This sentence would look different in Lynda Barry’s Making Comics. It would be written in Barry’s tidy, ALL-CAPS script and surrounded by pictures and notes. You might call its aesthetic “popular illuminated manuscript,” indicating its closeness to everyday, (extra)ordinary people. Many of the drawings that pepper the volume are discarded sketches by Barry’s former students—she uses these to reveal the special qualities of figures and settings created by untrained hands.
Making Comics—like her previous work, Syllabus—uses a doodle-driven approach to consider the nature of teaching in the arts. How can a person help activate creativity in others, instead of trapping student enthusiasm in the four walls of some washed-out classroom? Barry’s work reveals that the answer is a process, one of tapping into the unconscious and embracing what initially looks like randomness. The book provides a sequence of assignments for the comics-driven classroom intended to help readers access their existing artistry and their impulses towards narrative.
This makes it an indispensable resource for educators, who can follow the assignments step by step to help students produce work in classes like “The Graphic Novel” or “Visual Storytelling.” The prompts build upon and refer back to one another: characters invented in one exercise get expanded in others, a style of drawing learned early in the course reappears in later tasks, the reasoning behind expectations becomes clearer as learning proceeds.
Crucially, the book argues that students have value as thinkers and creators before they learn a single thing from their instructors. Moreover, it makes a case for teaching as a labor of deepening each other’s inhabitation of this value, elucidating its beauty and transforming it to revelation. It uses this for producing comics, but one could apply it to writing history, exploring topics in religion or learning a language. For example, one exercise asks students to write down seven things they did and seven they saw, the previous day. They then choose one “did” or “saw” to illustrate and to write. There’s a process of reflection here that allows readers to consider the world around them and develop critical inquiry tools to take it apart. This holds importance across many disciplines (all of them, one hopes).
Still, Making Comics is in love with drawing specifically and provides helpful advice about how to compose images. She encourages students to pay attention to detail, using pens to make portions of solid black and of pattern, for example, and then relying on colored pencils for backgrounds; and to use doodles and stains as beginning points for the shapes of monsters. But there’s an equal investment in narrative: how to come up with characters, inhabit point of view and communicate emotion. Numerous examples encourage quirky inventiveness (make up an animal if it doesn’t already exist) and directness (follow what the mind and hand do naturally).
Barry also models her process by diverging from assignments to reflect on what she values as an artist-teacher/teacher-artist and to recount events from her past. One such event involves an uncle whose constant doodling was the sign of a mind misfiring yet newly awakened. The heartbreaking, perplexing story reveals drawing as uncontainable for artist and audience alike, full of potential for spinning off into other tales, memories and histories.
Two additional emphases are collaboration and timing, both of which pose a challenge to the solo reader. Many activities involve passing around drawings, copying others’ work directly, sketching as a team. One can’t learn Barry’s method in isolation. She also times every activity very precisely, and some of these involve depicting the same figure over and over, at a slightly faster tempo for each attempt (she calls this “the Brunetti style,” after fellow author and illustrator Ivan Brunetti). It would be hard to exactly follow along without a teacher or collaborator to make sure there’s no dallying or cheating. The timing bit might also pose problems in the actual classroom, since some people will end up feeling isolated in their slowness or perceived incompleteness. Her imagined classroom, of all ages and levels of talent, might not move as quickly and precisely as she hopes, and one wonders what obstacles or misunderstandings have happened in response to these assignments.
Any problems can become material for more sketches, more stories. Making Comics portrays the art of comics as the labor of an inexhaustible mind that moves through the world and remembers and records an impression in drawing form. The act of filling a composition book with such images and little snippets of stories is a holy one: it shines great light upon the thinking self, pleasure divine.