Excerpted from an essay, by Douglas Wolk, entitled "Comics Raw and Cooked" on The Barnes & Noble Review.
way of thinking about drawing style in comics is to reduce it to a single axis:
the continuum of styles between "raw" drawing and "cooked"
drawing. Those terms are borrowed from Robert Lowell, who, in turn, borrowed
them from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and used them in 1960 to describe
two competing schools of American poetry. In comics, it's not a competition -- art-comics
are a little too collegial for that. But it's easy to reframe Lowell's ideas to
describe what cartoonists do. Raw drawing is (or presents itself as) the barely
mediated expression of the artist's impulses: it eschews rules and
straight-edges, it flows directly out of the brush, it bubbles over with life.
Cooked drawing originates in the conscious mind: it's precise and rigorous,
with a firm distinction between "correct" and "incorrect"
execution, and it's best suited to carefully planned narratives. Raw vs. cooked
isn't a useful way to classify most
cartoonists; most of them work somewhere between those two poles, and a lot of
them change their position on the line from moment to moment. But the Canadian
art-comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has just published a pair of
remarkable books that perch near opposite ends of that spectrum.
Lynda Barry, the creator
of the weekly strip "Ernie Pook's Comeek," is about as invested in
raw drawing -- as a practitioner and advocate -- as it's possible to be. Her new book Picture This is a companion piece to her earlier What It Is, which was a sort of illustrated version of her
famous "Writing the Unthinkable" workshops; that one was a bunch of
images and doodles and personal stories surrounding a set of writing exercises,
and this one is a similar framework for drawing exercises. For Barry, though,
they're very similar processes; they're all about putting a pen or brush down
on paper and moving it until something comes out. Drawing, she claims, is
"not something that you are good or bad at. It's something else. You move
your hand and you scribble all you want and it feels very good."
As you might guess from
that description, Picture This isn't
particularly structured, and it's very scribbly. Its interior is in the form of
four quarterly issues of an imaginary magazine, and its focus is whatever Lynda
Barry feels like drawing that day. (Which means, of course, that it's gorgeous;
part of why drawing feels so good to her has to be that funny pictures and
wonderful shapes appear where her brush meets the paper.) There are questions meant
to spur readers into making marks of their own ("Why do we stop drawing?
Why do we start?"); there are panels and strips about Marlys, the
pigtailed protagonist of "Ernie Pook's Comeek"; there are pasted-in
words and phrases from old magazines and school papers; there are a bunch of
images of a character that Barry calls the Near-Sighted Monkey. (Barry's
pleasure in drawing it, a kind of ultra-stylized self-portrait, is palpable.)
Most of all, there are decorations: hand-scalloped borders, circles and blocks
and leaf shapes, flowers and curlicues.
jokes that "if you use coloring books past the age of ten, you will wreck
your imagination forever"; then she provides a bunch of shapes to trace
and color and cut out, as well as a diagram to make "a chicken in
winter." Is it possible to make the leap from thinking about tracing and
cutting out a chicken shape to actually doing it? Not easily: Barry notes over
and over that children are willing to take the risk of making pictures in a way
that most adults aren't, but maybe the reason for that is that some adults -- like
her -- have a gift for it, and others don't. And the suggestion that raw
self-expression is not just a universal right but a universal delight is a
little disingenuous coming from someone who's so good at it.
Barry's follow-up to her critically and popularly acclaimed What It Is focuses on the practice and purpose of drawing. As before, this oversized, full-color book collages comics, drawings, and found images to blend memoir, fiction, and philosophy with workbook-style instruction. Picture This proceeds from the same ideas in Barry's earlier work--which regard creative activity as a necessary extension of childhood play--but may be neater in its marriage of theory and practice. By focusing on drawing as directly as the first book did on writing, this ornately visual book shows the fruits of Barry's practice on every page even as it makes her methods overtly accessible. The book is interspersed with comics narratives including moving autobiographical shorts and sequences featuring her beloved characters Marlys, Maybonne, and Arna, as well as full-page images of her new character: a self-satisfied avatar called "The Nearsighted Monkey," who represents, perhaps, a well-fed creative impulse. A pedagogical sketchbook by a wise and eccentric kindergarten teacher for adults--who is also a fully mature artist--Picture This teaches, nurtures, and encourages without sacrificing the edge that makes art a thrilling journey into the unknown. (Nov.)
The collages in legendary cartoonist Lynda Barry's What It Is are a bathysphere-like odyssey through the depths of her funky subconscious.” Elissa Schappel, Vanity Fair On What It Is
“Meditations, stories and images float past in a random fashion, segueing between darkness and hope, or adulthood and childhood, the way they might in dreams or memory. ” CAROL KINO, The New York Times On What It Is
“What It Is is part diary, part showcase, part manifesto for the power of the imagination. It's bold and beautiful; angry and sad; joyful and loving and nervous.” JULIA KELLER, Chicago Tribune On What It Is
Many librarians have found themselves at a loss how properly to catalog these companion volumes by renowned comic artist and author Barry. They are ultimately part memoir, part creative workbook, part comic, and part tragic, and while many kids and teens may enjoy them, much of the subject matter is quite mature. Each book deals with drawing pictures and telling stories in varying proportions, and both examine from many angles the notion of keeping visual journals. Barry has said that her goal is to inspire readers, and she succeeds.
Gr 9 Up—Teens who enjoyed Barry's What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008) will find more to love in this follow-up. While more reflective than its predecessor, it maintains the earlier work's hybrid formula; it is both a work of art and a work about art, being part picture book, part creative therapy, part step-by-step instruction, and part comic memoir. In one memorable panel, Barry compares an image of a happily scribbling three-year-old to that of a teen who stares sullenly at a blank page. The author asks, "What makes us start drawing? What makes us stop?" To work toward the answers to these questions, she demonstrates how anyone can express who they are through the creation of images, even if those images are nothing more than chickens made of cotton balls. She also elaborates on the power of image-making and how it has supported her throughout her life. Longtime Barry fans will be happy to see the return of Marlys, the outspoken, guileless tween who is arguably her best-known character. Barry herself also appears in the guise of a new doppelgänger, The Near-Sighted Monkey. While the book's unusual nature and indirect messaging will no doubt confuse many, for the right person, Picture This could be a launching pad to a new level of creativity and self-exploration.—Douglas P. Davey, Halton Hills Public Library, Ontario, Canada