Salaam to the strange wrinkled brain of Matt Groening, but I think his college best friend Lynda Barry is the more profound artist. Dedicating all their books to each other, they constitute a kind of binary star: He launched her career with his 1979 L.A. Reader essay on cartoonists, ”Hipness and Stupidity,” which got her strip syndicated alongside his in newspapers like the Chicago Reader and The Village Voice.
Since then, they have become America’s most accomplished satirists of childhood. The Simpsons, who bear Matt’s family’s first names, are entertainingly dysfunctional, but not bitterly so. Groening is subversive, not corrosive; it’s America he’s really skewering, not the American family. Despite its cynical sass, his comedy springs from an idyllic upbringing in Portland, Ore.
Lynda Barry’s work, including her newest, My Perfect Life, comes much more directly from her Seattle childhood, which was a world of hurt. Her white dad and Filipina mom split when she was 15, influencing her comic strip’s opinion that ”Cupid is a monster from Hell.” She and her mom lived adjacent to a trash ravine, and survived by mopping up on graveyard shifts at a hospital. Their home life inclined to chaos: Dozens of relatives would drift in at random, crashing on the couch and whipping up Philippine octopus concoctions in the kitchen. There were no set mealtimes, and Lynda hung around neighbors’ houses gathering data that would later cause Interview magazine to dub her ”the Margaret Mead of the cartoon world.” Her high school was Darwinian, rife with knifings and broken noses, its halls teeming with equal numbers of mutually antipathetic Asians, blacks, and Caucasians, each expertly emulating Superfly.
Barry’s Off Broadway hit, The Good Times Are Killing Me (soon to be a Norman Jewison movie), transmutes this rage-infused milieu into art, but her cartoons are even better. My Perfect Life is her finest, funniest, most affecting graphic novel to date, partly because she’s perfected her draughtsmanship, but also because it observes the Aristotelian dramatic unities, sort of. It depicts a single year, the epochal eighth grade, in the life of Maybonne, a Seattle teenager with a violently fissioning nuclear family, the sensitivity of Stephen Dedalus, and a mouth to match Bart Simpson’s. Her elders are authentically soured by life, her teachers an instantly recognizable gaggle of loons — women may remember the mad Prussian P.E. instructor whose favorite instruction is, ”And now a show of hands from those who have yet to begin their menses.” Best by far is Maybonne’s little sister, Marlys, a contrapuntal figure as brilliantly deployed as the little bird in the corner of a Pat Oliphant cartoon.
The precise rightness of Barry’s smallest observation puts TV’s The Wonder Years to shame. When the lover who shredded your heart tries to win you back, is not the memory of that rejection as forbidding as ”Beefaroni that you barfed on”? Do you recall the frenzied teenage dangerous liaisons enacted at meetings of the One Way Jesus Youth Group? Did you ever chug-a-lug till you hollered ”hi-de-ho” and the cops came with giant flashlights to stun your eyeballs? When your own kin let you down, didn’t Sly always make you feel welcome in the Family Stone? Bliss was it in that hippie dawn to be alive, but to be young was very confusing. Lynda Barry brings it all back. ”She’s different from almost all cartoonists of the past,” as Groening has said. ”She is much harsher and much more experimental.” Her latest undertaking is to write Cross My Heart, a cinematic tale of childhood for consideration by Peter Pan himself, Steven Spielberg. The experiment seems to be working. A