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CSBG Archive

A Year of Cool Comics – Day 6

Here is the latest in our year-long look at one cool comic (whether it be a self-contained work, an ongoing comic or a run on a long-running title that featured multiple creative teams on it over the years) a day (in no particular order whatsoever)! Here‘s the archive of the moments posted so far!

Today we look at Lynda Barry’s What It Is…

Enjoy!

Lynda Barry is one of the pre-eminent independent cartoonists of the last fifty years, and with her work, What It Is, she demonstrates why she is held in such high regard, in a unique work that serves as both a memoir AND a teaching tool!

I was about to say that the book is split into three distinct parts, but I realize that that is not really true, as the three aspects of the book actually serve to inform each other. The book is split into a memoir of Barry’s life through college plus a series of questions designed to get you thinking about writing and then, finally, an “activity book” of sorts whose goal is ALSO to get you to write.

Barry has been teaching a class called “Writing the Unthinkable” for many years, and this book is, in many ways, a summation of her teaching philosophies.

The memoir sections of the book are excellent, as Barry’s evocative drawings really take you to the recesses of her memory, and her thoughts on her life are interesting and surprisingly direct.

Here are a few sample pages (all courtesy of the sample excerpt available at the web site for the book at Drawn & Quarterly)

As great as the memoir sequences are, the “star” of the book clearly is the collage artwork that accompanies Barry’s many pages of questions meant to drive you to thinking differently about the very nature of writing and drawing.

Here are some sample pages…

The book continues much in this vein for most of it (until it becomes an outright “activity book” at the end), alternating between interesting stories of Barry’s life (made all the more interesting due to the depth she reveals about herself) and thought-inducing questions about writing/drawing. The latter of which are wrapped up in these stunning works of collage where each page looks like it took weeks of work, it’s such rich with possibilities.

The world of comics is blessed that we have people like Lynda Barry out there on the cutting edge, re-imagining what you can achieve with graphic works.

32 Comments

Not for me. And not really a comic.

Dan – that’s absolutely a comic. It has words and pictures mixed together on the same page, which is really the only definition of a comic that matters. Visually, there isn’t a ton of difference between her work and Dave McKean’s Pictures That Tick (for example).

“It’s not really a poem, it doesn’t even rhyme!”

Interesting. Not so sure this comic is for me though, but I did enjoy these sample pages.

Wow, I used to read Linda Barry’s strip in my local alt-weekly in the 90s and it was great but it was totally straightforward and conventional (although still very engaging). I had no idea she could do stuff this experimental though. Impressive.

As good as Comic Book Moments was, so far I like this series better because such a bigger range of stuff you can showcase when not limited to finding one awesome moment.

Dan – that’s absolutely a comic. It has words and pictures mixed together on the same page, which is really the only definition of a comic that matters. Visually, there isn’t a ton of difference between her work and Dave McKean’s Pictures That Tick (for example).

Well yeah it has words and pictures on the same page, but so have The Gruffallo, Stardust, Where the Wild Things Are and everything I’ve ever seen by Dr Seuss.

It may change, but what I can see there is an illustrated prose story.

And don’t get me started on poetry that doesn’t rhyme…

I agree, it is definitely a comic. But where’s the plot, the characters, the story? To me this looks more like self therapy. And that’s all well and good if you need therapy. But I prefer stories. With interesting characters interacting.

Thank you for posting those images. Definitely worth a peek. But with literally tens of thousands of great books and comics out there begging for my reading time, I’ve got no time for this kind of stuff.

@ Truth, it seems to be in a similar vein the “It’s a Bird” by Steven T. Seagle. So while I have not actually read What It Is, It’s a Bird was had all of that.

However I do agree that there are a ton of great comics out there and thus no need to pick up one that you don’t find as interesting. Somethings aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (and I’ll agree that this is not mine either but does sounds neat)

Well yeah it has words and pictures on the same page, but so have The Gruffallo, Stardust, Where the Wild Things Are and everything I’ve ever seen by Dr Seuss.

It may change, but what I can see there is an illustrated prose story.

Every one of the examples you cited qualifies as a comic in my universe.

So what we have learned is that you have a very narrow definition of what you consider to be comics and I have a very broad definition. One of the two of us is more likely to be disappointed when something comes along that pushes the boundaries and I don’t think it’s going to be me.

