Death at a Distance: An Analysis of Lynda Barry's "Cicadas" in One Hundred (100) Demons
After the death of a loved one, it’s common to hear the affected say they can’t remember the physical features of their loved one once they have passed. Instead, they have an ambiguous image in their mind of a person who no longer exists. Lynda Barry illustrates this feeling of ambiguity in her graphic narrative and self-proclaimed “autobifictionalography,” One Hundred Demons. In the chapter entitled “Cicadas,” Barry juxtaposes a ghostly silhouette with a cicada. She describes the cicada in depth with scientific vocabulary. The image of the figure is much more ambiguous and placed on the page with emotional text. Barry attempts to describe the suicide of her friend, Bob, through her narrative, while assuring the reader that they are not alone if they feel this way too. Barry hopes to heal her readers of their demons by showing them what has haunted her; the creation of her “autobifictionalography” allows Barry to find peace with the painful memories she has suppressed in the past. This chapter, “Cicadas,” deals with closure and acceptance; a demon difficult to overcome.
Although Barry admits that not all events in the narrative actually occurred, she stays true to much of her story. The book, at first glance, may look like a scrapbook with cut-outs and glitter glue. Barry could have drawn herself as a heroic figure (like most comic’s protagonists), yet she depicts herself as an unattractive girl, even at a young age. Her insecurities and unattractive representation of herself allows the reader to feel comfortable; the reader is more likely to relate to her in the personal experiences which occur in the book. She creates a role model out of the grandmother, who we are able to idolize. Since Barry attempts to relieve herself of her demons through this piece, she needs to place herself as the main character in her narrative, but not as one the reader idolizes.
The chapter, “Cicadas,” begins with the image of an adult version of Barry painting the comic; this allows the reader to have a reliable narrator. The child version of Barry wouldn’t be able to efficiently describe the way that Barry feels toward death and suicide. Because most of the other chapters in the graphic narrative don’t start with an image of an adult Barry, this chapter has a unique seriousness to it, which causes the reader to slow down when they read it.
Barry places her adult-self at the front of the chapter to also hint at the fact that this memory surpasses time; it has haunted her throughout life. The image of Bob is not what haunts her, because she cannot recall most of his physical features. It is death itself and suicide which haunts Barry. The feeling of loss and distance is what continues to effect Barry’s well-being. By creating this graphic narrative, Barry can overcome her demons. The vague and ghostly image which haunts this chapter shows that memories are not always cemented in time.
When Barry describes Bob, a high school sweetheart of Barry’s who committed suicide, she can’t recall many of his physical features. She says she can remember his chipped tooth when she tries to picture him, but not much else. She attaches the image of Bob’s chipped tooth to a memory. In the panel, the text covers the character’s eyes; he is painted with blue-toned watercolors. Because she can only attach his image to memories, his image in this chapter is vague. To make this point clear to the reader, she juxtaposes Bob’s ambiguity with brightly colored panels of her and her friend. Barry doesn’t want the entire chapter to have a dark and solemn tone, because this would distract from her overall message. She wants the reader to understand how she is feeling—sad, lonely and upset that she can’t rid herself of this demon; it still bothers her to this day.
Barry references her “secret life” (164) that her mother could never find out about; she confesses that she never told her mother about the boy or his suicide. This could be why the demon has continued to haunt her. The image of Bob continues to unearth itself in her memory, like a cicada that had burrowed itself into the ground long ago.
The next panel shows a vague blur of a silhouette, “an opaque stain where knowing andbelieving meet . A gap of nothing . His silhouette ” (164). When a loved one passes, it is common to hear the affected say that it’s difficult to remember the physical features of the one they lost. Barry’s illustration of Bob is as vague and transparent as a ghost. This haunting image, painted in a ghastly amber -yellow, is a clear representation of Bob’s suicide and its effect on Barry; she has forever preserved his memory—like an insect in amber—only to be haunted by it for years to come.
The next image of Bob is drawn behind a train and its track; the structure holding the tracks create a cage-like pattern in front of the ghostly figure. This illustrates the distance Barry feels from her old friend; he is caged-in, without a mouth (a voice) or any other way to communicate with her. He is in the background of her memory; the train’s image is clearer than the memory Barry has of Bob. Like a stain, his presence haunts Barry’s memories and continues to upset her year after year.
