant "gifted child" Marlys Marcelle Mullen; her sensitive but pragmatic teenage sister, Maybonne Maydelle ("Our mom wanted us to match," Maybonne explains, "which for me is a personal tragedy"); and their hugely creative but fragile younger brother, Freddie -- was first published over 20 years ago when classmate, close friend and fellow cartoonist Matt Groening (creator of "The Simpsons") felt compelled to sneak it into the Evergreen State College school paper without her knowledge. Since then Barry's comeek has appeared in many publications (including, until two years ago, the Village Voice), garnering an enthusiastic following. Fan Web pages devoted to Barry celebrate her in voices similar to her own unaffected prose: "This page is dedicated to Lynda Barry, genius of the comic world"; "A lot of people say [her work is] 'too busy' and 'weird' or 'ugly,' but THEY ARE WRONG! Lynda Barry is the total god of you!"

Less devoted admirers may not know that, in 1988, Barry also wrote a piercingly honest illustrated novel, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," in which protagonist Edna Arkins loses her best friend Bonna to the racial tensions at their junior high. Much to the joy of Barry aficionados, "Good Times" is finally being republished this month by Sasquatch Books, along with a new collection of strips, "The Freddie Stories," starring the youngest Mullen sibling. In the fall, Simon & Schuster will publish "Cruddy," her new novel, so 1999 seems ripe for a Lynda Barry revival.

Salon Books checked in with Barry recently to find out what's been on her mind. The interview began with an exchanges of faxes (Barry worries that in voice interviews she tries too hard to "make the interviewer laugh"), but was finished up during a late-night phone call.

I understand that you're something of a Dennis Rodman fan. (Me too.) Why? And what do you think will, or should, happen now that the Lakers have let him go?

Why I am a fan of Dennis Rodman has something to do with his incredible rebounding but just as much to do with how the trouble inside of him has manifested itself. I have kind of a love-hate thing going with him. I remember him as a thug when he played for the Pistons and then was dumbstruck by his sudden blooming, and then when he came to the Bulls and was with Zen Master Phil Jackson I became very hopeful for him. He's like a guy out of a fairy tale who never gets to Happily Ever After. Being raised in a white family with a ton of sisters and then dressing like a girl and making all of these flirtations toward men, it was astonishing to watch the NBA include that sort of thing; he seems to be totally without filters. And he is still a thug. When he kicked that cameraman from Minneapolis I couldn't watch him for a while. But recently when he cried during an interview and everyone jeered at him, I found myself crying too. I think he is the personification of internal troubles -- of extreme depression that takes manic form. And I can't help but identify with that, having gone through a very manic period, a long manic period myself. Dyed hair and loud clothes and all.

I'm pretty worried about him now. I feel like losing the Bulls family -- especially Phil Jackson, who seemed to have a deeper picture of things -- must be horrible for him. On the news they said the reason he was late for a game recently was because, he said, he couldn't find his shoes and socks. He's a kid. And I know a lot of people despise him, but I can't. Do you think it's interesting that he isn't a drunk or a coke head? His drug is exhilaration and hope. And his hangover must be crushing depression and despair. I don't know what is going to happen to him. I have worried about it a lot, actually. I can't see a way out for him unless he takes up something like mountain climbing or some very physical activity that takes him from one place to another, step by step. That's the long answer. The short answer is that I relate to him. He seems like an off-balance Marlys to me.

Next page | Becoming the kid your rich friends' parents hate

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