I like Barry’s work, and this looks like a fantastic book (and is certainly a comic). I was really turned off by Barry, though, when I discovered that she’s a huge anti-wind power advocate here in Wisconsin, and is carrying a lot of water for all the coal and nuclear power lobbyists by demonizing the effects of wind turbines. Try living next to a coal plant for 30 years; then we can talk about how energy can affect quality of life…

Every one of the examples you cited qualifies as a comic in my universe.

Really?

I don’t know how to respond to that. It feels like trying to argue with someone who insists that a sheep is a breed of dog.

Dan – here’s the difference: you feel the need to be contrary (I refer you to the very first thing you said in this thread), whereas I *like* that comics is not just a narrow, limited set of expectations that everyone and his brother absolutely has to adhere to in order for me to recognize and/or accept.

Hell, I live by the idea that things like the Bayeux Tapestry, Trajan’s Column and certain stained glass windows that tell Biblical stories qualify as comics. Why? Because they are art created with the intent of telling stories. Just because they’re not printed on paper doesn’t mean they aren’t sequential art.

Also, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve never been to SPX or APE, otherwise you wouldn’t be arguing about what qualifies as comics.

Brian – great addition to the list. I second T. who said so far this series is even better because of the larger range of work you can draw from. It’s wonderful to see Barry recognized.

As to the other stuff – I obviously definitely think this is a comic, and I’m a fan. I guess I look at comics a lot like film. The basics have to be there (i.e. a film is essentially moving pictures you can watch the same way a comic is words and pictures that can be read together) but from that point on there are any number of manifestations. The same way that a mainstream big budget hollywood movie is totally unlike an experimental independent film, but they’re still films. Barry’s work may be totally unlike the average Batman comic, but they’re both still comics.

That experimental independent aspect is certainly not for everyone (in films or comics, or beyond), but I stand by the idea that it’s good for everyone that it’s out there. It’s so important, especially in the arts I think, to have experimental people out there pushing on boundaries. It’s how you end up with brilliant new books that nobody expected.

Would I call this a comic. Sure why not? But I agree that reading it it feels moire like the emo girl in high school english class that is trying to make the mundane seem like it is a big cerebral event rather than what it is… mundane. Sorry not for me but obviously this type of material has a fan base. I would hold this up as one example of why independent/small press comics stay independent/small press comics. So sorry but very little is appealing in this to make me fork over any amount of money to read it.

Brian,

These are fun but I do miss the occasional review of something that just came out in the last week.

Daniel O' Dreams

January 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm

But for the creative person the creative process IS interesting. I think this is a book that would appeal to writers and artists more than readers. Not sure if it qualifies as a comic but it’s close enough that I wouldn’t argue it.

Is she still the Funk Queen of the Universe?

For years the only knowledge I had of Lynda Barry was that she is mentioned in all of Matt Groening’s books, but I had no idea who she was. In recent years I’ve seen a few samples of her work like this, but not a lot of it.
From what I have seen I haven’t been able to figure out why she gets all the praise she does. I’ve never liked this sort of messy art in which the people all look hideous, and I don’t understand why this style is always so popular with ‘alternative’ types. Although I guess I should say that this particular art shown here is better than the other stuff I’ve seen by her, which is strange because I usually hate collage art.
As for her writing, I haven’t seen enough to judge. The tiny bit featured here is okay, but not great.

These are fun but I do miss the occasional review of something that just came out in the last week.

I have to second this. I also miss the responses to company announcements. For example I thought for sure by now someone would have discussed DC’s latest announcements like Bruce Wayne’s return and the plans they have for Green Arrow, Justice League and Roy Harper. Or at least just Roy Harper’s latest fiasco.

when someone says “this is not for me”, it sounds like an extremely fixed sense of identity. it must be comfortable to think like that because it means you already know everything that you like and dislike. and probably so very boring.

I like the “You have a narrow definition and I have a broad definition” approach to what qualifies as a comic.

Not sure why the accompanying condescension is necessary.

LouReedRichards

January 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I guess I’m straddling the fence on this one. I’m not sure it’s a “comic”, but much like Daniel O’ Dreams said, I think it’s close enough that I wouldn’t get into an argument over it. Some pages feel more like comics than others too me.

I think it’s a neat looking book overall, I haven’t seen anything from her in a long time and was never really a fan, but this looks very interesting, I think the wife would really like it.

