Fort Greene

Live at BAM: Renowned cartoonists discuss 40 years of friendship

February 13, 2015 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Matt Groening and Lynda Barry discuss their work and friendship at BAM. Photos by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM

‘Simpsons’ Creator Matt Groening and ‘Ernie Pook's Comeek’ Author Lynda Barry Reminisce in Brooklyn

Creative people: Ever wonder what advice Matt Groening and Lynda Barry would impart upon you and your ilk? Basically the same thing Nike told us for a decade. Just do it.

Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” and Lynda Barry, his boon companion from the days when the two attended the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash. — herself the author of a comic strip that ran for three decades — hosted a talk Thursday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The duo had the audience in stitches for much of the event, telling stories about their younger days and their influence upon one another throughout their long careers.

When they first met, Groening was editor of the college paper. He said Barry had sent a letter to Joseph Heller — one of his favorite authors — with a picture of Ingrid Bergman on it. So Groening wrote a letter to Barry, then 18, which he said read thus: “Dear Lynda Barry Ingrid Bergman. I would like to marry you, but I don’t want to live in the dorms.”

It was the beginning of a friendship that has spanned 40 years. Barry, for her part, became a contributor to the paper, especially because, as she recalled, Groening was committed to publishing anything that came across his desk.

“I would try to make the worst comic strips possible,” she said, noting that one depicted a guy with no legs and a guy who spoke through his anus arguing over who was worse off.

Groening said that among the work Barry submitted, his favorite piece, titled “Thanksgiving for One,” was accompanied by a photo of Barry holding a Butterball turkey.

Barry, an inveterate storyteller with a knack for making people laugh, said it was during that time when she began asking herself, “What is an image?” Specifically, she said the question came up when she more or less stumbled into a gig as a nude model for an art class. Unaware of nude drawing etiquette and armed only with a repertoire of poses she had seen in Playboy magazine, she said she began watching the people who drew her to see what they were doing.

More recently, in the class she teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Barry said she has asked her students the same question: What is an image?

“I got into this idea of drawing and how people are afraid to draw after a certain age,” she said, blaming people’s adult development of practicality for a general demise in creativity.

She has used a number of exercises, including having her students draw a familiar image — Marge Simpson in one case, when Groening was visiting her class — with their eyes closed.

“It was kind of like people opening their eyes and seeing a body fluid they’d expelled without wanting to,” she said. 

Barry also showed a slide of a child’s drawing from 12th century Russia, scrawled upon a sheet of birch bark. The writing was in Cyrillic, but the style of the images was like anything a child would draw today.  She pointed out — switching back and forth between images drawn by children and raw idea sketches penned by scientific researchers – that peoples’ though processes don’t change much as they age.

“This way of drawing and this way of representing ourselves has been in kids forever,” she said. “Maybe this line we called childish, maybe that’s the line we have when we’re getting an idea.”

Her point? Anyone can draw, and anyone can express themselves if they get over the urge to throw away an original idea at the moment doubt and second thoughts emerge.

Groening had similar advice. 

“Whatever project you have — whether it’s a novel or a film or whatever — finish it,” he said. “Even if you know in your heart of hearts that you can do better, you will do better.”