Comics writers aren’t generally household names these days, but Matt Groening is close. For those who can’t quite place the name, say, “The guy who made The Simpsons,” and they’ll usually respond, “Oh, yeah!”
His career follows a familiar arc: a recent college grad toils away at an alternative weekly in Los Angeles, his comic series “Life in Hell” is syndicated then, eventually, seen by the right guy. That guy was James L. Brooks, television producer, who wanted Groening to work up some animations. What ultimately resulted is one of the longest-running prime-time shows in TV history. The Simpsons is now in its 29th season and has won 23 Emmy Awards, only 9 of them specifically for Animated Series.
Lynda Barry, on the other hand, is the comics-writers’ comics writer. Her smaller, and possibly fiercer, following has made her the doyenne of alternative comics, and anthologies of her work have appeared on best-seller lists. Her protagonists are children and the style could have come right out of an 11-year-old’s journal of doodles. The insights on life have the gut-wrenching candor of childhood, too, from “Love is an exploding cigar which we all willingly smoke” to young Edna’s cataloging of Black, White, and Asian households in her neighborhood during white flight in The Good Times Are Killing Me (reissued in hard cover and full color this month).
Barry, now a professor at University of Wisconsin Madison, may lack Groening’s public recognition, but the professional recognition keeps piling up. Starting with an Inkpot Award for Special Contributions to the world of Comics in 1988, Barry is in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame as of 2016 and this year received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists’ Society. That award was presented to her by her best friend of 40 years, Matt Groening.
The two met at Evergreen State College in the 1970s, when Groening was editor of the school paper, for which Barry drew a comic. They’ve stayed in contact, and in competition, and their joint speaking tour is titled “Love, Hate, and Comics—The Friendship That Would Not Die.” In addition to funny insider stories they talk about what makes their long friendship work and how to be successful in the arts (spoiler: focus on the arts, not the success). “We met while we were working on the school paper together. It’s those extracurricular activities that are binding ones.” explains Barry. “I’m seeing this in my own students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. True friendships are formed around working on something.”
And on Saturday, October 7, Berkeley audiences will get a chance to grill the old friends when they bring their show to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall as part of the Cal Performances “Berkeley Talks” series.