Best known for her long-running comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, illustrated fiction (Cruddy, The Good Times Are Killing Me), and graphic novels (One! Hundred! Demons!), the art of Lynda Barry (b. 1956) has branched out to incorporate plays, paintings, radio commentary, and lectures. With a combination of seemingly simple, raw drawings and mature, eloquent text, Barry’s oeuvre blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, comics and literary fiction, and fantasy and reality. Her recent volumes What It Is (2008) and Picture This (2010) fuse autobiography, teaching guide, sketchbook, and cartooning into coherent visions.
In Lynda Barry: Girlhood through the Looking Glass, author Susan E. Kirtley examines the artist’s career and contributions to the field of comic art and beyond. The study specifically concentrates on Barry’s recurring focus on figures of young girls, in a variety of mediums and genres. Barry follows the image of the girl through several lenses—from text-based novels to the hybrid blending of text and image in comic art, to art shows and coloring books. In tracing Barry’s aesthetic and intellectual development, Kirtley reveals Barry’s work to be groundbreaking in its understanding of femininity and feminism.
Table of Contents
1. Outcasts and Odd Ducks (3)
- This chapter describes Lynda Barry’s definition of herself as an “odd duck” in an already outcast field. Barry is a Filipino-Irish-Norwegian woman in a largely white, male-dominated group of artists. She often indicates her preference for outcasts, noting that she would rather “hang around oddballs and losers because they’re more interesting and they’re always better in bed.” This chapter looks at Barry’s role within the comic world to better understand her fascination with images of girlhood. Barry came of age in a critical time for comic artists and cites key figures of the Underground and Alternative movements such as Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Charles Burns, and Matt Groening as sources of encouragement and friendship.
2. “True Stories”: Lynda Barry’s Early Years and Works (15)
- This chapter examines Barry’s early years and works, providing a brief overview of the artist’s life and career, and pays special attention to the kaleidoscopic perspective evident in the products of her fledgling career. Despite her reticence to discuss her early years, Barry’s childhood experiences clearly resonate throughout her oeuvre. She demonstrates an acute understanding of what it is to be young. Images of girls came to dominate her works in all genres, and eventually her own personal story as a girl began to emerge in later works. Barry’s very early works were scattered and unfocused, shifting subjects, mediums, and styles. Although Barry came over time to focus on images of girls, she continues to experiment with genre and style.
3. Evolution of an Image: The Good Times Are Killing Me (48)
- This chapter follows the evolution of The Good Times Are Killing Me, examining the history and process of creation of the various incarnations and studying the ways in which the meaning shifts over time and as a consequence of the means of expression. Ultimately, Barry employs various ways of seeing that result in varying degrees of clarity, from the casual browsing of the art show and its correspondingly unclear message to the close scrutiny of reading a novel that reflects the narrative’s theme, chronicling racism within the realm of one summer in a young girl’s life, and, finally, to the binocular view that brings the larger issue of racism into sharp focus through the three-dimensional performance of two girls and their families.
4. Through a Glass Darkly: Cruddy’s Girl in the Fun-House Mirror (77)
- This chapter considers the distorted, hyperbolic perception of girlhood as expressed in the fun-house hall of mirrors as represented in Cruddy. Barry’s text-based interpretation of one girl’s life creates a warped journey through a maze of twisted mirrored images, a vicious road trip that invites the reader to envision his or her own picture of the girl as drawn from language, thus echoing the idea that heroine Roberta’s various identities are created through the reflections of others. This intimate collusion with the reader fashions a monstrous reflection of girlhood as gothic nightmare and aggressively dismantles any associations of happy young ladies enjoying a peaceful transition into womanhood. Barry’s approach in Cruddy suggests that a fragmented sense of self for girls is undeniable given the pressure to conform to the conflicting demands imposed by others.
5. Girlhood under the Microscope in Ernie Pook’s Comeek (102)
- This chapter focuses on Barry’s best-known work, Ernie Pook’s Comeek. Throughout her oeuvre, Barry’s vision of girlhood explores the lives of girls through many lenses and mediums, and in her comic Ernie Pook Barry puts girlhood under a microscope, magnifying and examining tiny slices of life, and even these small samples exhibit a multifaceted perspective on girlhood. As a weekly strip, Ernie Pook resists resolution, moving from topic to topic and character to character, and the strip certainly does not demonstrate an ascendant trajectory from struggle to success. Very little has been written in general about Lynda Barry in scholarly circles, and Ernie Pook’s Comeek, in particular, merits additional academic study as it offers a rich, layered portrayal of a family of characters over many years.
6. Scrapbooking the Self: “Autobifictionalography” in One Hundred Demons (148)
- This chapter examines Barry’s comic form of “autobifictionalography,” detailing the process that inspired the form and analyzing how the structure of the comics, including the layout, length, color, style, narration, and focalizers, underscores Barry’s efforts to challenge notions of truth in storytelling by creating a series of selves in dialogue with one another. Further consideration is also given to the scrapbook form of the anthology version of One Hundred Demons, which allows Barry to juxtapose comics with collected artifacts and oddities that complicate notions of truth and history, simultaneously revealing and concealing the self. This chapter then contemplates what this collection reveals about Barry’s perception of girlhood.
7. Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Girlhood and Growing Up (179)
- This chapter focuses on two of Barry’s works: What It Is and Picture This. Despite some differences between the two, they both foreground many of the continuing themes and concerns that pervade Barry’s entire oeuvre, and thus the works serve as a useful point from which to launch a consideration of Barry’s diverse ways of seeing girlhood throughout her various projects and over her long career. After examining her latest works, the attention turns to an exploration of Barry’s oeuvre thus far. What does Barry say about girlhood, and how do these multiple lenses reinforce her vision? This chapter concludes by considering Barry’s many texts and genres focusing on girlhood, pondering the commonalities and lingering questions highlighted by her career.
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