Lynda Barry’s new book Making Comics is an empathetic read for anyone afraid to draw.
“Everyone is an artist,” the German painter/sculptor/performance artist/scholar Joseph Beuys famously said. It’s a haunting and highly debatable claim, one that people who feel less artistically inclined might instantly refute. If everyone is an artist, why can’t I draw literally anything I’d ever feel comfortable showing another person?
But it’s Beuys’s quote that comes to mind when reading Making Comics, the latest handwritten college textbook-of-sorts by the highly successful cartoonist Lynda Barry. In the book, Barry makes a similar assertion to Beuys by using the experience and anecdotes she’s accumulated during her tenure as a professor of comic book studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has won critical acclaim for decades, for everything from comics she wrote during her college days working with Matt Groening (The Simpsons) at Seattle’s influential alternative comics breeding ground, Evergreen State University, to the many strips she’s had published in national newspapers, to her Eisner Award-winning 2008 memoir What It Is; her 1988 illustrated novella, The Good Times Are Killing Me, even became an off-Broadway play.
All of these accomplishments make Barry an ideal candidate to teach cartooning. And that is her intention with Making Comics, which is styled like a graphic manual for educators and students of cartooning but will appeal to anyone who struggles to articulate the ins and outs of what they think makes a good drawing. The book even tackles how to overcome the common fear of putting pencil to paper to begin with.
It’s comforting, then, that Making Comics is such an empathetic work. The book is a follow-up to her 2014 graphic novel textbook Syllabus, which was a reproduction of the actual syllabi she hand-wrote and passed out to the college students who enrolled in her first workshop, which she started teaching in 2011. Making Comics, meanwhile, is an experience all readers can share for the first time together; it is primarily an original text, whose observations and guidance are drawn from its author’s years of teaching.
Making Comics is both stylish and engaging. Barry balances reprints of her lovingly hand-drawn homework assignments with illustrated examples she’s gathered from teaching students of all ages and skill levels, from toddlers to college kids, beginners to experts. The result is an educational volume that will appeal to anyone who’s interested in comics or cartooning, and could even serve as the foundation for a course taught by other cartooning teachers. It also features more than just Barry’s own drawings, which are always colorful with bold lines and often gorgeously surreal, and makes great use of Barry’s students’ artwork as well.
The point Barry is trying to make is that, in line with Beuys’s famous assertion, everyone really can be an artist, can find it in themselves to create art — to make comics. That simple yet bold concept is what drew me to Making Comics. I’m someone who’s long admired comics and cartoons from afar but hasn’t considered myself skilled enough to try drawing any. But Making Comics is an invitation to participate.
I talked to Barry not long after the book’s release in November about how she settled on the hand-written format as a teaching tool in the classroom, why she thinks of drawing as its own language, and the unexpected emotions that drawing can drum up.
Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows.
Making Comics is such an impressive book. When I read Syllabus, your previous work derived from years of teaching comic book studies at the University of Wisconsin, I said to myself, ‘I can’t imagine how this book exists.’ It’s so beautiful and uniquely put together, like a composition notebook I’ve somehow stolen from you. And then you did it again with Making Comics. I was honestly shocked to see how able you were to collate such an informative, intimately crafted book for a second time.
I think there’s something about handwritten books. You just don’t see them very often.
Yeah, they seem so rare. What makes Making Comics even more special is how it comes across as a companion of sorts to Syllabus. It contains more instructions and scraps and drawings related to and taken from your experiences as a teacher, to show students’ learning process from start to finish. It’s sort of inspiring, in that sense — the book makes it plain that no one starts the semester as a conventional professional cartoonist. By contrast, Syllabus was very much an educational picture book, in which you illustrated all the readings and assignments you gave out to students taking your different college courses.
Well, [Making Comics] is actually built like a cookbook. I wanted to make a book that had some really clear philosophy, but also had some really clear exercises, including how long that exercise is going to take. And I wanted to come up with exercises that would be under one hour, thinking about teachers. Maybe there’s a teacher who wanted to teach comics but didn’t feel like they could draw themselves or just somehow thought, because they weren’t a professional cartoonist, they couldn’t teach comics. I wanted to have a book that shows that they could — it’s sort of like everybody can get together and cook this particular meal. So I thought more about a cookbook when I was putting it together, and these exercises as the recipes.
