Lynda Barry, cartoonist, graphic novelist and author best known for her nationally syndicated strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, will make her Santa Barbara debut with a talk at UCSB’s Campbell Hall at 8 p.m. Thursday.
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Chronicling the lives of young Marlys, her glamorous teen sister Maybonne and pesky little brother Freddie, the strip ran for nearly 30 years in independent weekly newspapers.
“I always liked to draw, but I was never exceptional at it,” Barry says. “Same with writing. But when the two came together as comics during a time when alternative papers were becoming more common, something started working.”
A multi-volume retrospective of her work is being published. On Jan. 22, the latest installment, The Freddie Stories, was released. A book signing will follow Thursday’s talk.
So, who is Ernie Pook?
“My little brother used this name for everything he owned, putting a second or third behind it, getting up to Ernie Pook the 345th or something,” Barry says. “When I first began to be published, I thought it would be great to surprise him by naming the strip after Ernie Pook. I handed him a copy of the paper and he said, ‘Who’s Ernie Pook?’ He had no memory of any of it. So no one really knows who Ernie Pook is.”
In recent years, she has written bestselling, award-winning books on creativity, Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book (2010) and What It Is (2008). These unique blends of graphic novel, memoir and how-to book include her drawings, paintings, collage, autobiographical tidbits, suggestions and musings on the process of creative writing and making art.
These books are based on “Writing the Unthinkable,” Barry’s popular creative writing workshop, itself based on what she calls “a tried-and-true creative method that is playful, powerful and accessible to anyone with an inquisitive wish to write or remember.”
From the start, she has told warts-and-all true-life stories: funny, painful and often both at once. Now she encourages readers of her books and students in her workshops to do the same. What is the power and value of honestly sharing our stories?
“The metaphor I’ve recently come to is that stories are kind of like dialysis machines,” Barry says. “I believe they serve a biological function that is the corollary to what our internal organs do. We disregard this at our peril.”
Among her other books are One Hundred Demons, The Greatest of Marlys, Naked Ladies Naked Ladies Naked Ladies, as well as acclaimed novels Cruddy and The Good Times Are Killing Me, which was made into a play.
Barry has uncannily retained an authentic adolescent voice in her storytelling even as an adult. What enables her to write in this oh-so-relatable tone decades after passing that age herself?
“I’m not so sure they have passed for me, those decades,” she says. “I’m 57 in my day-to-day life, but when I write and draw I can be any age. There is clearly something that calls me to writing about kids and adolescents, but I’m not sure I know what it is. It’s kind of like trying to figure out why you like mayonnaise.”
What’s next for Barry?
“I’m working on a secret book,” she says. “I’m also happy as hell teaching a class about images and the brain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you’re interested, I keep a Tumblr page for the class. You can see what we are up to.“
Barry’s appearance is part of the Arts & Lectures Winter Festival, a two-week program of events celebrating A&L’s diverse programming and kicking off the Campaign for Arts & Lectures, with plans to raise $20 million over five years. Her lecture is, synchronistically, sponsored by lynda.com.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.