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The Graphic How-To

Picture ThisPicture This by Lynda Barry

Reviewed by Jen Besemer
Rain Taxi

What will come through the paper wall? The trick is to stand not knowing certain things long enough for them to come to you.
-- from Picture This

W e're strange animals. Not knowing makes us very nervous. Sometimes the reasons for this anxiety can be traced to experiences with formal education or within the home, where out of a fear of looking stupid we learn to avoid anything that we can't immediately define, categorize, or "master." We think knowing something is the same as controlling it, or the circumstances surrounding it. In adulthood, we learn that our jobs sometimes depend on pretending we know things that we don't (or the reverse). We deny our ignorance, thinking that it will protect the image of competence we believe we need to project. We deny our knowledge if we think that doing so will help us avoid trouble. Knowing and not knowing are both problematic states of being. More and more it seems that we can't tolerate either state.

Lynda Barry is particularly adept at working with intolerable states. Her graphic stories are situated within deeply uncomfortable, even traumatic circumstances. Characters like Marlys, Freddie, and Arna are engaging partly because they are often awkward, ignorant, and "wrong" -- yet they still manage to be always and entirely themselves, despite their dependence on adults who do not always have their best interests in mind. For a long time, these fictional kids have inspired readers who struggle to remain true to themselves amidst their own challenging circumstances.

In Picture This, Marlys and Arna help to tell part of the tale embedded in the volume, although the book is not a linear narrative. It's instead a story about Barry's own process, sharing a similar overall pattern to that followed by the fictional events chronicled in earlier works like Cruddy and The Freddie Stories. This particular embedded tale hinges on a single acute crisis in Barry's life, occurring within the context of an ongoing intolerable situation, and readers share Barry's struggle to resolve the situation. In this case, the crisis was "the unexpected deaths of several friends" at a time of larger-scale "well known disasters" and a period of intense frustration and blockage in Barry's own artistic process. This confluence of circumstance jolted Barry out of the usual ways of thinking about drawing, life, and their intersection, leading to a deeply meaningful transformation in her approach to her work and the place of drawing in everyday life.

Drawn and Quarterly identifies Picture This as belonging to the unique hybrid genre recently devised by Barry, calling it a "graphic-memoir/how-to" -- exactly like her acclaimed 2008 volume What It Is. The publisher's blurb also identifies both books as important adjuncts to Barry's popular workshop, "Writing the Unthinkable," and both volumes utilize a collage technique that exemplifies and communicates the methods and ideas outlined. This collage format is fascinating and effective; Picture This invites multiple reads and encourages reader participation and experimentation, providing shapes and pages to trace, cut and paste, and otherwise explore playfully. It's a master class in improvisational artmaking, working from the idea that as children we are already masters at the hard artistic work of play. This expertise disappears somewhere along the way to adulthood, as we mature into the high-stakes social world of self-conscious achievement. If we're all master artists and master writers (whether or not we are those things professionally as well), what do we do when we realize we've lost that part of ourselves, and are sick with grief at that loss -- or any other loss? How do we get our art, our play, our spirit back? How do we listen to the unknown -- listen for the unknown -- under the pressure of the other kind of mastery, the one that serves our fear of losing control of our lives?

Enter Barry's Near-Sighted Monkey -- a beer-drinking, card-playing chain-smoker with thick-lensed cat's-eye glasses. She comes to visit and stays for ages, bringing her companion chicken. She leaves banana peels behind the curtains and spills your wine and dog-ears all your tabloids. Just when you get completely fed up with her chaos and apparent lack of consideration, she makes you grilled cheese and demonstrates the use of bamboo calligraphy brushes to unlock all the stories and pictures you struggle to release into the world. Maybe, you suggest quietly to yourself, I should listen to this monkey and her mayhem, because it looks like she's got something going on, some peaceful center she can reach. Maybe I can go there too. And before long, you are able to see the page as a place again, like you did when you were a child. Or, you're able to see your life and your reality as something you can live, even if you can't control them.

The Near-Sighted Monkey is a kind of Zen trickster alter-ego that Barry and her husband, Kevin Kawula, developed together "just to crack each other up during some stressful times." Eventually, as characters do, the monkey took on a different role in their lives and became a reliable, inspirational force. Through playing with the character, Barry found herself rethinking her drawing and writing work. Sharing the Near-Sighted Monkey with readers was a logical next step -- and a generous gift to us as well.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Picture This
    New Hardcover $29.95
  2. Cruddy
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. The Freddie Stories Used Trade Paper $9.95

One Response to "The Graphic How-To"

    s h a r o n January 10th, 2011 at 5:42 am

    "...the idea that as children we are already masters at the hard artistic work of play. This expertise disappears somewhere along the way to adulthood, as we mature into the high-stakes social world of self-conscious achievement."

    Indeed. Consider the narrowed experience that ensues when the bright, interested-in-everything 5- or 6-year old enters school: "Sit down (in your one-size-fits-all chairs), shut up, turn to page xxx-yyy"; and a bit later, "answer the questions at the end of the chapter" (which questions have one right answer). Soon, there's the "report card" which must be shown to parents as proof that you're doing as well or better than your classmates. Further, it's not long before the young person has bifurcated most life activities into those of (a) "make me do it" and "what did I get on the test?" and (b)"what can I get away with?" Never mind being unable to freely follow curiosity and emerging interest for its own sake. Never mind judging your own efforts on whether they work, and/or please you.

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