POWERS: Do you have any sense that the four-panel format of the comic strip may eventually inhibit your growth creatively?
BARRY: Well, not if I can do fiction writing at the same time. As long as I’ve been doing my comic strip, I’ve always either painted or written stories.
POWERS: Well, I didn’t mean that the four-panel comic strip would necessarily inhibit your range of expression, since you have other media you can turn to. But I wonder if it won’t eventually inhibit your growth in comics.
BARRY: What would my growth in comics be?
POWERS: I don’t know, but if you look at other cartoonists who have been at it for a long time — Charles Schulz or Jules Feiffer — they’ve stayed with the same format for almost their whole careers. I think a lot of cartoonists feel bound to their format because it’s the only market they have.
BARRY: Are you asking if I see an end in sight to what I’m doing? If I did six comic strips in a row that were repeating and made me feel bad when I did them because I knew they weren’t any good, I’d have to think about quitting. And I wouldn’t hesitate to quit if I couldn’t do it well any more. Otherwise, you do get like Charles Schulz, which I think is criminal. To me, Peanuts isn’t even a comic strip any more; it’s a margarine wrapper.
POWERS: How do you think of the way Feiffer has held up through the years?
BARRY: I think Feiffer’s done fine because the topics he deals with are alive and changing. Another person who has been at it a long time, and who hasn’t let time stand him still, is Mark Alan Stamaty. The changes his work has gone through have been the most fascinating to watch. He’s one of my favorite guys.
POWERS: Another example might be Nicole Hollander. As long as she stays in newspapers, she’s bound to her one panel, and we may never get a chance to see what she could do with a whole page.
BARRY: I talked about this with Nicole because I couldn’t imagine that she could be happy with her little bit of space. So one day we were sitting around — and she goes through what every cartoonist I know goes through: times when you hate your strip and you feel lost and you’ve got to figure out what to do next — so in a cavalier manner I said, “You know, the problem is, Nicole, you need more space.” And she looked at me and said, “That’s what you need.” And I felt so ashamed because I was just applying what worked for me to her. She loves that amount of space. It’s like saying to Gary Larson, “It’d be so nice to see what you could do in four panels,” when that’s not what he’s interested in — well, I don’t know if he’s interested in that or not, but there’s a reason why his strip is a certain length. And I know for Nicole that’s all she wants. I think she’d be a great fiction writer; I would love to see longer stuff by her. But that’s my own desire, not hers.
POWERS: You mentioned a while back that Art Spiegelman had asked you to contribute to Raw.
BARRY: I’m gonna try it. Art said, “Try not to make it so top-heavy, with so much writing.” I almost started laughing, because that’s my work: it’s really dense and it has a lot of words. I certainly don’t do my strips to make it likable or easier for certain people. That’s what I was doing for Esquire. So, it will be interesting to see what this will be — if I can do it, because I don’t even know if I can. He’s giving me around five pages. I’m really good at getting stories in my head that are a certain length: I know I can tell a four-panel comic story, and now I know how to tell a story that’s two and a half typewritten pages — the Mother Jones length. So to have all this space gives me vertigo.
POWERS: And you don’t feel inhibited by the four-panel format?
BARRY: No. I think if I didn’t have another form, though — if I wasn’t writing books or short stories — then I might start to go nuts. That would be sticking all my eggs in one basket. I think in a way it’s smart for a cartoonist to have something else to do. But then there’s lots of people who would say, “What, is she talking about?” [laughs.]
POWERS: Do you think that stands for any creative person, or do you think a cartoonist needs that in a way that, say, a novelist doesn’t?
BARRY: I know for me — and even Nicole: she’s doing a musical right now — a lot of the cartoonists I know do other things. Matt is doing his TV stuff. I think it can only help your work to do something else. Hopefully it’s not washing dishes.
POWERS: I guess you’ve heard about Berke Breathed dumping his daily strip?
BARRY: Yeah. I really admire him for that. It’s like being in one of those movies where at the very end you realize that somebody’s a hero and you’re a factory worker and you shout, “Yeah!” There are a lot of cartoonists who should have quit a long time ago and stop taking the public’s money. If they’re not interested in doing their work any more, they should find something else to do and give that space to somebody who really has their heart in cartooning.
POWERS: I think Breathed took a lesson from the cartoonists who have been at it for 30 years and have felt unable to make a change.
BARRY: There are people who have been unable to do it because it’s their livelihood; then there are people who have five strips. Who’s the guy who does Beetle Bailey?
POWERS: Mort Walker.
