IT IS A CLICHE, and too often a lie, to say that an artist repays endless contemplation. However, for the work of Lynda Barry, the hoary workhorse is wholly apt. (Barry will join fellow alt-comic star Tom Tomorrow at Politics & Prose on Friday)

Barry has several claims to fame, but is known best as the creator of the newspaper staple “Ernie Pook’s Comeek.” Her latest book, “What It Is,” allows Barry to use a much bigger, more colorful canvas, offering a wealth of subtle visual details a newspaper strip can’t match.

What It Is” is a work of mixed media, fusing painting, portraiture, sketches, collage, text, narrative, comics, humor, creepiness, timeless wisdom and endless questions. The book switches between open-ended ruminations on the nature of creativity and art, and more familiar approximations of comics and graphic novels. As is often the case with Barry’s work, her stories may seem highly personal and potentially embarrassing. However, in revealing essential oddness, the author strikes a universal chord.


Barry agreed to an interview but asked to conduct it through an e-mail correspondence. (She used to do them via fax.)

Barry said she spent about a day working on most of the pages in her latest book. “I work very slowly, and like it that way. I move my paintbrush very slowly, and try not to know what the next sentence is going to be until I write it. It’s a nice way to work. I always feel much better afterwards.”

Barry lives in a tiny town in Wisconsin where she is “screamin’ green” and “working with town boards to adopt ordinances that protect people’s homes. I also teach writing workshops to any organization around here that asks me.” Her latest book, a study in the Socratic method, “is based on a writing class I teach that isn’t exactly a writing class.”

As for the dark shadings of “What It Is,” Barry responded, “I think the ‘slightly creepy’ is always with us. It’s certainly part of the things that make up the back of the mind. I have a lot of collages that are really scary — ones I wouldn’t put in a book, not because I would be worried about people knowing how dark the back of my mind can be, but because I would be worried about scaring them.”

» Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., Oct. 3, Barry, 7 p.m.; with Tom Tomorrow, 9 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness-UDC)

Written by Express contributor Tim Follos
Images courtesy Lynda Barry