POWERS: Once you started doing more strips about childhood, were you able to put yourself into that mode and recall experiences more easily?
BARRY: It’s funny, because when the characters came — when Marlys and Arna and Arnold and Freddie made their appearance and let me know that they were staying — it was a whole other thing. Then it became fiction, because now I have these characters and their personalities, how they respond to a situation. For example, one of the strips I was trying to write last week was Marlys finds a baby bird, one that can’t fly yet. Now, her attitude about it is that she loves animals so much she loves them more than anybody, because it doesn’t matter to her if they die in order for her to have them. And Freddie, who loves nature — all he can do is try to think of a way to get this bird away from his sister because it’s going to die. And Arna’s kind of torn. And they all have a whole different response to this one event. So I have these four characters and any event that I come up with — automatically I have four different stories for it. It really got further and further away from my personal past because I know these characters; I’m more and more familiar with how they would respond to anything. That’s the stuff that gets a little bit mysterious and funny, and you could start to go real flaky thinking about it. It’s like they’re living. They’re living, staring people. They don’t see me necessarily, but I know exactly how they’d respond to things.
IRA GLASS: One of the first things that you asked me when we started going out was who was I in junior high school.
BARRY: Ira says the only way I can understand everything is to compare it to how I would look at it when I was 12. [To Ira] You think I’m fixed at age 12. I think that’s true, but I don’t notice it so much. It is true: I always look at things and, “Imagine if you were a kid and that happened.” That’s the one way I can get a reality fix on stuff.
POWERS: Here’s a tangential question: the paintings in the back of the The Good Times Are Killing Me all have these frames, this, like, aluminum siding …
BARRY: Yeah. It’s the aluminum that’s used around chimneys where you’re putting in a chimney in your house.
POWERS: Did you design all those?
BARRY: Yeah. I pounded them out. I watched Phil Donahue and pounded them out at the same time.
POWERS: How long did all of those take?
BARRY: Not that long. A frame like that will probably take six hours. But you can watch TV the whole time. The thing you can’t do is talk on the phone, because people won’t talk to you when you’re pounding, and if you do watch TV — I learned the hard way — you should not have the TV on the same table that you’re pounding [laughter]. Eventually the TV will look like you’re pounding metal no matter what you’re doing. So, like, I have a TV that is constantly jumping. Also when you’re pounding — this is the greatest part — stuff just eventually works its way off the table. It’s always these dramatic moments when something big falls off the table. It was fun, though. That was a blast. Doing those paintings was just the best: no writing; you get your basic idea, and then you can just get on the phone or turn on the TV.
GLASS: Yeah, but in writing your novel — I guess there must have been an interest in your stories …
BARRY: The novel was an accident, though. Complete accident. That came about because I’d done these paintings, and then this publishing company that did my first couple of books, the Real Comet Press, wanted to do a catalog of the paintings, right? And they said, “Well, you’ve got to write an introduction.” So I thought, “Well, if I’m going to write an introduction, I want to write about the history of American music.” [Pause.] Yeah [general laughter]. The history of everything in the world. So I kept trying to do that for two months, and then I realized that the paintings were about music but they were also about loss. I thought to myself, “What do I actually know already that I don’t have to go to the library and I could write about?” [Laughter.] Then I had the idea to write this story and kind of tell the same story. It happened by accident, but then it turns out that, yeah, I am interested in writing longer things. Sometimes I get really frustrated with my comic strips because you can only — you know, people already yell at me for having too many words, but this is ridiculous. When you hit the halfway mark, you’re really … [Laughter.]
POWERS: Some of the chapters in the book probably have as many words as a comic strip.
BARRY: Yeah. Matt and I always talk about that. You can figure out the percentage. For me, when I cross the halfway line — I know that I can do it once; I can do one panel that way. And even then, there’s just times when I go crazy because I only have one inch to draw the picture. Sometimes I just want to do a whole panel of words.
POWERS: Do you think that you’ll ever do stories longer than one page?
BARRY: You mean comic strips? I bet I won’t. You know, it’s funny because Art Spiegelman was talking to me about doing stuff for Raw, and I really didn’t know how to tell him that my attention span is so short. I don’t think I will. But you never know. I mean, Naked Ladies is sort of one like that in a funny way. It’s a long piece.
POWERS: Well, The Good Times Are Killing Me is a long piece.
