The highly esteemed Lynda Barry recently released What It Is, a combination of coming of age artistic autobiography, ruminations on art and creativity, and imaginary instruction manual for novice storytellers and artists. It’s a lovely looking book, as always impeccably produced by Drawn & Quaterly.
Barry has a highly developed aesthetic sense; the lavish collage work that makes up most of the book displays a finely tuned sense of colour and design, most of the juxtapositions of drawings, photos and assorted clippings making harmonious sense. That said, I don’t get what the big deal is.
A lot of work evidently went into this book, and it is certainly both personal and earnest, but why should we care? The collage work is accomplished, but lacks both power and poetry. You can only take so many cute little birds, flowers and dainty octopi before it starts flowing together. It is pretty in a decorative way, like your talented mom’s sunday clippings. And her range as a draughtswoman is also rather limited; her characters seem to spend their lives on the paper either ogling or wildin’, with pretty much the same expressions. Her self-portrayal as a cute, buck-toothed and freckled little ginger troll complement her wide-eyed observations well, but, like them, they never really transcend the cute to become genuinely incisive. Worse, her observations on art are of the sympathetic but banal fare you would expect from your average grade school teacher:
“If playing isn’t happiness or fun, if it is something which may lead to those things or to something else entirely, not being able to play is misery.”
“What do Drawing, Singing, Dancing, Music-Making, Handwriting, Playing, Storywriting, Acting, Remembering, and even Dreaming all have in common???? They come about when a certain person in a certain place in a certain time arranges certain uncertainties into certain form.”
This is when I lose patience. I remember quite liking One Hundred Demons!, but this book just fails to connect on anything but the most blandly pleasing level. Small beans.