Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I didn't mention the fact that the acid was two years old and had spent two winters wrapped in tin foil behind a brick in a garage, abandoned during my Jesus-freak period which was at least six personalities ago."
Haha! Dear, dear Lynda Barry! That her drug-taking days were already pretty much over aged fourteen tells you everything you need to know about her precociously experimental nature which remains to this day in full throttle. That she is willing and able to turn self-denigration into a pithy, comedic side-salad tells you everything about her open and honest generosity of spirit, especially when the reasons behind such early instability were far from funny. She alludes to it earlier with an equally adept turn of phrase:
"When your inner life is a place you have to stay out of, having an identity is impossible. Remembering not to remember fractures you."
If her more recent WHAT IT IS, PICTURE THIS and SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR are all about catalysing creativity (you won't find anything more inspirational on our shelves) then this earlier autobiographical work from 2002, finally reprinted, was all about jogging memory, which she highly recommends with specific instructions in the back for this Asian-style artistic experiment.
Those titular demons aren't always awful, but they are all the moments which haunt you, stay with you, and had such a profound effect on you that they shaped you.
Smell, for example, is as potent as music in being able to thrust you back through time in an instant, and in 'Common Scents' Barry concentrates on the singular smells of specific houses in her neighbourhood. Of course, the one house you can't smell in childhood is your own: it's the one you grew up in so it forms your own personal baseline of normality and Barry's was full of aftershave, perfume, dog, hair spray, fried garlic and onions and 9,000 cigarettes.
I adore Lynda's grandmother, a cigarette and lighter poised ready on almost every page, and her language and lilt carried over from the Philippines which I won't attempt to transcribe for fear of fluffing the capital letters etc.
Lynda's mother, on the other hand, I adore not one jot. Her cigarettes are constantly clenched between gritted teeth as she castigates the creativity out of her daughter time and time again.
"Nako! My stationary! Idiot! What are you doing?"
"Making a picture for my teacher."
"Estupido! You're wasting it!"
Thank goodness for her school teacher, Mrs. Lesene, who cultivated it instead. That's another of those things - one the happier instances - that can stick in your mind: the salvation of the right teacher at exactly the right time who can turn your whole life around for years to come.
Instead her mother addresses her like a dog, and Barry does make the connection with the way she initially handled her dog as an adult and child.
"The dog I had when I was a kid was a shelter dog too. I don't think I would have made it through those years without him. I wish I could say I was always as loving to him as he was to me. I regret so many things."
That's ever so sad, as are the pages on which she attempts to fathom the differences between her grandmother and her mother who "didn't seem to like me much [emphasis on 'like', mine], but she meant more to me that anyone." Instead "mom used to scream that she couldn't wait until I had children so I would know what Hell was like."
"You wait! You'll see! You'll be sorry you ever had kids! Children are a punishment!"
So that's going to be a fairly formative experience.
What else is on offer here? Head lice and her worst boyfriend. Dancing when young without a care in the world! The paralysis if ever you suspect you're not any good (see WHAT IT IS for Barry's 30-year paralysis when it came to her own art). Childhood games in the street: the hierarchies and disputes but also the sheer fun! Losing your earliest comfort blanket or toy by leaving it behind accidentally!
Dropping your best friend on purpose:
"She was an extremely kind and funny person. We were always together. She was two years younger than me but it never mattered until I turned 13.
"Once I turned 13 and started junior high and realized how weird and lame I really was, there was no way I could have an 11-year-old best friend.
"I never talked to Ev about it. I never explained what was going on. I just avoided her and hoped she would forget about me. I did this 31 years ago but my stomach still knots up when I think about it."
It's a very personal book, its intimacy with its audience enhanced by the strikingly large size of the script on top of each panel compared with the dialogue below. I don't know how this works exactly, but I imagined it smaller and something was lost: it felt more mundane, more perfunctory, more like I was being told a story and less like it was being shared with me.
Apart from the grandmother whose every appearance I relished, my other favourite sequences of exquisite cartooning were Lynda's gawky and gangly self-portraits, all teeth and frankly weird red hair, and the dancing! During dancing the forms undulate rhythmically and you get a real sense of the physical pleasure involved. As to Lynda demonstrating the hula with her knees bent, her hips thrust up and out "like a crazy heifer, as well as one shoulder with her arms thrown to the other side, it is a scream.
Each chapter of this new edition (some of the art here will be from the old edition) is introduced with a double-page landscape, "Today's Demon(s):" framed to the right, with its inspirations or catalysts to the left, and sometimes commentary or apposite illustrations, which could come in any form from hand-crocheted dolls' dresses and flowery, frilly and lacey things for 'Girliness' to a hand-made cuddly toy inscribed with 'Where are you?" for the 'Magic Lanterns' of lost toys and other treasured items. There's a particularly poignant photograph of Lynda and Ev when once together.
It's all so fluent, Barry's ability to turn a phrase or reverse a perspective with insight or hindsight remarkable throughout.
From 'Lost Worlds' about those childhood street sports during which young Lynda would break off to wave at aeroplanes as if the pilot and passengers could see her so far below:
"This was long before I grew up and found out you can't see very much from an airplane window. Big things, yes, but the little things are lost."
The panel shows a mournful, adult Lynda Barry, very much alone and looking out of the tiny passenger portal at night. We then flip back to her young hyperactive self surrounded by all her friends, caught up in the energy and excitement of game.
"The city is there and so are the streets, but at a certain distance people disappear. Whole neighbourhoods of children just vanish."
It happens at a distance; it happens over time.
But, with a little applied meditation, it can all come flooding back.