BARRY: Yeah. And all those guys who have several strips going and are still proposing new ones — and they’re all terrible! The guy that I will not eat my words about is Jim Davis, who I think ought to go straight to hell on a greased pole. I think he’s evil. The content of his strip is horrible and mean and terrible. I think the characters in Garfield are the same jerks that are in the White House. Garfield is a Republican jerk — that’s what he always struck me as: this fat, grouchy — it’s just a horrible, horrible character, and I think Jim Davis is horrible himself for creating this. The licensing is obviously a huge deal for him. Why this guy has become a sort of cultural hero, I’ll never figure out.
[Barry takes a phone call.] That was Heather McAdams. Do you know her work?
POWERS: No, I’m afraid I don’t.
BARRY; Oh, God: you have a treat in store. [McAdams is published exclusively by the Chicago Reader.]
POWERS: Where do I find it?
BARRY: The Chicago Reader is the only place that prints it. She’s my favorite female cartoonist.
POWERS: How long has she been printed by them?
BARRY: Eight years — but they print it sporadically. Her stuff is really wild; it’s much wilder than stuff you usually see in the Reader. We’ve been pen pals for eight or nine years and we’ve met maybe five or six times, and now we live a block from each other. She’s fantastic. She’s a filmmaker, and she does one-panel things that are really amazing. But her strips, which no one prints, are the wildest things of all because she has a real cinematic approach.
POWERS: Who are some other cartoonists working today that you admire?
BARRY: Well, Matt [Groening], of course. I think Spiegelman’s a genius. Kim Deitch — his stuff lays me flat; he’s somebody whose drawing is so fantastic it’s scary: it’s chilling but friendly at the same time. I think Aline Kominsky is unbelievable. I was just rereading Power Pack. I’ve read that so many times, and as I read it I still found new things in it. I think Diane Noomin is amazing; I’d love to see more of her stuff. They give this perspective on being female that’s not “one woman’s lonely struggle” — it’s for real; it’s what it’s like to be female. That’s one thing about cartooning that you don’t see a whole lot of in society: you don’t see a fair picture of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, if you see a depiction of what it’s like to be a woman, you see “strength” and no sexual desire.
POWERS: Have you seen Carol Tyler’s work? She’s appeared mainly in Weirdo.
BARRY: No, I haven’t. It’s hard for me to read Weirdo and a lot of those magazines; it’s always depressing for me to read these guys writing about how they’re so depressed and they can’t get laid. After a while, it really gets on my nerves. There’s something about it that makes me think it’s just this club of really fucked-up dudes [laughs] — Weirdo especially — and after a while, I just didn’t want to read it any more. I was not interested in that viewpoint; it just made me feel bad and made me feel that these were people I didn’t ever want to know.
POWERS: Was that an impression from reading it a few years ago? Maybe you don’t know that Aline Kominsky edits it now.
BARRY: I haven’t seen it since she started editing it. Even when I was in the seventh grade, I was irritated by that. Even Robert Crumb, who — you know: everybody loves Robert Crumb — I just got really tired of that lonely, fucked-up, can’t-get-laid, or-if-I-do-get-laid-it’s-going-to-be-in-this-really-awful-way sensibility. One person who doesn’t do that at all is Michael Dougan. He does really cool work. I also think the guy who does Reid Fleming, David Boswell, is fantastic. His writing is really good.
There’s a woman in Seattle who does really beautiful work. She doesn’t go by her name [Ashley Raffloeur]; she just goes by the symbol of a triangle with a slash through it, and she does really beautiful work. She’s really underground. She’s personally underground. We’ve written back and forth, but I’ve never met her, and we lived in the same town. She really likes to keep the lowest profile of anyone I know, She did an incredible book that Cornucopia, a magazine distributor in Seattle, was distributing for a while.
There’s some work being published today that I just can’t get my brain around and it makes me feel like a retard. It’s like being at a party and everyone you respect and love is laughing really hard at something or thinking it’s cool, and to me it’s completely Chinese. It makes me feel like I’m dyslexic, or that I can’t focus. That’s true about Charles Burns — except for Big Baby. I think he’s unbelievable, but a lot of his writing completely eludes me. I feel like there’s this mindset out there that I don’t get or that I’m not hip enough to get.
POWERS: Is there anything else in Raw that strikes you as particularly good or bad?
BARRY: I think the stuff in Raw is usually pretty great. I love Gary Panter’s work. But some of the other stuff I don’t get, and I do feel that it’s not the problem of the work — I think it’s fine to have stuff out there that’s all right but that you just don’t get. It’s like not liking curry: you can tell the dishes are really good, and you watch your friends eat them, but you don’t like that particular flavor.