POWERS: Do you read much child psychology? Do you do that kind of research?
BARRY: Yeah, I do when it comes my way. Basically I’m a lazy busy person. I don’t go out and seek stuff, but when it comes my way, I get really excited about it and talk about it like it’s the first time anybody’s ever read anything like that and I call my friends and say, “You ever heard of this..?” It’s sort of like when I got into Hill Street Blues during the reruns, and I called everyone excitedly to talk about the characters. They go, “Oh, Jesus: we tried to tell you about this years ago.” [Laughter.]
POWERS: I think, depending on which of your strips a person reads, you could get the impression that childhood is a really hellish experience or that it’s a really wonderful experience ...
BARRY: It’s both. It’s just like adult life, only you can’t drive. It’s like adult life except you’re stuck on the same 10 blocks for 10 years. That’s what I think is amazing about childhood. I really believe that people have access to their memories, to childhood, but there’s no secret to doing it. I believe in my heart that in five minutes I can show somebody how to remember really fast backwards; like the backwards scene of Star Trek except with the thing coming at you, you know? Wait. Now I forgot the question. What was it? I started thinking about Star Trek and was just completely ...
POWERS: [laughing.] Whether childhood is a nightmarish experience or a happy experience.
BARRY: Oh, yeah. I think that you do get stuck on the same 10 blocks for 10 years, so that’s why the memories can be so poignant or so filled. For instance, if I draw in a comic strip a certain kind of door knob, or a certain kind of knob that was on a dresser, it makes people remember. They say, “God, I remember that knob.” They’re not going to remember a knob on a dresser from an apartment they lived in for three months, but the fact that you’re stuck in the same place for 10 years — all these objects and places become really charged because you passed them over and over again as you’re growing up. I think that it’s a happy and sad time, but moreover it’s a time when, in a funny way, you’re a prisoner; you’re forced to really keep yourself interested in your neighborhood.
The blimp! The blimp that we worship; we worship the blimp in my neighborhood: you can take any object—honest to God—you can take a paper sack—you can just take the idea of a paper sack—and write down 10 memories you have concerning a paper sack from when you were little, like where they were stored in your kitchen. Did you ever make a mask out of them? Did you ever bring your lunch in them? By trying to remember in a way that seems random, you can find access to these living, intact, perfect memories. It’s just a question of learning how to go back. When people try to remember their childhood in one big chunk, it’s hard to gain access. But you usually can gain access through objects, I find.
POWERS: Do you think childhood is a more glorious experience than adulthood for you?
BARRY: I think they are basically the same range of emotions for kids as there are for adults, so if you think of the times when you’ve had a glorious adult experience — your moment of glory as an adult — they’re really rare. And I think they’re just as rare in childhood. Mainly, I think it’s a moment when you realize you’re not worried, anxious, or bored: that’s glorious! [Laughter] “Oh, God! I don’t believe it! I’m not nervous; I’m not bored!” I think for kids, the thing I’m more interested in is how they handle sadder stuff, more difficult stuff. They can’t go have a drink, for example, you know what I mean? They can’t go have a drink. They can’t get in their car and go driving off if their parents are fighting in the house. They can’t do a lot of the things that adults know to do. Adults say, “I’m feeling anxious, so I need to do this.” I think when something happens to a kid, it’s a real mystery as to what to do. A kid can’t look at his mom and say, “Don’t tell me that; I’m feeling vulnerable right now.” [Laughter.]
It’s a really interesting time. I feel sort of like a crummy, evil spy sometimes when I look at it because kids really are vulnerable. Seriously vulnerable. Things that happen to them can ruin their lives. I was talking to Ira today about a kid who moved to my junior high school, and he was in a new school and he was a shy kid, a good kid, really a nice guy. He was just at the age of coming out and making friends, and he was right at the crossroads of whether he was going to make friends and fit in or whether he was just going to stay a nerd — because he was right on the line, as a lot of us were; I was definitely on that line. And the art teacher I had said that he looked like Alfred E. Neuman — damn if he didn’t look exactly like Alfred E. Neuman! I mean exactly like him! — and started making fun of him, and this kid just never — I’m convinced that it was that day and that particular teacher that made it so that that kid never came out. It’s this funny window of time; there are all these weird windows in childhood: if you happen to pee in your pants in the second grade, you can hang it up for grammar school. I’ve heard tell that’s why David Lee Roth acts the way he does, is that he peed during a ball game in second grade and, you know, had to become a rock star [laughter].
POWERS: To make up for it.
BARRY: To make up for it.
GLASS: A dick-oriented rock star [uproarious laughter].
BARRY: A dick-oriented rock star!
GLASS: Hmm ... Dick Art! [Glass and Barry in hysterics, Powers clears his throat.]
BARRY: The one thing his dick never does is pee!
GLASS: That dick is never gonna pee!
BARRY: Never gonna pee. Never gonna see it. Too busy doing something else. Too busy to pee. Too many women to see. Oh, God! [Calming down.] Yeah, OK, well. So I made my dick joke [laughter], which every cartoonist must do.
