What It IsWhat It Is

Creator: Lynda Barry
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Original Publication: 2008

From the immensely creative mind of Lynda Barry comes one of my new favorite graphic novels and an immediate addition to my personal collection, What It Is, which got a new paperback edition earlier this year. Lynda Barry is a storied teacher, cartoonist, illustrator, and writer, but first she was a child who simply wanted to create art. In What It Is, we meet Barry’s childhood self and grow with her as she faces lessons about art, creativity, and images. 

What It Is is an autobiography, a workbook, a journal, and a meditation on creativity as well as the often-awkward experience of growing up as a creative. Through collages, calligraphy, and charming cephalopods, What It Is seamlessly weaves between recounting childhood experiences and inviting you to look deeply inward and get reacquainted with your imagination without the inhibitions you learn in adulthood. It’s the kind of book you keep in your bookshelf and pull out when your artistic flow seems to be smacking against every rock in the river. 

One of the major features that drew me in was Barry’s unabashed honesty about her artistic expression in childhood. Surrounding drawings of her childhood self are often speech bubbles highlighting dialogue from the doubting adults in her life, mostly coming from her mother and many of her teachers. Yet the image of Young Lynda Barry proudly stands in front of her class with her drawing of a lady falling into a volcano. It conjures nostalgia for that silly, childish hope that we used to have before we let those words coming from adults—or ourselves—affect us so much. 

Then, just when she draws you in, just when you remember to feel tender towards your childhood self who wanted to draw comics and write stories, she turns passive introspection into active creative exploration, inviting you to use your imagination as vividly as your childhood self would with activities that mimic the appearance of a workbook page, but without the tedious connotations. The activities are as much a part of the story as the writing and cartoons.

What It Is completely sold me on Lynda Barry’s artistry and her teaching style. I recommend this graphic novel as a gift to the artist in your life as well as a gift to yourself. Additionally, I hope you will join me in checking out her more recent title, Making Comics.

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