What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly)

Not so much a book as a collection of stories and collages, What It Is cranks Lynda Barry’s self-examination to the extreme, forcing the reader to focus on the bogglinglying brilliant combination of wide-ruled notebooks, cartoons, construction paper and words clipped from old paperbacks.

 

 

209 pgs. full color; $24.95 hardcover

(W / A: Lynda Barry)

 

The world is cruel. On the day I planned to draft this review a storm knocked the power out. And the power stayed out. For days. While the power was out, What It Is sat, already read, on my shelf. In the dark. For days. When the power came back on I dusted off the book, turned on the computer and sat down, ready to write. But now the blackout was mental. I couldn’t remember what the book was about. I knew I liked it, but not much else. After re-reading it, I don’t think I ever knew what it really was about. I still don’t really know.

The cover to What It Is by Lynda Barry.I’ll start with my relationship with Lynda Barry. I used to not like her work at all. In high school I called one of her books "Mom comics." I really regret that now. I was young and reckless: I listened to bad punk rock and grew my hair out because I thought it looked tough. When I got older and realized how stupid all of that really was, I got back into mom comics. By the time I was about to graduate, I owned Barry’s entire back catalog, including the book with the comic about dating Ira Glass.

What I had grown to realize in those years was that Lynda Barry’s work is nothing like you’d expect at first glance. The art may seem clunky at times, but it’s eye-catching, attractive and meticulous—looking back, it’s hard to spot any image that isn’t perfectly placed. The stories are amazing as well. Barry has made some of the most personal, heart-wrenching and utterly hilarious contributions to modern comics. Her stories combine pictures and prose in a way that seems both effortless and completely impossible to replicate. And that is what What It Is is.

Not so much a book as a collection of stories and collages, What It Is cranks Barry’s self-examination to the extreme, forcing the reader to focus on the bogglinglying brilliant combination of wide-ruled notebooks, cartoons, construction paper and words clipped from old paperbacks. In my second reading, I spent exasperating periods of time on some pages, asking myself over and over, "How does she do it?"

What It Is answers that…kind of. Between the collages, the story follows Barry as she discovers the power of her imagination, then explores ways to wrangle it onto the page. At the same time, the book is a guide through you’re own creative process. On the journey, images that first seem silly, like a post-it reading "Napoleon Monkeys Bananas," become completely coherent in the jungle of abstract thought. The final product—the ultimate art—is the fruit found on the trees, and there’s no way to get it without building a mountain of discarded ideas. To spend time with What It Is is to have a safari guide for the brain. It’s numbingly cerebral but instantly accessible. 

No matter how many adjectives I throw onto the page, I still won’t create any real illusion that I know what this book is about. I just think I know. That’s what What It Is is. | Gabe Bullard

Click here to check out a 13-page excerpt of What It Is, courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

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