Writing Outside the Lines

Illustration by Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry is all over my walls. Next to my bed is a drawing of Corn-on-the-Cob Marlys, grinning her mischievous smile. Right outside my bedroom is an early, discarded version of the cover of Barry’s novel, Cruddy. Across the hall, a pen-and-ink of what she calls “an early hallucination sketch,” also from Cruddy. There is a watercolor of a dog over a page of manuscript from that novel, a great Xeroxed monsters comic that was given to me by a good friend, and the newest Barry acquisition, a framed comic: “What Is the Shape of the Universe?”

It was a friend who first told me about Barry, but it was an actual shrine that made me obsess over her, made me pre-order her work and begin — oh, horrors — to collect. I was at an artists’ colony outside Chicago where she had once been in residence. I went to use the phone, which was inside a closet. I went into the dark closet before turning on the light. When I did, there she was: She had drawn all over the walls. I sat in the phone booth and got lost, consumed in another world.

In the back of One Hundred Demons!, a collection of narratives drawn and written in sumi ink, Barry became my art teacher (this time, a nice kind of art teacher instead of the one I had when I was growing up — a man named Mr. Blue who told me that if I wanted to be pretty for boys, I should never appear in a green light. Any wonder my favorite color is green?). So convinced was Barry of the transformative process of working in sumi ink, she decided to share part of what allowed her to write this incredibly transcendent book. And because the book was so amazing, I set to work painting my novel and my dog in sumi ink.

Sometimes people defy categorization, and because they do, they remain isolated. Working outside of any obvious traditions, they’re actually changing how a whole art form is told. With One Hundred Demons! and Cruddy, Barry is doing this thing — this change-o-form-o — for both the modern comic strip and the modern novel. Plus, let’s just say it now, being a weirdo chick takes more moxie than being a weirdo dude — and Barry has flagrantly inhabited her weirdness, given it shape and line and story in a way no one else now out there can do. Barry defines abundance and permission, and she also charts the deepest kind of pain, bringing these two seething masses together in her work. Cruddy, when it was published in 1999, was explained on the cover as “an illustrated novel.” I use the word explained on purpose. Much like, in grad school, when I switched midyear from poetry to prose and was told I was somehow breaking the code, Barry breaks the rules of what a traditional novel is — and therefore must be separated and explained, labeled and marginalized, or the cool version for this: called a cult author.

I am not the first more traditional fiction writer to bemoan this exclusion and wish to include graphic novels under the umbrella of novel-novels. The truth is that we, the paltry purveyors of the traditional line without image, only gain from standing beside artists like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. They expand possibility and therefore expand the art of the novel, and by extension, they expand the culture.

Barry, by having mastered everything from panel strips to full-scale narrative, has done the most, in my opinion, to blur the lines for the rest of us. She has left her process out in the open and, by doing this, presented anyone interested in narrative with a divine gift. What you don’t see in the final version of Cruddy — and what is perhaps the larger irony of its being called an “illustrated novel” — is the page-by-page work she did as part of its creation. In this novel of over 300 pages there are perhaps 20 full-page drawings, but she also painted the entire manuscript word for word in ink and painted over pages of her typed manuscript drafts. That would entail hundreds and hundreds of pages of sheer process happening under the radar. It would require a mad and passionate belief in this: that via the subconscious you find story, and one way into the subconscious is through image over language. That language follows image, not the other way around.

It makes sense that because Barry’s process is so clearly a physical one, Cruddy is an extremely physical novel. In the acts of brutality in the novel — from murders of all types, to the expected sibling violence between the main characters, Roberta and her sister Julie, to the delving into the pores and mucus membranes of adolescents, to the use of emphasized rants in capital letters — words and images live in a constant fisticuffs of incendiary expression. Because it is written in deep process, Cruddy carries a feeling of — even if frighteningly dark — a wholly deep and authentic world of horror. Like the “cult” movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Barry can stop midscene while the blood of murder victims flies and tell the brief narrative of a fly that lands in the ooze. It is the fly that grounds the scene and the fly that reflects the horror back to us — much more horrible for how, ultimately, prosaic such murder can be.

One Hundred Demons! is Barry’s most recent book and seems, to me, her finest yet — the culmination of something that brings the more quick-shot Marlys strips and the more traditionally prose-bound Cruddy together in a work that is intensely and intimately satisfying both visually and narratively. I like to say that people should be following their weirdness in the world, that that is how you get to where you are going and where you belong. There is Barry, following the story of the Aswang, a half woman who in the daytime is a yellow dog, or working with the Demon, Resilience, which brings a revelation about the inevitability of fragmentation and forgetting when one needs to leave a painful childhood behind. Each story begins with a collage painting, then works into a paneled strip, and the ultimate thing happens as you read these pieces: You see visually and read narratively, and because of her color choices and the collage elements, you feel both textually and texturally (!) the world the characters live in. It is a painful world, an honest world, a transcendent one.

How can one not — when going from book to book of Barry’s, all different sizes, colors and shapes — see what she is offering? Born out of these narratives that encapsulate moments — mostly of the loamy misery of adolescence and family — Barry is giving her reader and viewer wild permission not to stand back from the world and judge, but to enter the subconscious and create.

Alice Sebold is the author of The Lovely Bones.