Newsodrome loves PICTURE THIS

“Review: Picture This” / Newsodrome / J. Caleb Mozzocco / December 17, 2011

When I had finished reading the very last page of Picture This, Lynda Barry’s book exploring the questions “Why do we stop drawing?” and “Why do we start drawing?,” I found myself desperately curious about another question entirely: “Where does publisher Drawn & Quarterly suggest this book be shelved?”

As you may have noticed, most books (and an awful lot of graphic novels) include among the fine print on their title pages or back covers suggestions for libraries and book stores regarding where the book belongs. These often include Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system subject numbers, and/or a numbered list of subject headings.

For example, looking at a few books laying around my office, Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place is suggested “Social Interaction—Comic books, strips, etc.” and “Identity (psychology)—Comic books, strips, etc.” I love looking these up, in part because it reveals what the publisher thinks of the book and how it should be classified and, to some extent, sold.

Most of the books I review here tend to fall under a catch all like “comic books, strips, etc.,” and libraries and book stores end up putting them either in their own, dedicated “graphic novels” section, or else somewhere under the “741″ number in Dewey. But sometimes they are so specific that I wonder if the publishers aren’t sometimes being sarcastic—Tim Sievert’s That Salty Air, for example, included “Oceanic Revenge” and “Seaside Heartbreak” which made me imagine a bookstore with sections that specific. What’s that? Oceanic Revenge? Yes, it’s over there on the left; right between Marine Justice and Sea-going Wickedness.

Where does Picture This belong? Certainly under a “Comic books” or “Art” subject, but more specifically? Memoir? Manifesto? How-to? Aesthetics? Art Therapy? Self-Help? Outsider art? Craft? Folk art? It belongs under them all, really. In the Dewey Decimal system, the argument could be made to put this in plenty of different places in the 700s (arts and recreation), though parts of the 800s (literature), 300s (social sciences), 400’s (language) and 900s (which includes biography) could claim it as well.

I can think of no better example of the potency of Barry’s Picture This than the fact that it defies, if not breaks, the Dewey Decimal system—we need a brand-new number to put on the spine of this book.
The title page of the book, by the way, didn’t answer my question. Instead, there was a brush-drawn, water-color painted image of The Near-Sighted Monkey, a character that shares Barry’s glasses and headband look, with a type-written, cut-and-pasted (using a cutting tool and actual paste, not a computer) Emily Dickinson poem. The opposite page? A Japanese-style brush painting of a rabit running under moonlight.

No wait, maybe this image here, is the title page—

Yes, among its fine print, which includes a “thanks” section, an advertisment for a building and masonry business in Rock County, Wisonsin and “Please note: Matt Groeining is Funklord of USA,” there’s a suggest Dewey number: 741.973. That’s “Drawings and decorative arts,” which hardly encompasses the work.

So what is Picture This?

When the comics story that runs through it begins, on page 12, we see one of Barry’s recurring characters has found the book we’re reading, on a table at the library. A box above the image reads:

On the cover was a picture of a monkey wearing glasses. The monkey was smoking. She had a pet chicken. The chicken also smoked. But not as much as the monkey. What kind of book was it?

It was an activity book but the activieties were mysterious.

Was it a boo for kids or grwn-ups? The monkey drank beer, played cards and bouth liottery tickets. Was that a good influence?

Should she check out this book or not?

Yes, yes she should—so should you.

What follows is a story of two sisters, Arna and Marlys, and their relationship with the sort of imagery that forms itself in the world as children see it, out of water stains and shadows. The “mysterious activities” are ever-present, generally starring Barry’s characters, which are drawn over and over, like recurring motifs: The Near-Sighted Monkey, her chicken, Mr. Beak, Mr. Trunk, a meditating monkey in a religious robe, a huge van dyke beard on what looks like a tiny robot the size and shape of a tin , always labeled “VAN DYKE.”

What is the difference between torn and cut? Which do you prefer?

What makes this picture creepy?

Some are more elaborate, like “A Chicken In Winter,” a craft project to do on days on which you’re feeling blue. Making the chicken will make you feel better, the book promises.

The do-able projects tend to be simple, but to require an awful lot of time, and a certain amount of obsessive, repetitive action—they’re art for time-passing, art-as-therapy. After each, Barry tends to share a bunch of her own work using the method, at which point it becomes a coffee table-like art book, in addition to a comic book and activity book.

Throughout, aesthetic and philosophical questions are asked, meditated on and answered, only the answers are either personal—This is my answer, what’s yours?—or open-ended. Here’s a catalog of the types of doodles Barry makes, and you can make, if you want. There’s a diagram of her art box…or is it the monkey’s art box?

Why do we start drawing? When do we start drawing letters? What is the difference between writing and drawing, given the similarities of the actions? Automatic writing. Automatic drawing. Automatic comics strip creating. Is drawing good or bad? Can one be good or bad at drawing? What’s the difference? How do you recognize it? Are the images we see in things created by the viewer, or simply noticed by the viewer?

Portraits of Marlys engaged in different activities, and cartoons featuring the Near-Sighted Monkey, usually with declarative, non-joke “punchlines” attached, and advertistments for Don’t brand cigarettes, the imaginary cigarettes for imaginary friends, punctuate the activity and creative philosophy portions.

So it’s a book about process, specifically Barry’s process, and her contemplation of the mental and/or mystical process behind that process, but it’s also a lot more than that.

And, because of all it is, another thing it is is an awfully hard book to review. I’ve heard it said somewhere—on the Internet, if that helps narrow it down—that one difference between comics criticism and comics reviewing is that while the former does, um, something (I wasn’t convinced enough by the argument put forward to remember the details), the latter tends to boil down to advice to consumers: Should you buy and/or read a particular book or not?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes—you should buy and/or read this book.

But only if you’re interested in the creation of art, particularly where it meets the creation of words. If you read comics for any reason other than plot, for example, you should read this. And if you make comics—or maybe just want to—than you should read this. You must read it.

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