Tuesday , May 21 2024
What It Is

Graphic Novel Review: ‘What It Is’ by Lynda Barry, from Drawn+Quarterly

What It Is

What It Is by Lynda Barry, published by Drawn and Quarterly, is a work that defies easy definition. It is at once an autobiography, an inspirational workbook, and a philosophical reflection on creativity and meaning. This wiggly nature is the perfect method to provoke deeper thinking, as Barry addresses such wiggly questions as “How can one form be changed to another?”, “What are we doing when we are looking?”, and “Can you have thoughts without language?”

What It Is

A simple glance at the cover of What It Is immediately identifies it as a Lynda Barry work. Barry, known for her Maybonne comics collected in editions like My Perfect Life and her reflections on creativity in the art classroom in Syllabus, has a distinctive style as influenced by the funny pages as it is comix in the era she grew up in, and a lifetime of other visual styles. The versatility in Barry’s art is evident, with cartoony depictions of made-up creatures and herself with a monkey’s face, depicted with ballpoint pen, watercolor, and multimedia with cut-out photographic images incorporated into her own drawing.

The intermingled art forms in What It Is play together well on the busy pages. The book is something of a collage of collages. Some pages flow together seamlessly, like reading a novel, while others are a complete surprise. The pages are packed with juxtaposed cartoons and cuttings accompanied by decorative borders or fillers simply making the page more fun. Along with the images are bits of poetry and experiments like taking an elementary school quiz about robins and replacing each “robin” with the word “monster.”

Amid the flow of collages in the main part of What It Is comes a multichapter narrative where Barry discusses her own experiences with creativity. She displays creative blocks as an adult and then thinks back to being a kid playing staring games where images would appear to her. The creative mind is always at work, and as Barry points out, “There are imaginary friends and imaginary enemies.” Barry shows herself growing up battling made-up enemies as she draws for fun, quits, and then develops her art in the face of the never-ending questioning: “Is it good? Does this suck?”

The later sections of What It Is are activity books pulling from Barry’s teaching. “Writing the Unthinkable” includes comics hilariously illustrating the writing process, such as story ideation building to a caption “Ten years later” followed with the bubble “Shh! Still thinkin’.” Pages of inspiration follow with collections of images, inventive questions to define characters, and relaxation techniques to let the creativity flow. Another section features exercises with a word bag and a picture bag where the creator can be inspired simply by drawing things at random.

With so much art and all its prompts, it may well be impossible to come away from What It Is without being inspired, at least to refill the creative juices pooling at the bottom of your brain. One can never know what will be created, and Barry herself shows the exciting unknowing in her final appendix, journaling as she created this very book.

About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.

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