Review

What It Is

written and illustrated by Lynda Barry

This is not just an exciting time to be reading comics and graphic novels. It’s also a time when many people want to write and draw them, too. With so many options available to share their creations (and several success stories that have come about from self-publishing startups), people who want to do more than read have begun to explore their creative sides. While the results of those efforts have been wildly diverse (for every great breakthrough, there have been more than a few clunkers), the excitement in the industry has created a small but valuable niche: the how-to guide.

Two recent books have set the standard for guides to creating graphic novels. One, DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES, from the team of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, gave a thorough, explicit and delightfully well-rounded look at how to create a graphic story from start to finish. Do we really need another one after that?

The answer: If it’s a book as wildly inventive as Lynda Barry’s WHAT IT IS, then yes indeed. Barry is a respected creator often noted for creating rich subtext and resonating meaning that transcend her dense imagery; read between (and through) her lines and you find a powerful world of haunting memory. Here, though, she’s come to show you how it’s done. From the most basic (where do those crazy ideas come from?) to the abstract (when an unexpected memory comes calling, who answers?), she delivers a jarring experience in the art of writing. She goes for the jugular of the whole creative process and lets it all come pouring out.

It’s not a quick and easy experiment. But it’s hardly long and arduous either. It’s, of all things, actually fun. Barry’s creative process is childlike, full of wonderment, hard to pin down and gloriously all over the place. To that end, it works not just as a jumpstart for creating graphic novels but for all writing. (A quick side note: Considering how well WHAT IT IS and DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES complement each other, it’s fitting that the books’ three creators have recently teamed up as editors for the upcoming Houghton Mifflin release THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2008.)

A cheeky tagline at the bottom of the book’s cover promises that it’s “Dramatically illustrated with more than color pictures.” And so it is. Barry throws pictures, images and words at you at a breakneck pace, challenging you to write and think, relentlessly forcing you to get at the heart of what makes you tick, creatively. So what is it, exactly? Ah, that’s the big question. Barry knows she can’t answer the question decisively for everyone. But she can take you to the brink of your own wellspring of inspiration and show you how to drink from it in a new and unexpected way.

Reviewed by John Hogan on January 24, 2011

What It Is
written and illustrated by Lynda Barry

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2008
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • Hardcover: 209 pages
  • Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
  • ISBN-10: 1897299354
  • ISBN-13: 9781897299357