Making Comics is definitely much — I don’t want to say wordier, but Making Comics is more of a familiar reading experience than Syllabus. There’s a lot of text in there, along with the art.
Yeah, lots and lots. If the text was in print or some kind of font, it wouldn’t show up as so much text. But there’s something about when we see a whole lot of handwriting that really just stands out as a lot of handwriting.
Do you find this style of book — a handwritten notebook-inspired manual — to be more accessible to cartoonists or comics readers or someone who wants to get into comics? As in, it does have this big, easy-to-read writing, and it has these beautiful illustrations as opposed to something more technical. Who do you see as the intended reader, and what are they taking away from this? You mentioned teachers, in particular.
The whole book is actually based on the assignment sheets that I draw for my students. When we’re working together and I give them their homework, I give it in this form — I always draw the assignment sheets. And then I also always do the homework that I assign them. Because if I don’t, then I’m just sort of guessing at how long this stuff takes and what the value might be. So once I taught for several years, and I had these homework sheets that I had drawn, I thought, well, I’d like to put this together in a book, along with some of the discoveries I made along the way. Particularly what I learned when working with 4-year-olds.
I noticed a lot of discussion about young children within the book. Age 4 — that’s the age when we start to see drawing and writing as separate things, right? It’s when children begin to differentiate pictures from text.
It’s the last age that drawing and writing are separated. Especially if you’re lucky enough to go to preschool, 4 is the age where they start to introduce the characters of the alphabet. And they call them “characters,” right? So 4-year-olds are learning to draw the alphabet’s letters almost in the same way they’re learning how to draw Darth Vader. They know that Darth Vader has these certain shapes. Or Ron Weasley from Harry Potter — they know that even if they’re drawing little tadpole drawings, he’s going to have some red hair.
They already have attachments to characters, but then they also have that same [attachment] to letters and numbers. There is this one kid who I met who was obsessed with fruit. He just loved drawing fruit. He thought about fruit all the time. He showed me how fruit and numbers look really similar. And I had never seen that before in my life.
Part of the theory in the book is that drawing is one of our native languages, and that it’s taken away too early. And that split happens, I think, partly because the adults around us are really freaked out about drawing. They’re scared to draw. [For example,] I grew up in a family where the main language in the house was Tagalog. It’s this Filipino dialect. But like with a lot of immigrant families, we kids never learned to speak it. I don’t know what my parents’ thinking was, but I’ve always mourned the fact that I could have been completely bilingual. That’s kind of how I feel about drawing. I feel like it’s something that’s a language, and as its own language, drawing allows you to express things that you can’t just do with words in the same way.
So that was sort of my theory. And then to develop the drawing practice, part of it was through working with my university students, and then other people that I teach in different circumstances, to just see if this was true — if this language of drawing was innate, and if it could be revived. The answer was yes.
What you are describing, particularly regarding the kid who was obsessed with fruit and saw it as analogous to numbers, makes me think of synesthesia. That’s the phenomenon where some people always equate numbers and colors with objects or sounds or feelings — like, a hug is equivalent to the number four and the color black in their minds. So I really like that idea, that interpreting images as something legible is an innate skill or sense that some of us stay connected to and some of us need to be reconnected with.
Yeah, and I do think that there’s some telling information there, in the fact that we call letters of the alphabet “characters.” Because for little kids, [letters] do have personalities. I have a drawing that one kid did where she drew all the letters of the alphabet on one side of the page and a giant E on the left side, and when I looked at it, she said to me, “Look at this. That’s me bossing all those other letters around.”
I love that — interpreting the alphabet in that personified way. That’s such a thing that kids have an inherent understanding of that we seem to lose when we get older.
Along somewhat similar lines, another part of the book that really resonated with me was when you mention how sometimes, when we’re sharing our art with others, we may encounter strong feelings and unexpected memories. We’re free to follow them or to turn away from them or to change them, but we may become unexpectedly emotional when sharing them aloud. This struck me, as it made me realize that the process of making comics doesn’t strictly involve the tools of pen and paper. It’s also an emotional experience. It’s also a linguistic experience. How much of the process of making comics would you say involves other senses outside of seeing the art on paper?
