“When kids draw,” Lynda Barry says, “there’s almost always a story that comes with their drawing.” That childlike Eden, where words and pictures arrive in tandem, is a place that the cartoonist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is constantly trying to rediscover. The search for the source of cartooning creativity is both the subject of her new book, Making Comics (Drawn & Quarterly, 200 pages, $25.95) and one of the reasons she has now received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”
“Over the last few years at the university,” she says, “I’ve been able to work very closely with four-year-olds. It’s the age right before drawing and writing split, so kids are using both those languages at once – they’re not untangled. That’s the state I’m trying to get to when I’m working and that’s the thing I’m trying to teach.”
It’s this kind of thinking that merits Barry her MacArthur Fellowship. Recipients of the “Genius Grant” can often breathe a rarefied air, since what they do seems so impossible to duplicate: write great novels, make discoveries in microbiology, secure justice for marginalized communities. But in Barry’s case, her genius derives not only from her extraordinary work – her whimsical, haunting, funky comics are among the greatest ever made – but also from her inspiring ability to impart precisely how she does what she does.
For more than a decade, Barry has been making a series of instructional books – part self-help guide, part doodle-pad, part philosophical treatise – that encourage readers to rediscover and nurture their creativity, to draw pictures or write stories. In Making Comics, Barry shares the fast-paced, playful exercises she performs with her cartooning students (for example, there’s “Let’s Boop It”: draw Betty Boop from memory in only three minutes). Handwritten and decorated with kooky marginalia and the cast-off drawings of former students, the assignment sheets are homespun paeans to the creative impulse, at the same time that they’re entirely practical activities.
Barry spoke with The Globe and Mail about the scariness of creativity, and the ways that making comics can open us up to other dimensions of experiencing the world.
On her model for a “how-to” book:
I wanted Making Comics to be kind of like a cookbook, very specific. Like when a cookbook tells you how long a thing is going to be in the oven, how long it’s going to take you to prepare it, what are the materials. I wondered if I could make a book that would allow teachers who don’t draw to be able to teach comics, [or that would] give people who’ve always wanted to make comics the same kind of experience that they might have in my class. I wanted to make exercises that were about one hour or less and make them very, very specific. Even though the [book] kind of looks like a big dropped plate of spaghetti, if you open it up, it is pretty meticulous.
On “the power of comics as a way of seeing and being in the world and transmitting our experience of it”:
Along with being complex, comics can also be simple and rapid. I think of them as sort of like music, in that you and I can have a spoken experience, but if I were drawing it, that [would] add a melody or a beat or some kind of baseline that gives the experience this other dimension, in the same way that music changes the meaning of the lyrics. I remember, when I was in seventh grade, being in love with a song and writing down all the lyrics. When they were just on the page they were so dumb, but when they were sung they had this other power. To me, drawing adds that element of singing.
I have a soft spot in my heart for monsters. There is a power in being able to draw something that’s scary or creeps you out, in the same way there’s a power in drawing something lovely. Pretty much every person I’ve ever met in any kind of classroom setting can draw monsters without a whole lot of fear, compared to trying to draw a human. One of the exercises in the book is to make a quick scribble and turn that into a monster in 2½ minutes. Most people really enjoy doing that – because there’s no particular way that a monster looks, they can’t get it wrong. It’s hard to do a bad drawing of a monster! I mean, how would you do it?
On how making comics encourages “paying attention to the world”:
One of the assignments I give my students, and that I just did this morning myself, is I’ll often draw myself as Batman in four scenes from the day before. It’s just me doing whatever I happened to be doing: I drew myself brushing my teeth, I drew myself eating some yogurt. But what starts to happen is, as I’m remembering it to draw it, that day becomes more pronounced. It wakes me up out of that hamster-wheel way of going through life, where sometimes I don’t even feel like the days are that different unless I’m doing something like drawing. So this is just a way to wake up into the world you’re in, the life you’re in.
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