Beyond the Funny Pages

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Is there anything in life more comfortably certain than a comic strip? In the first two panels, our hero gets into a scrape, in the last panel something funny happens, and then you're free to get busy solving the Jumble. But Lynda Barry's comic strips work backward: you laugh at the first few panels, and the last panel leaves you feeling sadder and wiser.

Barry's new book, One Hundred Demons (Sasquatch; 224 pages), may be her breakthrough, but she's been perfecting her distinctive take on the funny pages since she was a kid in Seattle. "I started selling my drawings pretty early on," she says. "They were a weird amalgam of Playboy and Betty and Veronica. I used to sell those for a nickel." At Evergreen State College, which she describes as a small "hippie" school in Washington State that she attended in the 1970s, she drew comics for the school newspaper. "I was studying fine arts," she remembers, "and I went through a period when I had to call them drawings with words, because comics seemed too lame." As it happened, the paper's editor was another aspiring cartoonist, Matt Groening, who went on to create The Simpsons, and they've been friends ever since. Barry, 46, currently draws a comic strip called Ernie Pook's Comeek, starring the eternally feuding sisters Marlys and Maybonne, which appears in about 20 alternative weeklies and has been collected in numerous books. She is also the author of the critically lauded novel Cruddy. Her work has earned her a fervent cult following.

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One Hundred Demons should bring her something more. In it she drops the fictional cast of her regular strip and writes directly about her life. The results are sad, funny and sometimes shocking. Many of the chapters tell stories from Barry's childhood, and her awkward years make Charlie Brown look like Rico Suave. Among the horrors she endured were hula lessons ("Girls, I'm still seeing wiggly fingers! Move the whole hand!"), an abominable first job selling jewelry for grumpy hippies, and visits to the scary cat lady next door ("Have some peanut brittle, dear. Just pick the fur off if you're fussy, but it won't hurt you none").

No matter where they begin, Barry's stories always end up somewhere unexpected, and sometimes they're dark, frightening places you never thought a comic strip could take you to. A meditation on growing out a short haircut ends with Barry's cutting her best friend out of her life forever. We don't usually look to comic strips for insights into teen sexuality, but every parent in America should be forced to eavesdrop on the 12-year-old Barry and her friend as they talk over their early experiments while sewing reversible tote bags in home ec. There are few more lucid accounts of the aftermath of sexual abuse than Barry's. "When your inner life is a place you have to stay out of," she tells us, "having an identity is impossible. Remembering not to remember fractures you." We're not in Bloom County anymore.

One Hundred Demons is Barry's first book in color, and she makes the most of it: it's a work of art as well as literature, and the pages are gorgeous washes of glowing watercolor. "I really wanted to use every possible square inch," she says. "I wanted it to look like a Fruit Loops and sparkle paint!" Although Barry's drawings are crude, somehow they feel more powerfully real than photographs. "People say I can't draw," Barry remarks. "That's something I hear all the time. It's not that it hurts my feelings, but if I can't draw, then what am I doing?"

One Hundred Demons deserves a place on the shelf with serious graphic novels like Art Spiegelman's Maus, but oddly enough, Barry is a fan of the most cozily, comfortably predictable comic strip of them all, Family Circus. "It's my absolute favorite comic in the world!" she gushes. "All the people I know who grew up in difficult situations love it. For me it's like looking through a circle to a world where everything is good." The world of One Hundred Demons may not be good, but it's far closer to the real one.