Graphic Novel Fridays: Lynda Barry's Incredible What It Is

Published earlier this year, Lynda Barry's What It Is is one of my favorite graphic novels ever. An exploration of the imagination, an invitation to create, and a moving autobiographical account, What It is is one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse. The images by themselves would be amazing, the text by itself wise and luminous yet pragmatic. The combination of text and art provides new insight that feels three-dimensional and oddly soothing. I cannot over-emphasize the therapeutic effect of What It Is.

I've been working very hard on a novel with a deadline of December. It has, in many ways, been a war of attrition, which tends to produce good fiction but is exhausting. As I read through Barry's book, I began to feel refreshed and rejuvenated. What It Is has that kind of effect--it makes you remember, on a gut level, why you do what you do as a creative person--and that everyone can be creative. It reaffirms the value of play, of the imagination, and of story-telling. It reminds you of the powerful link between image and memory, of how images are charged and luminous. (There's also a sly humor at work here that keeps the book from getting too self-important.)

Excerpting the text on any randomly chosen page (35 in this case) gives you a good idea of the collage effect at work here, used masterfully by Lynda Barry:

"No," she answered, "one is of tin and one of straw; one is a girl and one is a Lion. None of them is fit to work, so you may tear them into small pieces."

Can We Remember Something That We Can't Imagine?

What Makes Us Able to Imagine Something?

Your description of the fist fight really makes me lonesome.

Why do we say "recall"?

At the risk of sounding over passionate...

In the afternoon the sun shone hot in their faces, for there were no trees to offer them shade.

In another section, Barry talks about how she was drawn to the gorgon in ancient myth, and then relates that to her personal situation: "We never need certain monsters more than when we are children and a furious woman with terrifying eyes and snakes for hair was the perfect monster for me. That I had a very gorgon-like mother never occurred to me, and if it had, I would have been lost. Did the gorgon help me love my mother? I think she helped me very much." On that same page, we see a chain-smoking woman in curlers shouting at Barry-as-child. For all that Barry makes this book seem effortless, very sophisticated and complex techniques are at work here.

However, divorcing the words from the images is a perilous way to excerpt What It Is, so I've reproduced a few pages below the cut. I can't recommend this stunning graphic novel highly enough. There's also a PDF preview on the publisher's website.


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