Monday, March 2, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: What It Is, by Lynda Barry

What It Is, by Lynda Barry. Published 2008 by Drawn and Quarterly. Nonfiction. Graphica.


What It Is, Lynda Barry's latest, is a treat and a feast for the eyes and the spirit. Part memoir, part writing manual and part daydream, it's a beautiful piece of work.

The book is a colorful, large format volume and just about every page is filled with collage, sketches, paintings and writing. Barry starts out alternating passages about her childhood with pages of inspiration and whimsy; her memories are painful and difficult to read at times, but she writes with a great deal of honesty about life and I think many people will be able to relate to her. If anything, I wish she had written more in this vein. I love how you can look at these pages over and over and keep finding something new. Barry's visual style is very distinctive- loose, informal and fluid- and the pages really show off her sense of composition and color. She pours everything but the kitchen sink into her artwork- papers, pen-and-ink, paint, different kinds of clip art and found art- and creates some really gorgeous and absorbing tableaux.

But the real purpose behind What It Is is to inspire readers to write and create art of their own. For the last half or so of the book, Barry intersperses a variety of writing exercises into her memoir and inspiration pages, to nice effect. She suggests timing the exercises, and doing them without stopping the pen and without re-reading; the idea is to write in uninterrupted stretches, and to keep writing, to just see what comes out, and to avoid self-censorship or inhibition.

She has some good tips and ideas- actually really good tips and ideas- and I think What It Is would be great as a manual or textbook for a writing class, and great to use on one's own as well. But even if you don't use the book, it's a pleasure to look at and read. Nearly squeaky-clean (except for some very mild profanity) What It Is is absolutely fine for most teens. I don't know how happy some parents would be with Barry's portrayal of a dysfunctional, uncaring family, but I think many young people would find validation and hope in her story. And I think it's just a great book for any graphic novel- or graphic art- fan.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.