POWERS: Someone told me recently about Seattle — and this ties into something that I’d read about you — that the feminists are really militant in Seattle.
BARRY: [Loud laughter.] Women, take back the night!
POWERS: And I read that —
BARRY: Kiss me! I dare ya!
POWERS: — when the Naked Ladies exhibition opened, there was some sort of controversy...
BARRY: There was no controversy! I swear on a stack — I will lay on Bibles buck naked and swear before God that there was no controversy. But people expected there to be, so people just made it up. You want to know how little controversy there was? Naked Ladies got a positive review in Ms. and Screw. I thought there would be a controversy; I didn’t know who was going to get me, the real conservative people or the separatist lesbians. But nobody said a word. I was sort of sad, myself. In interviews they always say, “I’ve heard it was quite controversial.” The only people who gave me trouble was the artist-run bookstore — the hip, artist-run bookstore in Seattle refused to carry it because they said it was sexist.
POWERS: I think it was in a Boston Globe article that that was when you had your division with the fine arts community.
BARRY: Yeah. One of the things I noticed whenever I went to a bookstore was I was looking more and more at graphics, photography, and comics, and less and less at the fine arts section. In fact, when I looked at any kind of books of new art, modern art, my contemporaries, I had no idea of what they were doing. It was like the emperor’s new clothes. It still is: I don’t know what they’re doing. I feel kind of bad about it. So I guess I just turned into a cartoonist by accident. I was furious at the fine arts community and at the artists who run that bookstore for saying that the work was sexist. I mean, Jesus God! Read it! They were the only people who gave me trouble — the hippest people in the town.
POWERS: How did that project come about?
BARRY: I bought this deck of those nudie playing cards for my little brother, and it said “52 different girls,” and my brother looked at it and said, “Is it 52 different girls, or is it five girls with 52 wigs?” There was something about that statement that let me know that it could be five girls with 52 wigs: the body types are always the same. I thought it would be fun to do a deck of cards — because I love naked women — every type of body. It would be fun to just draw it; that’s what I thought. I have this buddy, Keister, one of the guys who got me printed; I thought it would be fun to do for him. It was originally a project to make one of my friends happy. It turned into this thing — it turned into a show; it turned into some paintings; it turned into this coloring book. And then I wrote this narrative that went with it.
POWERS: Was the narrative you speaking?
BARRY: No. It’s a character. It’s not autobiographical. There are some things: the opening sequence about the first time I ever saw a boner, that’s true. A lot of it’s just made up. Good old fiction.
POWERS: The character Ann talks about how she likes naked ladies ...
BARRY: I think that if you talk to any girl, you’ll hear that. It’s universal. Any kid does, because it’s the mysterious and it’s the hidden. It’s actually hidden, like hidden somewhere in the house. A girl I met yesterday told me that her dad hid the “naked lady” books with the cookbooks for some reason, thinking that the kids would never look through the cookbooks, which of course they beeline to immediately as soon as they found out. In the narrative, Ann makes a distinction between when she looks at it as a kid and when later on she’ll never look at it. She can’t look at it with boys when she becomes an adolescent; it’s too embarrassing for her. So that’s what that’s about.
POWERS: That brings up the question just how much of your work draws from your own experience?
BARRY: Um...Not very much. I’d say like 15 to 25 percent of the comic strips may have actually happened to me — I don’t think it’s possible to do pure fiction. You know, when you were a kid you’d try to invent your own alphabet, and you were sure you could do it because all you had to do is figure out a number of symbols that corresponded to the regular alphabet? Then you could write your own. But it’s too hard. You can’t do it. I think the same thing is true in fiction. As you go through a story, you need to periodically ground yourself in something that you know is true. The thing that’s autobiographical about my work is that I picture it; I see it happening on the streets where I grew up. The characters themselves are fictional. The events that happen, I’ll take from anywhere. Sometimes I get an idea from a short story. Sometimes I get an idea from something that I overheard. My assistant gives me a whole bunch of ideas. He’s like a fountain of them. I’ll use anything to try to get me started, but I do make it all happen on those streets. If the kid talks about up the hill at the school, or down the hill at the Pay’n’Save, or the wooden steps that they climb, those are all references to a real place.
POWERS: Sometimes I see similar events in the novel and the strips, like a child drowning ...
