Matt Groening, the 58-year-old cartoonist and creator of possibly the most famous cartoon series ever, The Simpsons, and Lynda Barry, 56, also a cartoonist, and a writer and teacher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UWM), have been friends since they were teenagers.
They had the same schoolteachers, who were also best friends, and they met each other through a mutual love of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. Hearing that Barry had written the writer a proposal, Groening asked around at school until he found the girl who had been so daring. Eventually he met Barry, who had gotten a reply from their hero. “Heller said he would like to marry her but he didn’t want to live in her school dorm,” Groening told the audience on the morning of the second day at the INK2012 conference in Pune.
Looking back at those days now, Barry said during their shared talk, it’s hard to believe how differently the two cartoonists lives have turned out. “Matt lives in Malibu... I live in a little farm in Wisconsin... And we look at each other’s lives like Edvard Munch’s The Scream.”
Barry then does an impression of the famous rictus of horror from the painting, hands pressed to the side of her face. Groening smiles down at her. Standing on stage together, the artists make an odd pair. Groening towers over Barry’s lithe and diminutive frame. Her hair falls in two plaits under a black velvet cap that she pats a lot in a conciliatory manner, as though communicating with it.
“That comes back to my teacher,” she says afterwards, responding to a question about the difference between writing and drawing. “I’ll touch her little hat, this is her hat, and she protects me,” she says in an interview afterwards. “Her philosophy—and it was at the school where Matt and I went and I think it really influenced us—was that everything that we call the arts contains something that she called an image, this living thing, and that once you understand what that is the form you give it is not that important, and I believed her... I wrote a play that ran for a long time in New York, and I’ve done radio shows and written novels and a memoir and teaching, but they feel just exactly the same to me.”
The pair go through some early work of Groening’s from his weekly comic strip, which ran from 1977 until June this year, Life In Hell—“based on Los Angeles,” he intones wryly. One series, called Will And Abe, is a literal representation of conversations he overhead his two sons having. “I started recording them,” he said. Most of the exchanges revolve around the two boys trying to silence each other in a game of verbal trumps: “jinx”, “double jinx”, “revers-ey”, etc., etc., culminating in phrases like “God destroy all”. Barry and Groening take equal delight in reading them aloud and doing the voices. Both artists retain a keen sense of what it is to feel the intensity of childish emotions.
One strip is about the final battle to see who is king of Monster Island. The elder son, Will, names his toys with eerie, cool, sci-fi names, and the younger, Abe, can only come up with ‘Tina’. “You can’t have a monster named ‘Tina’,” groans Will, “I’m not playing with you; you don’t even know how to play.” And he flounces off. The triumphant final frame shows Abe holding his toy aloft. “Tina is king of Monster Island!” he exclaims.
Another argument revolves comes out of a fight. “I’m gonna tell God to stab you!” shouts the little brother. “God doesn’t have hands,” retorts Will, prompting a brief discussion on the particular attributes of the divine creator and his consequential ability to stab or not to stab. “I’m gonna tell God to kick you,” concludes Abe, a moment later.
It’s refreshing to hear Groening talking about his lesser-known work. Nowadays, his two hit TV shows, The Simpsons and Futurama keep him living and working in Los Angeles.
Barry says it has taken her forever to get him to visit her in her in Wisconsin: “Matt and I...we have different lives... I don’t make any money and I live on a farm. He finally came to my farm. It took him a long time—he would say, ‘What do people do on a farm? Why would I come to a farm?’ And at one point I said, ‘Come, help me paint a room,’ and he said, ‘To hell with that,’ and I said, ‘When was the last time you painted anything? Come on help me.’ He came to teach my class (at UWM), which was really beautiful... This thing where we started off as friends early on, then there we were teaching together.”
Barry has tried a lot of new things between those early days and now, but what seems to engage her the most is theories of child development, the importance of cognitive engagement, and the differences between the hemispheres of the brain. She calls her hands “the original digital device”, waggling the fingers as she does so. “All of the things that people are trying to do with digital devices: wireless, bio-fuelled...we have it. It’s here. One of my concerns about technology, the digital world, is that we are using our hands less and that science shows that hand movement and thinking are connected.”
Like Groening, Barry is very alive to the nuances of children’s play—how it reveals the way they think, their personalities and their thought processes, as in Groening’s sons’ dinner conversations. “A child’s brain in deep play and an adult in deep concentration are very similar,” she says. To Barry, ‘play’ is an integral part of life for both children and adults. “People mistake fun and play for the same thing, the way they mistake comics and funny.”
That observation might be a driving force through Groening’s body of work. It’s always playful, but not always funny. In fact, there are parts of Life In Hell that are unremittingly bleak—Binky the depressive rabbit for one example. In one strip, Binky is seen comforting his illegitimate son about the certainty of death: “You’re afraid there’s no heaven,” he says. “But look on the bright side—there’s no hell, either. Except this one… No matter who you are, you gotta die. And we all get to be dead the same amount of time: forever.”
The contrast in their personalities is obvious when Barry and Groening share a stage. Barry is electric with energy, moving Groening around physically when he stands in her way, “Let’s trade places, shall we?” she mutters, shooing him over. She has a faintly motherly air, but is full of bouncy fun, and when she stands up at the end of the talk for her party trick (which is singing You Are My Sunshine inside her mouth, with her lips tightly closed and her cheeks puffed out), she is reminiscent of nobody so much as the life-loving and irrepressible Maude from Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult film Harold And Maude.
Groening is more taciturn, at least outwardly. Looking dolefully out at the (mainly Indian) audience in the conference hall, he begins: “Apu... I apologize...” referring to the Indian shopkeeper in The Simpsons—a tirelessly polite man who is constantly taken advantage of as a result of his mild manners.
The name, Groening says, came from Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy of Bengali movies—Groening, it seems, is a closet fan of Indian films, he occasionally goes to see them in L.A. theatres.
“The character came from an electronic store down the street from the 20th Century Fox studio. I walked in. It was owned by an Indian, who, in the back, had a huge collection of Indian classical music.” Groening browsed for a bit and chatted to the shopkeeper. “When I turned to leave, I said, ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘You are more than welcome.’ I thought that was such sweet thing—and so that’s what I based the character on.”
Then Barry steps forward to do her “party trick”. Groening, who must have seen this a million times, laughs with genuine admiration.