BARRY: Yeah, but as far as doing a comic strip that way — it’s hard for me to imagine.
POWERS: What would be the difference between The Good Times Are Killing Me and a comic strip of The Good Times Are Killing Me?
BARRY: The Good Times Are Killing Me — there’s something important for me that I don’t draw a picture of what the characters look like. There’s something important about letting a reader make that up for themselves. I don’t know why, but it is, and it’s real important for the story. And something seems so tiring to me about doing what most cartoonists do; I don’t know how they do it. I mean, have you seen Spiegelman’s stuff, how he does originals?
POWERS: No, I’ve never seen one of his originals.
BARRY: You know about the Harvey Kurtzman technique of doing the drawing five times? You know about this, that you do it first in yellow felt pen and then you do it in orange..?
POWERS: Oh, right.
BARRY: Spiegelman does every drawing in Maus like that. It’s drawn basically 10 times or 11 times.
POWERS: Yeah. He’s real obsessive. I know Jaime and Gilbert [Hernandez] basically just pencil out a page and then ink it, and they’re pretty baffled by the Spiegelman-type technique.
BARRY: I like it, though. For me it would be, I guess, it’s too hard. I don’t do it because it’s too hard.
POWERS: Do you have any contact with children today?
BARRY: Yeah, I do. I have as much contact as I can. Whenever I see a kid, I will definitely sit down and talk with him. And I have two friends, a friend who’s 12 and a friend who’s 13 — I don’t know if you ever saw my strip “Super Kung-Fu Dude.” Did you ever see that?
POWERS: I don’t think so.
BARRY: That was written by — I mean it was just verbatim from one of the things that Dewey — who’s a character I put in my strip — told me. So, whenever I see kids, I like to talk to them a lot; they help me remember sentence structure — that’s the thing I’m really concerned with: getting the voice accurate. And they’re also really interesting. And they never ask you what you do for a living [laughter].
POWERS: Are the kids of today any different than the kids you remember?
BARRY: Yeah. Definitely. They won’t wave at you. Remember you used to wave at people in a car? If you were going on a car trip you would wave if people would wave at you? They don’t. I’m obsessed with it. [To Ira] You don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but I’m obsessed with the fact that you… [To Ira] Do you think it’s a deal?
GLASS: I do.
BARRY: I don’t think kids feel safe around strangers. I mean, I think that they’re so inundated with “Watch out! They’re bad! You’re going to get sexually molested! They put poison in everything!” It seems to me that they have a whole different relationship with the world. We were taking a walk today, and there were some kids in a park—the oldest must have been about nine, and he had his radio-controlled car. There were these bunch of little kids, and I was amazed that they talked to us. Kids won’t talk to strangers anymore. It’s hard to have just casual contact with them. That’s the part I’m the saddest about. They’re all trained really well; even if you’re driving by in a car and you wave at them, they won’t wave back. That makes me sad. That seems bad to me.
I’m obsessed with kids. I’m obsessed with how they stand. I watch real carefully how they stand; you know the way they’ll lean against their mom? It’s really interesting to me?
A year and a half ago I taught a writing class to 12 advanced students, ages 15 to 17, and I had them for six hours a day for five days. The thing that I found from them was, even though they had different ways of putting things, that unbelievable sky-rocket burst of enthusiasm for life is still there. And they still see everybody else stuck in their dreary lives. That’s what adolescence is about: they wouldn’t say “free-to-be-me,” but they still have this idea that the generation ahead of them has forgotten important things, or never knew them. It was really thrilling to work with them.
POWERS: Where was this?
BARRY: This was in Washington State, in an old Army base that they brought these kids to [laughs]. There was a bunch of artists who went up to teach; I was going to teach cartooning. Then what happened when they started to do cartoons was their minds got real small about it because they all have Garfield as their idea of a formula. So I felt like we had to do writing instead. Basically, I had them work on all these methods that I use to write; even to write comic strips, I have methods of getting to a story, finding a story that I may not even have known I wanted to tell.
POWERS: How successful was it working with the students?
