Susan Kirtley - Corinna Scott/PSU Vanguard

South Medford grad wins comics industry 'Oscar'

Years of interviews, research, writing and pouring over thousands of comic-book panels is paying off for Susan Kirtley.

The 1991 graduate of South Medford High School received a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award — considered the "Oscars" of the comics industry — at San Diego Comic Con last week.

Her book, "Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through the Looking Glass," earned the top prize in the Best Educational-Academic Work category.

"I was very honored to be nominated. The people in my category are fantastic," said Kirtley, an assistant professor of English and director of writing at Portland State University. "It's a great honor to be included. I'm still not very articulate about it."

Kirtley's book focuses on Lynda Barry, a comic-book writer, novelist, playwright, artist and creator of the long-running strip "Ernie Pook's Comeek."

Kirtley began the book shortly after using Barry's "One Hundred Demons" comic in a memoir class she taught at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Mass. Afterward, she attended a 2007 conference where she did a presentation about Barry's works. A representative from the University Press of Mississippi was there and asked her to tackle a book about Barry.

"It was a wonderful, happy accident," Kirtley said. "(Barry) works in so many different genres, and I find that very intriguing."

Kirtley was well-equipped to write about comics. She read them as a child, pulling tales of costume-donning heroes from supermarket spinner racks and burning through the stories issue by issue.

Pat Kirtley, her mother, recalls taking her daughter to a comics shop that used to be in downtown Medford. The medium intrigued the youngster, she recalls.

"There was more there than silly little comics. She thought there was probably more to it," Pat Kirtley said.

By college, her tastes had evolved after exposure to alternative comic-book writers and artists such as Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb.

But even with the know-how, putting out an academic work on the iconic Barry was challenging, as the book's introduction suggests.

"Despite Barry's influence within the comic art world and her recent resurgence in the popular press, only a few scholarly articles have focused on her work," the introduction reads.

Kirtley wanted to fill that gap, and she started by reading. She read every comic strip she could find, poured through microfilm in libraries, and read Barry's novels and plays. She also interviewed Barry and learned as much as she could about art history.

"I felt to do her justice I had to be aware of everything she'd done — everything I could find," Kirtley said. "I wanted to have as much information as possible. It was a painstaking but wonderful process of discovery."

What Kirtley found within Barry's works were several common themes expressed through adolescent, girl characters. Barry represents them in a realistic way: flawed and awkward.

"They're not the sort of picture-perfect American Girl type," Kirtley said. "(Barry's) representing sort of an alternative, a different vision of what it is to be a girl. It's not all these sugar-and-spice notions."

Kirtley said she also discovered traits about Barry herself through her research.

"I think she has been somewhat overlooked as a comic artist and essayist," Kirtley said. "She just moves among these different genres so fluidly."

The book took several years. As she wrote it, Kirtley continued to teach and raise her two children, eventually moving to Portland two years ago to pursue work at PSU.

Pat Kirtley said hearing about the Eisner nomination — and the win — was exciting.

"It's better than if you got it yourself," she said. "We were really excited. It's an honor for all the hard work she put in."

Kirtley said she's already developing ideas for a new book. This time around, she hopes to focus on a group of female-character centered comic strips such as "Cathy" and "For Better or For Worse," along with more of Barry's works.

"They all started around the same time, and they ended within a few years of each other," Kirtley said.

In the meantime, she continues to read comics for fun — she's a big fan of Marvel's X-Men and Hawkeye titles.

Her book about Barry is available at Barry herself contributed an image for the cover, a robe-wearing monkey smoking a cigarette and holding a bottled beverage while seated at a kitchen table.

"Well, my dream has come true," Kirtley said. "I now have a book with a monkey on the cover. What more can I ask for?"

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or

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