GLASS: We could put it on the cover!
POWERS: We’ll print it, whereas the Boston Globe probably won’t.
BARRY: [Laughs.] I made my dick joke as the blimp was flying by [laughter].
POWERS: Speaking of lost, glorious experiences, the music in The Good Times Are Killing Me is mostly sort of obscure, certainly out of the mainstream.
BARRY: Yeah. You mean the paintings?
POWERS: The subjects in the paintings. Is that music the closest to you?
BARRY: Yeah, that’s all music that is close to me, but there’s something, too, about me getting to know the subject matter while I was drawing it that was important to me. One of the ways that I did the book was that I looked through — they’re all from photographs. Like when I was in eighth grade, one of the ways that I was learning to draw besides copying R. Crumb was I would copy pictures of musicians off of album covers. That’s the whole reason I would buy — I didn’t care what the song sounded like; it was based on the picture, could I draw it? I ended up listening to Cat Stevens and stuff because he looked so handsome on the album cover. And then I found myself a lot older copying pictures off of album covers [laughs]. Despite all my fine art training! I’d still be copying pictures off of album covers. And so I would look through books sometimes and find a picture of somebody who was interesting to me: the picture was interesting. So then I’d find out if I could find that person’s music in the record store. And if I could, then I’d do the painting. If I couldn’t find the music, then I didn’t feel I could do the painting. So it was always really exciting to have this name of somebody based on a picture that I saw that I really liked. Amedee Ardoin is one of them, a Cajun ...
POWERS: So your interest in music didn’t come before the painting?
BARRY: No. I was interested in Cajun music, but I didn’t know about Amedee Ardoin, and when I read his story — and they also had to die; most of them had to die in some quick, funky way, which I think is mainly how people die. And then if I could find their music, then I would do the painting. So, real random.
GLASS: [To Barry] The music is really close to you.
BARRY: Now it is, especially. With James Brown. James Brown: he’s like my saint.
POWERS: He was probably the least obscure of everyone in there.
BARRY: Right. And Otis [Redding].
POWERS: Those two are the ones that it would be most natural for most kids to have heard, whereas the other stuff...well, most adults wouldn’t know most of those names.
BARRY: That was part of it, too. I really liked the idea of pulling out and putting it on the table and saying, “Try this.”
POWERS: Robert Crumb is real enamored with all of that music. He only buys 78s.
BARRY: I know!
POWERS: In Comic Book Confidential — I don’t know if you noticed — there’s a shot of him with his record collection behind him, and he has this big record collection with two shelves and all the records fit perfectly, and Gary Groth asked him one time, “What happens when you get a new record?” He said, “Well, I pick out one that I don’t like, I throw it away, and I put in the new one.” So it’s very finely pruned.
BARRY: That stuff scares me, to throw something away.
POWERS: I’m sure he doesn’t throw it away; I’m sure he trades it with record collectors.
BARRY: Like Harvey [Pekar]: Harvey’s story of getting rid of all his records. I mean, that’s terrifying to me.
POWERS: That’s a big step.
BARRY: It’s a horrifying thought. It’s like getting rid of the books or something. You never know when you’re going to need them.
Collaboration, Creation, Admiration
POWERS: Recently, some of your strips have been co-credited with Ira. Can you explain how that collaboration works?
BARRY: I’ll write the strip and I’ll call from my office to his office and read it to him, and then he’ll ask me to read it again and then he’ll say, “Try it with this line here or this paragraph there.” Then sometimes he’ll say, “I think you need to write a fifth panel and then we’ll edit stuff out.” He’s a good person to read to, and he has a strong sense of what moves the story forward. My Mother Jones pieces can only be two and a half typed pages, and I’ll usually write nine pages; then we’ll sit down and it usually takes about six or seven hours where we just sit down and go through it and take out and take out without losing the story. That’s the thing I’m most amazed at: because he works in radio and works with time constraints, he’s real good at getting things down. Also, when something is not quite there, he really encourages me to keep working on it.
POWERS: Now you’re writing a monthly column for Mother Jones. How did that come about?
BARRY: After they excerpted The Good Times Are Killing Me, they called me and asked me would I like to do something regular with them. It was a real good time because I had just quit Esquire that month and I was looking to do something new, and I also wanted to keep going on The Good Times Are Killing Me; I wanted to do a sequel.
POWERS: What happened to Esquire?
BARRY: Oh, I quit. It’s sort of funny because for all the years I worked for them I felt I couldn’t say anything bad about them. But now that I don’t work for them I can say that I was really unhappy. Though I loved my editor, Jay Kennedy [now Comics Editor at King Features Syndicate], I was really unhappy because I couldn’t think of a group of people I had less in common with than rich, white males between the ages of 35 and 45 — and I had to write it from a male’s perspective. After a while, my brain just felt frozen or shriveled up.
POWERS: Was it an editorial guideline that you write from a male perspective?
BARRY: Oh yeah. Actually, toward the end they basically said I could do what I wanted, but I felt like one of those rats shocked too many times when they’re going through the cage door. And I wouldn’t try to go through the cage door any more.
