WHAT IT IS reviewed by the North Adams Transcript

An idiot's guide to creativity

North Adams Transcript    |    John E. Mitchell    |    July 18, 2008

In this primer for cartooning -- a sort of how to be creative instructional text book -- Lynda Barry takes a very different and very abstract approach. Instead of merely telling you how to fashion ideas and work with them, Barry takes the reader through an autobiographical journey tracing the movement of her brain and consciousness as it learned to fashion ideas and work with them.

"What It Is" unfolds through a bold and abstract presentation, where the subtleties and depth of Barry's creative process -- or, better yet, process to creativity -- is echoed through a mix of sharp cartooning layered within intricate collage work. It may be an instructional work underneath all the clutter, but it's that clutter that does the dirty work, making plain why the instruction makes any sense whatsoever.

Barry employs an arsenal of tactics to walk would-be cartoonists through the process. Sometimes it's straight cartoon narrative -- often Barry messes with this, creating a memoir of childhood with handwritten entries alongside the drawings. The journal winds through the personal circumstances of those years -- including some sad details about her parental relationships -- but the biographical detail provides a road map to the moment where all the circumstances, the doodling and reading and alienation, come together as artistic motivation.

When she's not functioning as the Ghost of Cartoonists Past, Barry is posing a series of abstract philosophical questions about storytelling, the kind of Zen unanswerables designed to get you thinking without entirely worrying about any conclusion. Questions like "What is the past made of?" and "What are thoughts made of?" serve as springboards for Barry's energetic and often gorgeous collage work, providing equally abstract images illustrating the journey begun by the questions.

Reading "What That Is" is like diving into Barry's mind and swimming for a while. You plunge into bits of narrative now and again, but most of it is free form exploration, with your actions working alongside and in contrast to Barry's own. In other words, Barry actually takes you through the act of creation, rather than just telling you how it's done -- by the end, she's a guide in the mysterious world of your own creative brain, not just her own. This should be required reading for any teenager drifting into a creative life.

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