[What] I wrote about, of people becoming unexpectedly emotional, that’s just from my experience in the classroom and working with people. It was sort of a surprise to me […] When I asked [my students] to just draw their bedroom, there was always some point where they remembered something that they wouldn’t typically remember. Because I’m so used to drawing and making stuff, unless I had become a teacher, I don’t think I would have really realized the power of [drawing]. Particularly the power of it in the hands of somebody who gave up on drawing when they were about 8 or 9 when they realized they couldn’t draw a nose.
One of the things I love to have in my class is a really good mixture of those people, people who will feel very comfortable drawing and people who are just nearly crying the whole time. They’re so physically freaked out by making a mark. I mean, it’s a full-body freakout. Which is interesting, right? All you’re doing is wiggling a pen on an index card, but it’s almost like a bodily fluid just suddenly escaped out of your control.
I’m not someone who would consider themselves good at drawing. It’s not really something I do much anymore. I used to really like drawing as a kid. I think this is probably a story you’ve heard many times from people — “I drew a lot when I was little, and then I stopped.”
But I still find it to be a vulnerable practice. And I feel this way about writing, too. So when you say you felt like your students were having this intense physical response, I feel that too. It’s scary to put yourself out there when you’re not comfortable with your level of skill.
You want to hide [your work] and tear it up and not let anybody see it. Something that has that big of a physical response has to have some kind of power. When people I teach are almost apologizing when they say they’re not good at drawing, or they gave up on drawing, I hear it like they’re saying, “I’m not that good at using my kidney.” Like you have to have superior kidney function to benefit you.
In a weird way, sometimes the drawing itself at the end isn’t that important. Instead, it’s what you ran into along the way of making it, and the fact that drawing can really transform the way you feel, that matters. And that’s something that I’ve seen over and over again, just watching a room go from freaked out to erupting in laughter, just because somebody closed their eyes and drew a mermaid.
Closing your eyes and drawing something always tends to lead to something really funny.
It makes people laugh really hard. The first thing I have students do, and this is in the book, is I always ask them to draw a bacon and egg breakfast, with coffee and silverware, with their eyes closed. And almost everybody, after a minute they open their eyes, and they’re really shocked because there’s a breakfast. They can see every little part, so they’re pleasantly surprised. And then the next thing I have them do is draw a mermaid with their eyes closed. And then there’s a different kind of shock when they open their eyes, because, at some point, they’re going to lift their pen and not remember where the head is. Sometimes the features will be an inch away from the face, or the arms will be connected, or the coconut shell bra is up by the ear. But the drawings are clearly mermaids. That’s the part that’s crazy — even with their eyes closed, [they managed to draw a recognizable mermaid].
Also, I found that people who haven’t drawn in a long time are able to sustain drawing for a full minute if their eyes are closed. If their eyes are open, they’re not. What’s the difference? It’s when you can see what you’re doing that the argument starts. You know that that’s not what a mermaid looks like. That’s not what bacon looks like. With your eyes closed, your hand kind of just knows how to do it.
A lot of what you’re describing reminds me of exercises I’ve done before when learning or trying to draw. But I like the idea that they’re all collected in this book now, because I’m forced to remember that I don’t have to be so judgmental toward my own artistic abilities. Drawing is about more than just what it actually looks like; it’s also about what the process of drawing and the resulting work itself means to you.
Do you think you would have appreciated or benefited from some kind of text like Making Comics when you were starting out as a cartoonist? Or do you think that you learned how to teach others about cartooning through your own education?
I would have loved a book like this [back then]. What’s amazing for me is that there are now universities all over the place with comic studies programs, but they try to teach and study comics without drawing, which is sort of like saying, “Let’s learn to speak Portuguese without ever speaking Portuguese.” So I would have liked this book, just because […] I feel like it’s sort of free-spirited, and that anybody can look at it and go, “I can draw at least as well as her.”
Author: Allegra Frank