Sunday, May 20, 2012

What It Is

We are getting metaphysical with today's entry on Not Quite A Graphic Novel Month.

A mediation on drawing, memory, art, thinking, and imagination as well as autobiographical scrapbook, What It Is is an evocative, intriguing, and thought-provoking work. In some ways it is difficult to describe: There are threads of ideas tying the book together, leitmotifs that resurface and offer a coherence. There are snippets of a life history. There are images that repeat in variations throughout the book, like ghosts of thoughts haunting the author as well as the reader. There are collages of old textbook and magazine images combined with handwritten letters, envelopes, and postmarks. There are so many emotions and feelings expressed throughout, from creative breakthroughs to isolation to epiphanies to alienation to small, significant moments where things suddenly make sense. It is a sad, beautiful, and hopeful book.

Author/artist Lynda Barry has been an active creator for decades now, and she is the eponymous "Funk Queen of the Galaxy" to whom Matt Groening dedicates every volume of his Life in Hell collections. She has published many books, including 100! Hundred! Demons! and Picture This, which is a companion piece to this volume. More recently she conducts writing workshops especially aimed at non-writers. Barry also shares videos, art, and news about her work on her official site, The Near-Sighted Monkey.

Some readers will find a familiarity in the autobiographical stories, as they resemble the ones in her long-running comic strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek. Barry speaks extensively about her life, work, and teaching in this interview with the Paris Review.

Reviews of this book have been very positive. Jeff VanderMeer praised it as "one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse." elisa ludwig called it "both a window into Barry’s mind and a brilliant representation of creativity at work." Michael Moon concluded that it is "an amazing achievement."

The book's publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, offers a preview here.

Why it is not quite a graphic novel: Although it does use sequential art sequences, What It Is also is a piece of art in and of itself. It is interspersed with aphorisms, collage images, and pages that can stand by themselves. As a whole, this book uses various media produces a great number of effects, inspirations, feelings, and thoughts. I am not quite sure what I would call this type of book, but I do know that reading it is an experience not to be missed.

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