One Hundred Demons
By Lynda Barry
Sasquatch Books, 2002. 9.5″ X 6″, 224 p., full color, $17.95.
I used to read Lynda Barry’s “Marlys” strips in the back of the local alt-weekly paper. While I’ve never been a big fan of stories about childhood, something about the way the stories seemed to be written as a reflection on the past appealed to me. Being a casual reader of a strip and sitting down with a book of strips are rather different reading experiences, but I’ve finally spent some time with Lynda Barry’s work. I’m better off for the experience.
One Hundred Demons is a collection of seventeen short comics (plus illustrated intro and outro) based on the idea of drawing a “demon.” In an introductory comic, Barry explains where she got the concept: a painting technique used by a 16th century Japanese monk who painted a parade of one hundred demons on a scroll. She decides to paint them in the form of comics. Barry’s demons come out in what she calls autobifictionalography, partially autobiographical, partially fictional stories about childhood and those years between childhood and adulthood. The protagonist is Lynda, a red-haired half- filipino girl who lives in Seattle with her mom and grandmom (and apparently her dad, though he is never seen and only mentioned a few times). She is a bit of an outcast, has few or temporary friends, and gets involved with sex and drugs at an early age. Her relationship with her mother is strained, but she gets along well with her grandmom.
Autobiographical comics (and their partially fictional brethren) are nothing new, and perhaps are even rather played out these days, the refuge of an artist with little to say. That doesn’t take away from the power of a well-done and original spin on the genre. Barry brings a unique voice to the material filled with humor, joy, regret, and acceptance. She tells her stories with the partial wisdom of experience and age looking back at the hazily remembered days of pre- adulthood. She plays on the friction between those days (as best as we remember them) and the altered view we hold looking back. These are not stories of a woman growing up. They are stories of a woman looking back on growing up, putting some of those demons to rest, and realizing how some still haunt the present.
On reading the first two stories I was worried the whole book would hold a certain sentimentality of “lessons learned” from the past. Thankfully this feeling was dispelled by the pages that followed. I don’t how else to say it except that there is true feeling and power in these stories. They are funny, moving, sad, insightful, and occasionally shocking.
The first thing a reader will notice about this book is how colorful it is. Not only is the cover bright and busy with collage, but the margins of every interior page are colored. The edge of the book is a rainbow of pastel-colored sections (a story for each color). The two page spreads that act as title pages to each story are collages of images, photos, objects, and text, each featuring the “demon”, a small dark creature representative of the issue at hand.
The strips are all done in square panels, two to a page, nine pages to a story. The panels are dominated by large blocks of narration that squeeze the pictures into the bottom half of the panel. This is as much, if not more, a reading book than a looking book. Her prose is casual, like a friend telling a story. Some of the stories are quite linear, telling about a particular event, while others are more atmospheric, skipping through time to show us a period in life or the recurrence of a theme. Occasionally, she jumps into the present, showing herself as an adult.
Like the narration, there is casualness to the bendy armed characters that inhabit an iconic world of houses, streets, and trees. The outro to the book explains the Asian ink brush method Barry used in the book. The ink lines are flowing and consistent in quality, filled in with bright ink washes. It’s simpler and less decorative than Barry’s other works I’ve seen. The color palette in each strip is slightly different, certain colors predominate. A color will be used for the background to talking heads and will also appear in the background of interiors and in the characters’ clothes. Most of the strips use this recurring background color, often in conjunction with its compliment. I think this use of color repetition is what makes the art so pleasing to the eye and also gives each strip a unique look. We don’t see enough skilled color use in comics particularly in non-Marvel/DC books (probably because of the cost of reproduction).
I read One Hundred Demons in a single sitting. I kept thinking, “just one more, then I’ll get up”, but I kept reading until I finished. I know I’ll be going back to it again.