What It Is by Lynda Barry

My friend Marie had told me about Lynda Barry when I was looking for girl-positive comics for my daughter. You may recall my post on the Bedchel-test for films, which I tailored to suit media for little girls and christened it the Girl-Positive Test. In order for comics, tv programs, books and movies to pass this test, they have to feature at least two girl characters with names. These girls must discuss their hopes and dreams, and these hopes and dreams must not ultimately lead to the attention of a boy. Sounds easy enough to pass, right? You'd be surprised. This test is even harder to pass when it comes to comics, my daughter's preferred reading genre.

Anyway, as chance would have it, I found that Drawn & Quarterly carried almost all of Barry's earlier comics, which I picked up today. My previous efforts to find the comics featuring Marlys, Maybonee, Arna, Arnold and Freddie were fruitless, so I had to opt for Barry's more recent book What it is; however, I was by no means disappointed with this book. In fact, the first adjective that comes to mind to describe it would be inspirational.

The book is replete with childhood memories, autobiographical comics, collage, vintage ads and notes from a teacher, and finally a series of exercises on how to get the writer in you to start writing again. Barry even gives a list of supplies you'll need, which includes a kitchen timer with a gentle buzzer so that it doesn't scare the hell out of you. I've tried a few of the exercises myself, and they're an entertaining way to start writing.

Barry's Inner Critic (Click to enlarge)
Barry starts her book with a funny two-page panel about her own inability to move forward on her book. Her partner asks her the obvious question, "Are you worried about your book?" to which she replies, "Oh, there's my book, the war, the laundry, things I said 15 years ago, the environment, my double chin, unanswered mail, what an ass I am, what a dirty house I have--and I've had 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' playing in my head for days." Who among us cannot relate to procrastination in all of its pressing manifestations.

Throughout the book, Barry ponders the essence of an image, an experience, a memory, a realization, attachment, imagination and the past, providing the reader with some stimulating and humourous food for thought. The author reflects on her childhood memories of play, which are both funny and sad, and eventually draws the conclusion that we stop drawing, writing, singing, acting, etc, when we develop our inner critic and self-consciousness. In another hilarious comic, Barry confesses that in 6th grade she quit taking hula dancing because people always laughed when she told them that she took it very seriously.

To say that I liked this book would be an understatement. I enjoyed it enough to buy four more of Barry's books and purchase tickets to see her speak at the Ukrainian Federation on January 15. But now for the more pressing question: did Barry's book pass the Girl-Positive Test? For starters, this book is more for big boys and girls, but she definitely wrote about her hopes and dreams, and these hopes and dreams were definitely for herself and not to garner the attention of a boy. She does present her teachers in the book to whom she voices her dreams, and those teachers were both women and named, so this is indeed a Girl-Positive book, but I think that any aspiring writer, male or female, would find it both helpful and entertaining.

Related posts
The Bedchel-Inspired Girl Positive Test
AYA: the Secrets Come Out
The Curious Case of the Communist Jell-O Box (zine)
Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati
Some Thoughts on Canada Reads
Expozine's Broken Pencil
Make Me A Woman by Vanessa Davis
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
Comics: Girls, Boys and Reading


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