“Everyone is an artist,” the German painter/sculptor/performance artist/scholar Joseph Beuys famously said. It’s a haunting and highly debatable claim, one that people who feel less artistically inclined might instantly refute. If everyone is an artist, why can’t I draw literally anything I’d ever feel comfortable showing another person?
But it’s Beuys’s quote that comes to mind when reading Making Comics, the latest handwritten college textbook-of-sorts by the highly successful cartoonist Lynda Barry. In the book, Barry makes a similar assertion to Beuys by using the experience and anecdotes she’s accumulated during her tenure as a professor of comic book studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has won critical acclaim for decades, for everything from comics she wrote during her college days working with Matt Groening (The Simpsons) at Seattle’s influential alternative comics breeding ground, Evergreen State University, to the many strips she’s had published in national newspapers, to her Eisner Award-winning 2008 memoir What It Is; her 1988 illustrated novella, The Good Times Are Killing Me, even became an off-Broadway play.
All of these accomplishments make Barry an ideal candidate to teach cartooning. And that is her intention with Making Comics, which is styled like a graphic manual for educators and students of cartooning but will appeal to anyone who struggles to articulate the ins and outs of what they think makes a good drawing. The book even tackles how to overcome the common fear of putting pencil to paper to begin with.
It’s comforting, then, that Making Comics is such an empathetic work. The book is a follow-up to her 2014 graphic novel textbook Syllabus, which was a reproduction of the actual syllabi she hand-wrote and passed out to the college students who enrolled in her first workshop, which she started teaching in 2011. Making Comics, meanwhile, is an experience all readers can share for the first time together; it is primarily an original text, whose observations and guidance are drawn from its author’s years of teaching.
Making Comics is both stylish and engaging. Barry balances reprints of her lovingly hand-drawn homework assignments with illustrated examples she’s gathered from teaching students of all ages and skill levels, from toddlers to college kids, beginners to experts. The result is an educational volume that will appeal to anyone who’s interested in comics or cartooning, and could even serve as the foundation for a course taught by other cartooning teachers. It also features more than just Barry’s own drawings, which are always colorful with bold lines and often gorgeously surreal, and makes great use of Barry’s students’ artwork as well.
The point Barry is trying to make is that, in line with Beuys’s famous assertion, everyone really can be an artist, can find it in themselves to create art — to make comics. That simple yet bold concept is what drew me to Making Comics. I’m someone who’s long admired comics and cartoons from afar but hasn’t considered myself skilled enough to try drawing any. But Making Comics is an invitation to participate.