WHAT IT IS reviewed by Philadelphia Weekly

Lit Gloss Lynda Barry’s What It Is.

Philadelphia Weekly    |    Liz Spikol    |    June 10, 2008

At first glance, cartoonist Lynda Barry’s latest book What It Is is a beautiful, meandering scrapbook that’s part Joseph Cornell and part Annie Dillard. Collages made from legal pads, glitter, book fragments, scraps of student assignments and Barry’s incredible drawings, doodlings, lettering and watercolors shimmer on each page. The juxtapositions are startling and eloquent. Mixed in with rabbits, birds and Abraham Lincoln stamps are meditations on big ideas: reality vs. imagination; the nature of memory; what images mean; what’s lost when childhood cedes to adulthood. Barry asks questions like, “When an unexpected memory comes calling, who answers?” The book’s rich landscape encourages the discovery of personal responses. On other pages, Barry comic-strips her childhood development as an artist. At one point she becomes mildly obsessed with the image of the gorgon. She now realizes children need monsters to counter other disappointments. “Did the gorgon help me love my mother?” Barry writes. “I think she helped me very much.” The theme of what children feel is an enduring one in What It Is. Barry says as children we were free from the Two Questions—“Is this good?” or “Does it suck?”—that came to dominate Barry’s adult life as an artist. Barry argues persuasively that the sudden thoughts, patience, inclination to play and spontaneity children naturally have are essential to enjoying the process. To that end, the latter part of the book is a remarkably unconventional writing manual with a monster named “Sea-Ma” as “class monitor.” Almost halfway through Barry writes, “Kids like making marks that make shapes that make stories. Adults are scared to do this.” Most adults, maybe. But not Lynda Barry. What It Is, above all, is fearless. » Thurs., June 5, 7pm. Free. Free Library, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. www.freelibrary.org

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