Just because words and pictures are on the same page doesn’t make them a comic (to me anyway). It seems a little disrespectful to the medium of picture books and illustrated prose to say that they are automatically comics because they happen to have those two elements. Again, I’m not trying to get into a pissing match, but they seem like different mediums that have elements in common. But hey, whatever makes you happy.
I don’t consider dictionaries or encyclopedias comics, but if you want to go right ahead.

@Busterchops
You can certainly hold this up as a reason why indie/small press will stay small press. It has an authentic tone to it and has the feel of a creator doing what she want’s without worrying about how it will sell to the kiddies. God bless the indie/small press world for putting out things that the major companies would never touch.

LouReedRichards: Maybe it should be ‘integrated words and pictures that can be read together’ ?

I would hold this up as one example of why independent/small press comics stay independent/small press comics.

I would recommend not doing so, as What It Is is nowhere near a “small press” comic. It was a major hit. It’s like suggesting that Asterios Polyp is “small press.”

Brian Cronin:

What It Is is nowhere near a “small press” comic. It was a major hit. It’s like suggesting that Asterios Polyp is “small press.”

Brian, it has neither capes nor face-kicks, and is therefore small press, and will remain so. Maybe if Barry included a mutant or two in her stories, she could hit the big-time, and maybe even sell 10 or 20 thousand copies. But until she starts writing stories about punching things real hard, she’s small press.

LouReedRichards

January 7, 2010 at 4:14 pm

@Kelly – yeah that sounds about right, it’s all about the integration.

Brian, thanks for the new column, we’re only a week into the new year and already I’ve seen 3 comics that I knew little or nothing about and now want to hunt down.

BusterChops-

This book has had a much wider and diverse readership than anything put out by MArvel or DC that isn’t WATCHMEN.

If being “independet/small press” means bringing a wider readership to comics, then BRING IT ON, MOTHERF’ERS.

You may not appreciate it the book. It may not be for you. But that’s your issue, not the book’s, and not Ms. Barry’s. Your opinion is small minded and frankly wrong, but it’s yours to express. But until you actually offer a critique based on craft, you’re just talking about your feelings, which is frankly, kind of “emo”.

And we wouldn’t want that, right?

This book looks beautiful. I have always loved the possibilities of collage, and Barry’s work here realizes them wonderfully. I also have a great fondness for folk, primitive or children’s art. I guess this may not exactly be all those things, but there is a real kinship.

I’m not sure it is a comic or not, it’s definitely closer to a comic than any purely text based story. The art is not so much sequential as simply wonderfully illustrative of the accompanying prose. While I hardly think comics need a classic grid structure to be so, the graphics would seem to require some emphasis on the spatial or sequential component that sets it apart from the purely illustrative, or picture/s with text model. But I’m not hung up on definitions. I’d buy this work. It looks gorgeous.

@ Alex
Actually, since the book is for sale, it is in fact the book’s issue that I am not into it. I have said that it isn’t for me and I have also said that there is obviously a market for it. I stand by my statement that this particular clip from the work (since I assume that there is more to it than just the few pages listed here and Amazon has it listed at 209 pages) does nothing for me which would make me willing to part with any of my hard earned money. Stating that I do not like it and it seems too “emo” for me is not an “emo” statement. I wrote that the story about believing that the stuffed animals would come to life if she sat there long enough etc… seemed like it was trying to make the mundane so much more than it was. I stand by that. Sorry, I don’t care about the subject matter or the delivery expressed above. You may as well tell me that you laid on the grass looking up at the clouds believing there were castles on top that nobody could see, and yet you knew they were there because you could feel it. Then as you got older and flew on many planes you eventually realized they were not there although you remember how real they seemed. Oooohh such a statement on the lost innocence of youth. Again I say sure there is an audience for this material. But then even the worst bands have their few dedicated fans. Before anyone gets all riled up please understand I am not saying she is the crappiest author around but am instead making the point that there is an audience for EVERYTHING no matter how small that audience is. In regards to the Small press/independent comment that I made I stand by that insomuch as if it is being sold to mass market the fans of that item are going to all go out and get it but the opportunity for something like that to become as big as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling etc… will not happen. The potential market for it is too limited and therefore it will be small press. Also please note that I do not dislike things just because they are small press or non mainstream. There are many things that I love that other people around me think are too weird and they don’t care about these particular things. I freely admit though that they are and will be “independent/small press” since the potential customer base is limited by the nature of the work. Don’t take it personally. I don’t care if you love it or not just don’t try to convince yourself that it would ever have a proportionally huge audience. Also until you provide data on the demographic breakdown on who bought this versus who buys the average marvel or DC book you can’t really stand by your comment on the diversity of the readership. Not saying you’re wrong just saying show me the demographic breakdown before I believe it.

