Pulp Fictions: Lynda Barry’s What It Is, Onstage at the New Yorker Festival and On the Page


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

What It Is
Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly

Lynda Barry and Matt Groening
The New Yorker Festival
October 3

Childhood, memory, and fear loom high among the great themes of Lynda Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comeek!” The poignant and hilarious strip’s depiction of working-class tweenagers in the pre-digital era reflects childhood in all its cognitive dissonance. I suspect it holds much the same charm for younger readers as Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” held for Barry and her peers (including me). It’s that good.

Barry draws “Ernie Pook’s” with the seriousness of a child at play – or an adult on the couch. She also believes that everyone possesses the inherent ability to create his or her own “Ernie Pook’s” or an equivalent vehicle of self-expression. In her dreamlike yet practical new book, What It Is, she lays out an unexpectedly well structured set of instructions to help release the inner writer and artist she believes quivers like a neglected child within you and me both.

Credit: Debra Rothenberg/

Not that you should expect to get rich or make a living or anything from it. During a chat with her fellow super artist and friend Matt Groening during last weekend’s New Yorker Festival, Barry admitted that “Ernie Pook’s” is currently syndicated to a grand total of three newspapers at a criminal 20 bucks a pop. Hence What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly), a book version of the “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops she conducts from coast to coast.

Credit: Debra Rothenberg/

“Sometime,” said Barry, “I think the only art left for us is slowly peeling a label off a beer bottle while somebody tells you about a dream they had.” This statement served three functions: 1) It made us laugh, 2) it undermined any pretensions you might attribute to the speaker, and 3) it happened to be a fairly profound metaphor for the state of consciousness Barry believes all us artist/writer wannabes need to attain. It’s the way our critical facilities relax while hearing a joke (like the one Barry told us about snoring and testicles) or when plunging into the so-called “Cereal State of Mind,” defined by Barry as the trance a kid enters into while reading the list of ingredients on a box of breakfast.

What It Is may resemble a scrapbook of randomly accessed memories thrown across the page, with lots of bonus bird pictures, but in that apparent randomness lies a proven technique for aspiring creators. The goal is to embrace the life of an image, which, she writes in her book, is “Alive in the way thinking is not, but experiencing is, made of both memory and imagination.” Which sounds almost precisely like Proust’s madeleine to me.

Most cartoonists are masters of self-effacement, and Barry is no exception. She recalled body modeling for $4/hour at Evergreen State College (where she met Mr. Groening): “I found myself suddenly taking off all of my clothes and standing on a table,” she recalled. “I’d never taken a drawing class, but I’d seen Playboy.”

Barry mocked herself preemptively. She admitted that she earned most of her money by selling stuff on eBay and devotes most of her free time to opposing industrial wind farming in Wisconsin, where she resides on a farm of her own. She confessed to bursting into tears in front of Jeff Keane, who took over her favorite cartoon, “The Family Circus,” following the death retirement of its creator, his father Bill Bil. Keane “was mortified,” Barry said. “He’d never had anybody lose their mind before.” Although “Ernie Pook’s appears in approximately 1,497 fewer newspapers, I can easily imagine Barry’s fans feeling the same way.