On the next page, first panel, Barry writes, “It was a year ago this week that anotherfriendkilled himself. The cicadas were whirring in the elms as they are whirring now. Theiramber husks are everywhere. Brittle ghosts of creatures who call from the tree tops” (166). An amber-colored silhouette of a man is drawn amongst the trees. Her memories are preserved in yellow (as an insect in amber). In the next panel, Barry paints herself in an amber light. By painting it this way (showing the reader an image of her creating the book), Barry shows us that the book is now a memory. Even we cannot see how she is now or if she has healed herself of these demons.
Through her graphic narrative, One Hundred Demons , Barry preserves her memories. The graphic narrative, however, is a healthy way to rid of her demons. In the past, she had suppressed the pain she felt when Bob died—kept it to her “secret life” (164), which only caused it to burrow out of her memories later in life. By suppressing Bob as a memory—a “stain”—she is able to be haunted by his image in the future. In this chapter, we see his ambiguous image towering over landscapes. He is not meant to represent a present individual; he is a ghost, a memory, which haunts Barry and similarly haunts those who have experienced loss also.
The effect of these memories and the loss of another friend by suicide makes Barry connect them to the cicadas: “Some cicadas stay burrowed underground for 17 years. The world turns ‘round with them inside , alive in the blank darkness. Until the news reaches them. A telephone call . A scream. Come out, come out, where ever you are ” (168). The memories of a lost one can haunt a person for years. Barry drew One Hundred Demons to rid herself of these demons, the painful memories that she never overcame in the past. With this graphic narrative, she attempts to show the reader that by accepting the painful events in the past, we can continue to live.
The final panel of this chapter shows the adult Barry crouching over the painting of Bob as the stain on 164. In this panel, she is not only remembering the loss of Bob, but also when she painted that panel, four pages ago, allowing his image to stain another page in the book. The page she painted before is again in this frame because it shows progress and the passing of time. Although she is not completely healed of the pain she felt when Bob died, she makes reference to the progress with the final panel. She writes, “I thought I would be over it by now ” (168)—by the time that she finishes the chapter. Her therapy is this graphic narrative and by writing it, she is ridding herself of the demons which she has burrowed deep in her memory.
On page 164, there are two panels which sit side by side: the last panel (described above) and a detailed image of a cicada. These two images on the same page leaves a haunting juxtaposition between the cicada and the silhouette; the cicada is much more detailed with warm colors, while the last panel focuses on Barry, in a ghastly yellow tint. The image of the stain remains as the center image in the final panel. The cicada is in the present and therefore is detailed. The stain, Barry’s memory of Bob, is getting smaller; Barry telling her memory of Bob has become a memory in itself. These images show the healing process and Barry’s ability to overcome her demons one memory at a time.
The full, accompanying text to the last panel is: “The ‘dog-days’ cicada comes every year. Theare singing as I write this…I thought I would be over it by now ” (168). She is haunted every year (around summertime) by the memory of Bob. While some may argue that the amber color in the last panel is used to illustrate a summer color palette, it most likely alludes to the preservation of insects in amber; similarly, she preserves her memories in this novel. The stain of Bob is just one of the many different demons which Barry has kept in her memories.
Throughout Lynda Barry’s graphic narrative, One Hundred Demons , she illustrates the many demons which have haunted her in life. The most ghostly of these images is the suicide of her friend, Bob, in the chapter “Cicadas.” By beginning this chapter with an image of adult Barry painting the pages, she allows the reader to understand time and the passing effects. By juxtaposing the image of a silhouette with a cicada, she shows that emotions are sometimes burrowed so deep, that it is hard to overcome them. Like an insect in amber, Barry is preserving her painful memories (her demons) in this book, allowing her to cement her memories in a place and time. The ambiguous image of Bob’s ghost is meant to illustrate the difficulty of overcoming painful realities. By reading Barry’s “autobifictionalography,” we are shown that suppressing our painful memories allows our demons to continue to haunt us. The only way to overcome these demons is not to forget the past, but to accept it as Barry does.
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