Yay, the “is it a comic” argument that I was losing has been sidelined in favour of “is it small press”!

R. M. Rhodes:

Hell, I live by the idea that things like the Bayeux Tapestry, Trajan’s Column and certain stained glass windows that tell Biblical stories qualify as comics. Why? Because they are art created with the intent of telling stories. Just because they’re not printed on paper doesn’t mean they aren’t sequential art.

I’m not familiar with Trajan’s Column, but I’d agree with you on the other too. I think the strongest difference for me between illustrated prose and comics is that in comics the picture carries the narrative a lot more (with or without words) where as in prose, the text could stand alone and still be complete and the pictures just provide some illustrations. Obviously the line is fuzzy and maybe I’m a bit harsh excluding this, but I could never in a million years consider The Gruffallo, Stardust (which even exists in an un-illustrated edition) and the works of Doctor Seuss comics.

This isn’t a value judgement of course, but personally I prefer comics to prose (for the most part – though I do read a couple of novels most years).

gustavo

when someone says “this is not for me”, it sounds like an extremely fixed sense of identity. it must be comfortable to think like that because it means you already know everything that you like and dislike. and probably so very boring.

Not at all. Like most people I’ve learned enough from experience to make a reasonable guess, but I also am often surprised by things I expect to like and don’t and things I expect to dislike and wind up liking. But we’ve got an actual example up at the top of the page, so yeah I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that this particular comic isn’t for me.

Personally I think it’s refreshing how much people in this thread are acknowledging that this isn’t to their tastes rather than declaring it’s crap – as usually happens on message boards.

I’d say it is a comic, but not one I care to read. I respect it for being something different, but I’m not into the art style, content, or organization.
@Dan: I think this is different enough that people are able to break quality away from their expectations. More traditional comics are close enough to what people expect that deviation makes them think that it’s bad.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 8, 2010 at 5:54 pm

This isn’t comics: the prose is sequentially arranged, yes, but the images are not sequential and do not tell a visual story sequentially. That’s why you need the whole phrase “sequential art.” Comics are more than something that is sequential and contains visual art. The art itself has to carry the sequence in some way. That doesn’t happen here.

I’d argue that comics are a singularly modern medium, like film — a series of photographs laid next to one another are not generally considered cinema, either — and rely on a more modern time-consciousness on the part of the reader to work. You can call the Bayeaux Tapestry comics, but I think you can’t talk meaningfully about how comics work as a medium using it. Certain forms of hieroglyphics juxtapose pictures as well; they’re not comics either. They are precursors, but there is a missing element of strong sequence in them that prevents them from being good or true examples of the comics medium.

In these earlier examples, the way the image-to-image transitions communicate action and temporal change simply doesn’t resemble comics in the slightest when you try to describe it in terms of technique and method. They’re much closer to plates in an illustrated prose book than anything else.

There will always be a few people arguing that they are comics despite this; there are, I’m sure, people who argue that flipbooks are film, too. Those people are and are likely to remain a fringe even within the academy, and there is to my mind something misguided about the effort to give a deep history to a medium
that so clearly relies on a distinctly modern set of perceptions to operate as we know it to operate.

I love this book and think it is a great addition. It has wonderful narratives interwined in the pages that fit conventional comic rules and others that reach far beyond the concrete rules that many here are using to argue against it. I stumbled onto the book by accident and would rank it as one of my top desert island volumes now. I always find something new in this volume. And I don’t think this book is an oddity. I see lots of younger artists who are creating with this template. Where illustration, narration, and sequential collide.

Historically we try to force comics into a pop culture context. Most comic histories only go back a century look at the medium in very limited focus of funnies and narrated illustration. But, why do we not include all the visual story telling that predates the pop culture dynamic? Humans have been telling stories via pictures in juxaposition since our cave dwelling days. At times this book gives me more the sense of an illuminated text, other sections revert back to more standard comic book format. It uses all the traditions (recognized or otherwise).

You should feel free to say it doesn’t appeal to you. But, you really have no right to dismiss it.

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