POWERS: I know Jay Kennedy was credited as editor of your Esquire pieces. What did that entail?
BARRY: Jay just kept the script in line with Esquire’s viewpoint.
POWERS: Would you submit a script to him?
BARRY: I would do a rough and he would tone it down; that was his job. There were many conversations when he’d say, “Well, I like it, but I don’t think Esquire will like it.” I learned a lot. But then I decided I had learned enough.
POWERS: Will there be a collection of that published?
BARRY: Happily, no. I don’t want to see that work again.
POWERS: Do you own it?
BARRY: Yeah. I’d be happy if I never saw it again, although a lot of people liked it. For me, all I could feel when I looked at it is that it didn’t come from my heart. I felt like a gag writer. I’m not ashamed of it; some of it I think is great. In fact, one of the last ones — “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — I wrote with Ira, and I think it’s fabulous.
POWERS: As long as we’re talking about your publishers, why don’t I ask how you first got published by Real Comet Press?
BARRY: I was Real Comet Press’ first book [Girls and Boys]. Kathy Hillebrandt approached me and said, “I’m starting this publishing company ...” I had known her for a while; she’s a big supporter of the arts in Seattle. So, she came to me and said, “Do you want to do a book,” and I said, “Yeah,” and we did it.
POWERS: She published three of your books and then you moved to Harper & Row?
BARRY: Yeah. Then I did The Good Times Are Killing Me with Kathy because I think Real Comet Press does really nice small books and I felt they could do a better job. I knew they would give the book a lot more care than Harper & Row, even though the money I would make from it wouldn’t be as much. But I thought they would reproduce the paintings nicely and take care of the layouts. Harper & Row — even though I love my editor there — they did stuff like print panels out of order in the last book of mine [Down the Street], and one of the things that blew my mind when I got the book is that somebody had handwritten the page numbers in the comers; it looked like a trucker had written them. They did stuff that sort of surprised me. But I think a lot of people who publish with big houses have that problem.
POWERS: Did you have galleys to look at?
BARRY: Nope. Everything was done really rushed.
POWERS: How much commercial artwork are you doing these days?
BARRY: What’s “commercial artwork”? Illustration?
BARRY: I do a couple of illustrations a month. I really like doing them, but I don’t do any kind of advertising illustration. Never.
POWERS: Are you asked to do advertising?
BARRY: I’m asked all the time. I won’t do it. That’s my own feeling about things: I don’t want my work used to sell some product, and especially some product that I don’t know the history of. Like maybe Duncan Hines will ask me to do something for their cake box, and I don’t really know the politics of Duncan Hines and who owns it, and I’m not really interested in finding out. The other thing is that I’m not really interested in having my characters persuade somebody to buy cake mix. I’m real strict about all kinds of licensing. In fact, did you ever see the mean cartoon that Mark Newgarden did about me?
POWERS: No. I think I saw the mean one he did about Matt Groening.
BARRY: He did this one about me that was so mean. And that’s one of the things he talked about, was me selling out. I got so angry I called him up and said, “Where? Where have I sold out?” He implied that I had sold my stuff to Fox and I got all these royalties from a theme park and that I did all this stuff. And he said, “Well, that’s just based on what you’re going to do.” Well, fuck you! I have such hard-line politics about that stuff! In a way, maybe too much. I can be a real snob about it because I won’t do it. The one thing I am going to do is a Marlys T-shirt, and the reason I’m going to do it is because Marlys would love it; as a character, it’s her dream come true. So I will do it for her.
POWERS: Did Mark Newgarden give you any further reasons why he could project that you would sell out?
BARRY: No, he didn’t. I think that he saw me as a nonperson and as somebody who is kind of old guard now. One of the reasons I called him is because I wanted him to know that I had always thought of him as a colleague — anybody who’s cartooning is like kin to me — and for him to be so mean ... He drew these really ugly drawings of me sitting around with my tits hanging out in this tight thing, with a little mustache; he drew me really old with tubes going up my nose; he made references to the fact that I do repeated comic strips about girls having their periods. I said, “I’ve done one.” It was so mean. I thought, “I could either let this roll off my back or I could call him and let him know that there’s a person at the other end of this.” If he’s going to make a parody, that’s one thing, if he’s parodying something real. But if he’s making this stuff up and implying that I’m rich and I’ve sold out — maybe that’s his wish, but that’s just not the truth. I was happy that I was angry enough to call him, because that stuff hurts really bad, and I was happy that I didn’t just kind of go lie in the bushes and drink Jim Beam for three days.
POWERS: Have you ever had anyone else accuse you of being too successful?
BARRY: No, I haven’t really. For me, my work is always — how can I put it? I go through agony. If you look at my books, you’ll see that the comics change quite a bit from year to year. If the stuff starts to get old and if I feel like I’m repeating myself, then I go crazy. I feel there’s no reason to be doing it, so I try to move on. And if you keep moving on, it’s really hard to sell out — even if you want to.