One Hundred Demons is one seriously beautiful book. If you haven't seen it yet, we humbly suggest that you put down this paper -- now --and go find yourself a copy. A work of what the author calls "autobifictionalography," One Hundred Demons is stunning in the physical, artistic sense -- its pages are filled with Barry's Chinese ink brush sketches, her warm colors and her amazing handmade collages incorporating glitter, rick rack, old photos, even an origami cootie. But more to the point, One Hundred Demons is also like reading somebody's journal. Inspired by a library book about a 16th-century monk's painting of a hundred running demons, Barry invokes all her own oogly, scary, freaky creatures -- from hippies, acid, and the botched 2000 election to suicide, childhood trauma, lost friends and incurably self-absorbed boyfriends. In depicting her psyche's most personal, annoying and grievous afflictions, she gently outlines the shape of our own.
Perhaps what's best about One Hundred Demons is that longtime fans of its author can see traces of her earlier work, the identifying marks of an artist's evolution. When Barry first started doing cartoons in the late 1970s and early '80s, she was much more focused on the rituals of dating and other facts of adult life. In her books Girls and Boys; Big Ideas; Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies and Everything in the World, she calls up all the awkwardness of male-female relationships, while simultaneously poking fun at women's magazines, the self-help movement and even her own pets (i.e., Bob, the original "Poodle with a Mohawk"). It was similar to what Matt Groening, her old Evergreen State College pal, was doing in L.A. with his "Life in Hell" strips and hilarious B-movie greeting cards. Both had a way of using pop culture and contemporary relationships in a way that was both completely hilarious and quite original.
But in the late '80s, she started to delve more and more into the "lost world" of childhood, particularly a neighborhood of scruffy kids firmly set in the era of bell-bottom pants, Adorn hair spray, strawberry incense and love, groovy love. Barry's career was enjoying a slow and steady climb. Harper Collins was publishing her newer comics, she had calendars on the market and her strip Ernie Pook's Comeek was being carried in dozens of alternative weeklies. A cast of characters began to emerge -- the irrepressible Marlys, her self-consciously teenage sister Maybonne, their sensitive brother Freddie and their cousins Arna and Arnold. Readers followed their adventures in the books Come Over Come Over, My Perfect Life, Down the Street and It's So Magic.
At the same time, Barry was also beginning to branch out. She had published her first novel The Good Times Are Killing Me in 1988, and the story, of two girls whose middle school friendship is torn apart by racial tensions, had developed such a following that Barry later adapted it as a play. Her willingness to experiment with new forms of expression proved fortuitous as -- in an incomprehensible bit of 1990s belt-tightening -- Harper Collins suddenly dropped her the day before her manuscript for The Freddie Stories was due. At the same time, The Village Voice "kicked her to the curb" just as they were dropping other long-time cartoonists like Matt Groening and Jules Feiffer. Fortunately some of the people who had been reading Barry for years also just happened to have jobs in publishing. An editor at Sasquatch Books contacted her about publishing the shelved The Freddie Stories as well as a new collection of strips about Marlys; another editor at Simon & amp; Schuster expressed interest in Cruddy, the dark and hilarious novel she'd been working on for years. With Cruddy came a new appreciation of Barry the novelist -- this road adventure/horror story/black comedy was named one of the best books of 1999 by several publications, including The New York Times, which called it "a work of terrible beauty."
Praise for One Hundred Demons (also published by Sasquatch) has been similarly enthusiastic. Dave Eggers, writing for The New York Times, asks "How many writers can place us back in third grade without getting vague or wistful? Lynda Barry has no peer... We're approaching a word not commonly used when talking of cartoons: oeuvre." Nick Hornby is even more specific in a piece on graphic novels, also for the New York Times: "Barry is, underneath the wonky handwriting and the quirky, na & iuml;ve drawings, a great memoirist...."
Those things are true and more. The rowdy hilarity of her earlier works shares a metaphorical locker with the "terrible beauty" evoked by her later works. It's amazing how much stuff she can cram into such a small space. What's so rewarding for the reader is that not a bit of it is wasted. All of it is powerful: Every bit of dialogue, every cheesy '70s song lyric and every unevenly drawn little head culminates in the literary equivalent of a swift and bittersweet uppercut. It's a testament to Barry's gift that even while you're checking the damage with your fingers, you're often laughing, grateful and eager to keep turning the pages.
Ernie Pook's Comeek can be read each week online at www.marlysmagazine.com
Publication date: 04/03/03