BARRY: A kid did drown in my neighborhood, but it’s also something that you can — say, for instance, when I’m doing a strip, I’ll call up a friend and ask, “Did you ever know anyone who drowned?” Everybody has a story, and it’s those stories — other people’s stories — that are a lot more fascinating to me, just like that one about the naked ladies hidden with the cookbooks. I couldn’t make that up, and it didn’t happen in my life. But just that one phrase I could do a whole strip around. I could make up all this stuff that would seem just as true as that, but there’s something so authentic about that. So it’s mainly starting out with an authentic nugget or something, rather than a McNugget [laughter]. Because there’s some of those, too.
POWERS: Now, I think when you started your earlier strips were mostly in relationships and that kind of evolved into the strips about children.
BARRY: Right. They were more editorial strips, I think, in the beginning. Now they’re more like short stories or fiction. I think in the beginning they were editorial; they definitely were opinions, real explaining kind of strips: break things down and explain how things work. But something happened. One of the things that happened was that my hand started to really hurt when I drew, so I had to use a brush instead of a pen, and there was something about using a brush that made it so I couldn’t draw that same kind of strip; they just didn’t look right in brush to me.
POWERS: When did you move to a brush?
BARRY: About four years ago. Would it be ’84? ’85?
POWERS: That would be with the material in Everything in the World?
BARRY: Everything in the World is transitional; you can see brush and pen. That’s the transitional. The Fun House is all brush. Let me show you. When you start to work with a brush, the drawings start to look retarded, and the retardation, the natural retardation that comes from using a brush, sort of made my writing get retarded. [laughs]. In kind of a nice way. Like one of the first strips in which the voice that I use now appeared in is “What Is Friendship?” You can kind of hear the beginnings of Arna’s voice in there. I think it had something to do with not being able to use a pen any more; I just couldn’t draw the same way. I started out with childhood stuff in Girls And Bays. When I look back on that work, I can see a lot of echoes or portent to what I’m doing now: the lack of punch line; no real story [laughter].
POWERS: Would you be able to put your finger on why you were drawn to that material?
BARRY: No. The only thing is that the one rule I made for myself — it wasn’t even a rule — is that I have to be interested in what I’m doing when I do a comic strip, so to repeat a format after the format has worn itself out just doesn’t work. I’ll do it a couple of times; it’s not like I’m so noble that I can say [pedantic voice], “I shall never do anything beyond what is in my true soul.” I’ll try. I will try. I feel pretty greasy afterwards, or crummy. So, it’s always this attempt to find something that doesn’t make me feel like I have to take nine showers afterwards, that I can feel proud of. So I always drift toward what gives me the most kind of terrified yet thrilling feeling. It’s almost like the work has this kind of stream-of-consciousness hippy attitude. It’s the hippy attitude that led me to it. When I did Girls and Boys, there was a lot of childhood stuff that moved into relationships, and then moved out of relationships back into childhood stuff. I think that the two things are really tied to each other. I think the reasons we choose the people we choose have a lot to do with our childhood.
POWERS: Before you started writing about childhood, did you dwell on your own past a lot?
BARRY: I started writing about my past when I was 19. I always compulsively kept diaries and journals. When I was 19,1 looked behind me, rather than looking forward or looking straight at the table. I started to write about my past then. Compulsively. I mean, like a problem. It became a problem, like some people chew their nails; I wrote journals.
POWERS: Do you refer back to journals you kept when you were a child?
BARRY: No, no. See, the other thing is I compulsively save everything, too, but my mother never saved a single drawing or piece of writing, or even a ditto sheet from a math quiz, so there’s none of that, none of those things, and sometimes I feel like I might just be recreating all of that for myself. But I don’t look back on the journals because they make me want to throw up [laughter]. They’re bad. Really bad. Embarrassing bad.
POWERS: I know Matt said in an interview once that he would go to schools and dig through the garbage and find kid’s notebooks and use that for...
BARRY: Yeah! You know what he does? He calls me up and says, “This would be perfect for a comic strip.” He reads me something that would be perfect for a comic strip, then he says, “You can’t have it,” and then hangs up the phone. That’s what Matt does [laughter]. He has actual diaries from when he was a kid, when he was in the fifth grade. I mean, they’re fantastic. He has the whole thing.