WHAT IT IS reviewed by The St Louis Post-Dispatch

Comic artist shares creative spark of her art

St. Louis Post-Dispatch    |    Holly Silva    |    August 17, 2008

Lynda Barry is best known for "Ernie Pook's Comeek," a weekly black-and-white comic strip she has authored since 1978. In early years, the strip was drawn in angular pen strokes and concerned random characters such as Fred Milton the poodle.

"Ernie Pook" has since evolved to a softer, ink-brush format and a regular cast of child characters, mostly preteen girls in financially and parentally impoverished circumstances, much of which echoes Barry's childhood.

The tone of these strips is simultaneously whimsical and truth-telling. Barry conquers a thin emotional line in storytelling: sorrow that does not spill over into pity, and bursts of joy that are never mawkish.

In 30 years and a dozen published collections of strips, she has occasionally branched out with a coloring book, a spoken word audiotape and two novels, one of them ("The Good Times Are Killing Me," 1988) later produced as an off-Broadway play.

And before releasing "What It Is," Barry published "One! Hundred! Demons!" in 2002, an especially heady mix of longer autobiographical strips in color; photos of bright mixed-media collages; and seven photo-illustrated pages with instructions for the reader to paint his or her own demon using ink stone, ink stick and Asian brushes.

"What It Is" melds those three elements of the "Demons" book into a single purpose. Each 8-by-11-inch page (nearly twice the size of her usual book page) combines collage, autobiography and encouragement to the reader to try this at home. There are outright assignments, exercises and pages that function as an activity book: "Start by copying all 4 pages of our word list onto cardstock or tagboard. Cut out all the words. ... Set aside until needed when you're ready to write."

Throughout "What It Is," Barry credits this creativity formula (which she also teaches in small "Writing the Unthinkable" classes all over North America) to her college art instructor, Marilyn Frasca. A classmate was "The Simpsons'" Matt Groening, if you need more evidence of Frasca's professorial powers.

The idea that readers of "What It Is" can access the singular talent that Barry does is a little like falling for late-night TV ads selling miracle kitchen appliances at $9.99.

But the images of "What It Is" are so seductive, and Barry's encouragement so generous and gentle, that even the most cynical readers will undoubtedly find themselves fully absorbed in "Other People's Mothers. Write the first ten that come to you."


'What It Is' By Lynda Barry Published by Drawn and Quarterly, 210 pages, $24.95

Lynda Barry When: 7 p.m. Aug. 25 Where: St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive Street How much: Free For more info: 314-206-6779

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