CBR16SweetChallenge #New (new author, new style of writing/art)
What Is It? is not my usual read for several reasons. But I knew the main reason was going to be that the cover was telling me this. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can, especially when it looks like this. Lynda Barry’s work gives off a vibe of “old school gross-out.” It is as if the era of Mad Magazine and others like that threw up in realistic-abstract collages. The artwork is artsy and screams, “look! I’m an artist!” And I try to stay away from this kind of book. Nothing is wrong with them, but for someone who “thinks outside the box,” that was too far out of it. My box has a lid, but it is usually at least cracked open, allowing some new ideas to flow in. I am the most “in the box out of the box thinker” you’ll probably find. And though things seem easy enough and you feel you have it pinpointed early on, there are surprises. I wasn’t even 20% (according to the online counter attached to this reader copy) into things when I thought I had it pretty much figured out. But everything is far from simple, yet it has a contradictory simplicity to it all. You are not really going to be surprised at the chaos inside the covers, but you might be surprised at the actual images used. Mixed mediums are used to paint, write, draw, and paste the picture/pictures together.
And as much as everything is over the top, and a bit off putting, it drew me in. There was something about that insanity, the scrapbook look, the artistic flair. It was really the only way to present the ideas, concepts and just everything else. The pages are junk drawers of stuff. The colors bleed together, images overlap, things just pile on top of one another. Yet, inside of the madness there is an organization. You can see how things were carefully considered for placement. How one thing was cut, pasted, scratched out, written on for the needed result. Things like the “Monster Me” image is placed next to a cute image of “Child Me” as casually as you would sit/stand next to your best friend. An adorable white kitten is gazing while it has been pasted over another monster creature that gives off dark Madonna (the Virgin, not the Like a Virgin, one) vibes.
And each image is not just there for the fun of it, but to illustrate and represent a concept posed as a question that never seems to be answered. They are also there to accent the narrator’s story and the child-world they live in (which most of the time is far from being innocent). They jump off the more abstract parts of the story giving an artistic, possibly even romantic tone. I had only gotten about 20 pages in before I realized the flow to things and that my stomach was queasy. I was unsure of what I was feeling and knew that this was either one of the most amazing things I have read or one of the worst. It is an experience book. It would be another 5 to 10 pages before I started writing my review, just to get ideas down so I would not forget them. And as I was still reading, I was editing the review. You bring your biases into it, and it gives you its biases back. Maybe you’ll find some new things, maybe not. You will think it is fantastic or a pile of horse muffins. Things tend to lean towards the darker and somber side, but there is light and color as well. Still even those brighter things can have a “toned down” or a sadness, or reflective atmosphere to it. The text is poetic language in a diary/scrapbook format. Straightforward and not too “pretentious” but has a “lofty” feel at the same time. As I said, sometimes it could be a bit romanticized, but that also adds to the charm..
This was not something that I should have read as an online reader copy. My eyes were unable to focus. I was backtracking and even losing my place (though there was not necessarily a place to start at to begin with). And since some of the themes will overlap into another collage/section, you should watch things closely, reading the images slowly and carefully. This is especially true towards the 60% to 70% mark, where things change again. Yet, I will have to wait until May 2024 for a finished paper copy (unless the publisher/author/someone who is really really cool wants to send me a finished copy beforehand) for my “in person” and “hands on” re-read. Though one might be able to locate the hardcover addition from 2008.
I happened to be reading the Diamond Books Bookseller Newsletter this morning (January 23, 2024) and found that Oprah had included this title to her Top 12 list for graphic novels. I want to borrow the author’s description for a more technical description, Lynda Barry uses her own art to (literally) illustrate the process of making that art, inviting readers to tap into their own creative potential while demonstrating, on the page, the stunning results of such an exploration. And in the end, this is what the book is all about. What it took me over 800 words to say. It is an exploration.