BARRY: It was fantastic! I figured, “I’m just going to teach them what I know how to do,” and even though people think my stuff is autobiographical, it isn’t — because it’s easier to tell a story that’s fiction. So, I showed them how to make parallel characters that aren’t you. But you have to feel familiar with the character, so you pick somebody who’s close to you. For example, in my strips my narrator now is this 14-year-old Maybonne, who is Marlys’ sister. I never had a sister, but I find she is definitely a parallel character to me. I use information about my life to help her tell her stories. So what I tried to do with the students is show them how to make up a parallel character through these writing techniques that I picked up when I was in college. I had a really good teacher. It’s amazing what comes out once you give somebody an odd enough assignment so that they forget that they’re writing. If I could do that in a way that would make them forget that they’re drawing, it would be amazing. But people freeze up with drawing real young: when I was in Washington, D.C., I taught fifth and sixth graders at the elementary school, just volunteering; I had a class of nine students and was amazed at how jammed up they were already. What I’ve heard from everybody who’s taught is that fourth grade is the last time people draw real freely. So, here in Chicago when school starts again, I’m going to try working with a group of fourth graders.
POWERS: What do you understand happens at that age?
BARRY: One thing that happens in your brain is that your cognitive development is such that you can tell that the thing you’re trying to draw and the thing that’s coming out on your page are two different things. If you’re trying to draw a chair, you can see that it doesn’t look like a chair. When you’re a fourth grader, you don’t have that perception, so they don’t feel bad about their work. My fifth and sixth graders would think that what they were doing was ugly, so my task was to get them to make drawings that satisfied them, and one of the good ways to do that was through cartooning. But, again, they all wanted to do Garfield, so I had to figure out a way to get them to draw cartoons without them knowing they were drawing cartoons. There were a couple of times when I thought they had it down — I’d have them write a short story about a time when they were scared, then they’d get the story and we’d divide it up into three or four sentences so they could fit it into four panels. Then I’d say, “Go for it,” and they couldn’t do it because they got Garfield in their brains again.
POWERS: Did you tell them what you thought about Garfield?
BARRY: They wanted to know if I could draw Garfield [laughter]. I’ve taught lots of elementary school kids, and that’s the first thing they ask me. Sometimes I say, “I can copy Garfield,” because I always tell them that copying drawings is a good way to learn how to draw. So if somebody has a Garfield notebook, I’ll look at it and draw Garfield on the board just to show them that I can draw. It’s important to them to know that their teacher can do something that they want to do. Then I tell them that I don’t like Garfield and that Garfield isn’t anything I would draw on my own, but I think it’s a fine thing to copy. But they love me forever if they know I can draw Garfield. They also love to watch me because I can draw fast.
One of the best assignments I gave them was to draw the bedrooms of their dreams. I showed them one of my comic strips where I had my characters draw the bedrooms of their dreams. In almost all of the students’ rooms there’d be a lot of surveillance equipment and a crystal chandelier [laughter]. And I would say, “If you can’t draw it, outline the basic shape of it and put an arrow and write what it is next to it.” They’d have trapdoors that lead to Disneyland, party rooms — that was a big thing to have.
The thing I learned in a hard way is that you have to respect that the drawing they’re doing really does look ugly to them and it’s so appalling to them that they can’t draw. They freeze up. I have lots of adult friends who couldn’t draw if I asked them to. So I always tried to do two things at once. One was to teach them how, but also to keep it fun. One of the things that gets them excited is to show them how to make a person look angry. I’d have them raise their hands and I’d write on the board a very long list of the things you could draw to make a person look mad. They’d say stuff like horns, fire coming out of the mouth. It would satisfy them because their drawing looked like a mad person. Then I’d teach them how to make a person go from one opposite emotion to another in four drawings so they were using their heads to figure it out, and they were even acting out the drawings. I had one student whose father was an art teacher and he could draw perspective really well, but he was the most inhibited student I had; he really couldn’t bear to make a mistake, so he often left his faces blank. I would watch him just erase holes in his paper.
There always comes a point, when you tell them they can draw whatever they want, when they ask, “Can I draw somebody peeing?” And you have to be prepared to say yes. I think it’s because of the fact that kids couldn’t do that that we have to look at so many adults drawing that stuff now.
POWERS: How long ago did you start teaching?
BARRY: I got my first job teaching kids as an artist in residence when I was 25, in Washington State. I’d have 30 kids for one hour and six classes a day. I like to just go in there and do it, then leave. A lot of times I don’t even tell them who I am or what I do. I like this idea of going in like a phantom and leaving, because those were the best teachers for me; those were the teachers that stuck in my brain.