WHAT IT IS and 365 DAYS reviewed by The Republican-American

“New titles push the cartooning envelope” / The Republican-American / Alan Bisbort / May 20, 2008

When Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, was first shown James Thurber's cartoons by his friend E.B. White, he was reported to be equally amused and confused. White, who had fished the now famous doodle-like work out of Thurber's office trashcan, wanted Ross to print the cartoons in the magazine.

"Yes, these are pretty funny, but where are the finished drawings?" Ross asked.

"No, you don't understand," White explained. "These ARE the cartoons. These ARE the finished drawings."

Ross eventually relented, and published Thurber's child-like scratchings, and the cartoons are now considered classic American humor. We still derive as much delight from them as we do from Thurber's short stories and memoirs.

Modern readers might have a similar reaction as Ross's to "What It Is," a new book by Lynda Barry. Barry, a cartoonist, painter, illustrator and teacher, is best known for her nationally-syndicated strip "Ernie Pook's Comeek," a staple of alternative papers since the 1980s. Her work shares certain "simple" qualities with Thurber's but her aim has always been to do more than just amuse.

Indeed, "What It Is" (published by Drawn & Quarterly) may be one of the most important books published this year. Never mind that it looks as if it were drawn by a child and pieced together by manic monkeys. It is nothing less than a primer on (and to) the human imagination. Ostensibly a step-by-step guide to her own quirky creative method, "What It Is" quickly lurches into the unknown.

By page 6, she is already asking readers such profound questions as "Where do sudden troublesome thoughts come from? Why is there anxiety about a past we cannot change?" Her answers are also provocative: "The top of my mind has no answer for this - I find myself arguing in my head with people I haven't seen in 15 years. Or apologizing or trying to explain…it's like there is a place in me where it is all still alive."

"What It Is" recalls the work of Kenneth Patchen, whose painted poems in the 1950s have a startling power. Barry asks, "Does your imagination know what year it is?," whereas Patchen asked, "Do the dead know what time it is?"

Each of the 210 pages in "What It Is" lays out questions that prod the mind in unexpected directions, augmenting them with watercolor, ink, scribbles, doodles and collage elements from old letters, books and catalogs. The pages can be studied for minutes at a time, and revisited continuously, without losing their hold. The effect is captivating. Her work resonates as strongly with adults - at least those who will allow it - as with children, who need no prodding when it comes to things in the imaginative realm. Barry seems to have a special gift for capturing the losses, fears, panics and joys of childhood, noting, "I believe a kid who is playing is not alone. There is something brought alive during play and this something, when played with, seems to play back."

It is clear from her earlier work and implied throughout "What It Is" that Barry had a painful childhood. Her mother was a monster, depicted herein as a Gorgon with whom little Lynda dared not make eye contact for fear of being frozen in place. Hers was the drunken, chain-smoking mom who never spoke when she could shout and said absurd things like "You don't know how lucky you are." Children treated in this manner can go in two different directions, to anger and defiance - or toward the imagination.

Lucky for us Barry took the latter route. "What It Is" is the pinnacle of her artistry.

As great as Barry is, she must be hearing the footsteps of another talented and engaging cartoonist: Julie Doucet. Doucet is, in fact, catching up with Barry for the "Most Lovably Eccentric and Bizarrely Confessional (or Confessionally Bizarre) Woman Cartoonist of the New Millennium" Award. With "365 Days: A Diary" (also published by Drawn & Quarterly), the younger Doucet has made giant strides toward Barry's throne. Like Barry, Doucet fills every teensy corner of every page with oddities - squiggles, cut out letters (like a kidnapper's ransom note), marginal doodles, provocative collages, fortune cookie sayings - and yet recreates her own highly personalized world. And, like Barry, her profusely personal perspective has strong elements of the universal in it.

She may be soul-bearing but she's not self-absorbed. She's humane and never needlessly cruel to or about other people.

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