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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Lynda Barry originally published her first memoir, One! Hundred! Demons! (Drawn & Quarterly 2017), as eighteen, serialized web comics on Salon.com from 2000-2001 and then as a collected book in 2002. (They’re still online at Salon, so I recommend checking them out.) Barry’s idiosyncratic treatment of fact, what she terms “autobiofictionalography,” was surprisingly prescient. James Frey’s notorious A Million Little Pieces appeared the following year, first as a memoir and then, after an Oprah-televised scandal, as a semi-autobiographical novel. Barry had previously produced only fiction, including weekly comic strips and illustrated novels. The content of One! Hundred! Demons! appears to be memoir—chronicles of her late childhood and early adolescent traumas—and yet her introduction suggests something more complicated when her cartoon self asks: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?”

While “true” is often an ambiguous term, its meaning is even more complex in graphic nonfiction. Words refer to people and events without having to provide any details about them. But a picture refers to things only through its details. In Barry’s memoir, her words—such as the statement “My mom was on the front porch screaming”—seem unremarkably true. But the accompanying drawings, especially their cartoonish details, are impossible and so necessarily untrue. Or at least their exaggerated version of the truth is inherently fictionalized.

The beads of sweat that arc from her screaming mother’s forehead are not literal. They’re a cartooning norm—what Beetle Bailey artist Mort Walker terms “plewds.” Her mother’s actual mouth presumably cannot open to the hinge of her jaw—what Walker terms a “physiocomica” effect in which body parts transform to emphasize action.  Barry employs all of the rights of Walker’s “Cartoonist License,” which allows an artist “to take as many liberties with the human anatomy, inanimate objects … necessary to produce the desired effect and even invent stuff that isn’t there yet.” Since her subject matter is memoir, that also includes inventing stuff that wasn’t there then either.

Rather than obscuring the fictionalizing of her art, Barry highlights it. When recounting her failure as a friend to her neighbor Ev, Barry reproduces a black and white photograph: “This is Ev and me in a photo booth in a Woolworth’s a thousand years ago.” The effect is jarring since Ev and Lynda as they appear in the preceding panels bear no resemblance to the two faces in the photo. While Barry’s words create the illusion of direct access to her childhood world, her drawings communicate the opposite: the vivid universe of the images are not her childhood, but an intentionally warped interpretation in which no single detail is literal or even reliable.

The warping extends beyond the cartoon style. Even if rendered photorealistically, the content itself is warped. The miniature scenes are conglomerate memories, assembling a range of disparate details for instantaneous effect—as when Barry draws the simultaneous shouts and spoken asides of her group of friends as they play kickball in the street. This is not a single event, but an evocation of multiple, similar moments. The warping also reveals that the words in Barry’s speech bubbles are different from the words in the caption boxes drawn above them because the exact, in-scene dialogue is necessarily invented. Again, Barry draws attention to the fact, labeling a speech bubble spoken by one of her ex-boyfriends with a free-floating arrow and parenthetical aside: “(actual dialog),” implying that all other dialogue is not “actual.” She similarly glosses one of her mother’s earlier speech bubbles: “Sounds better in Tagalog,” her mother’s Philippine dialect, meaning that her mother was not speaking English despite the content of her speech bubble being in English.

Barry’s textual narration literally dominates, with the black words always positioned above the images in white captions boxes that typically take half or more of each panel. The narrative flow is also controlled by the text, with each drawing serving as a fictionalized illustration of the words directly above it. While the text would form coherent narratives if read in isolation, the sequence of drawings would often breakdown with sometimes inexplicable content and unintelligible leaps between panels. The narrating words, however, are also hand-drawn, often in an idiosyncratic cursive style that emphasizes their physicality on the page and so contrasts their remotely objective tone. Like all memories, nothing in the memoir is entirely reliable either.

When originally published online, Barry composed in units of four square panels arranged in a larger square over a continuous white background. In book form, each set of four panels form a single row, with two panels per each atypically wide page. The backgrounds change with each chapter, fluctuating in color and implied texture, including yellow legal paper. Barry also adds two-page spreads between chapters that not only introduce each chapter but further emphasize the physicality of the images with clusters of collage effects including photographs of actual, multi-medium collages. The illusion is of a unique physical object, as if each copy of the book is its single original.

Barry also adds introductory and concluding pages that frame the memoir with descriptions of its creative process—including how-to instructions for readers to create their own demons based on a 16th century Japanese painting exercise that inspired Barry. Barry’s “I had so much fun!” invitation contradicts the emotionally dark tone of the chapters, since each is more a painful exorcism than a playful exercise.  The demons embody the difficult recollections and recognitions of the adult author looking back at the most traumatic periods of her early life. Her self-parodic cartoon self both places the events at a soothingly fictionalized distance and inflates them with brutally exaggerated intensity. While the cartoon norms and four-panel form suggest the escapist silliness of newspaper funnies like Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, they also reveal the emotional power those norms and form can unexpectedly wield.

Image result for barry one hundred demons

[Original versions of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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