Making Comics By Lynda Barry
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
On page 140 of Lynda Barry’s newest book, Making Comics, she includes an exercise called “Instant Book Review.” I used it to write this one. Following Barry’s instructions, my materials were an 8.5 x 11 inch folded sheet of paper, a flair pen, and a timer (your phone’s fine, as long as it’s set to airplane mode). The book itself was not necessary. “If you have it out,” she instructs, “put it away.” Barry is the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art and a professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has run Saturday drawing seminars at UW-Madison since 2012 that attract children and adults, grad students, doctoral candidates, fellow scientists, and all the beautiful regular people, who are Barry’s people. Though she was named a “genius” in 2019 by those who bestow the MacArthur Award, her work is devoted to those who who think they can’t draw, who are terrified and mortified by what they create, and who do not and may never see themselves as writers.
Making Comics begins with the rules of Barry’s classroom regarding attendance, grades, and materials—what kinds of pens, what kind of nonphoto blue pencil (“not easy to find … worth ordering!”), index cards with lines on one side, lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inch copy paper, and a regular composition notebook, the kind you can get at the drugstore for two bucks. “Your composition notebook is the backbone of this class,” writes Barry. “It is a place rather than a thing.”
The book’s cover design replicates a composition notebook, and the place is Barry’s classroom. The contents are page after page of activities and exercises you can do on your own or with people, under Barry’s strict guidance and care. Everything she wants you to try is laid out clearly and reinforced throughout the book; every expectation (“at least 90 minutes”) is specific and firm. “You don’t have to have any artistic skill to do this,” writes Barry. “You just need to be brave and sincere.” She creates pathways for all of us to make pictures and tell stories, using what she refers to in her talks and workshops as “the original digital device”—and she holds up her hand.
Making Comics, like much of Barry’s work as an artist and lay scientist, explores the concept of seeing, eyes open and eyes closed, in our mind’s eye and in the course of an ordinary day. “Notice what you notice,” she offers. See who and what shows up on the page, she tells us, in your own and one another ’s work—and, by all means, see and draw monsters.
Barry’s pursuit of the question “What is an image?” has caused a flood of books, each one so loaded with imagery, stories, and information that Barry once said at a reading that to sit down and read one from cover to cover would be like eating seven bouillon cubes. What It Is, Picture This, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, and now, Making Comics are only her most recent. Ernie Pook’s Comeek, featuring the blessed Marlys and beloved Maybonne (or is it the other way around?) was her first major contribution to comics. Since then, she’s offered, among others, The Good Times Are Killing Me, The Freddy Stories, and Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel. In her spellbinding One! Hundred! Demons!, Barry taught us a Chinese ink brush method of bringing our demons to life on the page and delighting in them, even when all they do is shit on our work. The image is the thing, she tells us again and again, and it’s alive. As a student in Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable course at Omega Institute, I’ve heard her call “the image”—even a demon and especially a monster—a “reason to stay.” By stay, she means here. She also means alive.
Her “Instant Book Review” exercise starts with a frame, which I drew and subdivided to contain the first four parts of the activity. “Inside of the frame is the live area,” Barry tells us. “Outside the frame is just paper. The frame is the enlivener.” I completed each part in brief bursts, with Barry’s prompts. All are meant to call up, so I can quickly jot down, what I remember from the book without looking at it:
What happened? List seven things in three minutes. Go.
What you saw (include what you “saw” in your mind’s eye)? List seven things, three minutes. Go.
A quote or phrase you remember. Thirty seconds. Go.
Make a small drawing of one of the characters from memory. Thirty seconds. Go.
The activity has four more parts to it. At the end of twenty minutes, the entire paper is covered with organized blocks of messy notes and quick drawings that make it clear how engaged “or not” I was with what I read.
Under the question of “what happened,” I noted the page where she tells you to draw yourself engaged in various activities (thirty-seven total)— for example, shooting out of a volcano, escaping from jail, dancing sadly, running from a giant snowball, vomiting. She teaches the Ivan Brunetti style of drawing people: big head, noodle arms and legs, snowball hands, jelly bean body, and basic features. “Kids draw this way naturally,” writes Barry, whose sample self portrait on this page wears glasses and a kerchief tied on top of her head. Her under-eye bags and chin fat, achieved in five tiny lines, make the drawing instantly hilarious. But it’s the lit cigarette she smokes in every selfportrait— even when she is a hot dog, even when she is Batman, even when she is a mandrake—that kills me every goddamn time.
When Barry invites me to imagine myself shooting out of a volcano, then breaking out of jail, then dancing sadly, then running from a giant snowball, then thirty-three more things—in Ivan Brunetti style—the physiological effect is an actual adrenaline rush. I am in danger, I am heroic, I am drenched in feeling, I am having all these adventures—and I haven’t even picked up a pen! My ten-year-old son knew the book had an activity where you draw Batman in sixty seconds, then fifty, then forty, then thirty, twenty-five, twenty, fifteen, ten, and five, and asked me could we please do that one together? So we did, and it was just as fun and funny as we thought it would be. We laughed and cursed when the timer made us stop. My son’s Batmans made me shriek with joy. He said, “Yours are better!” But I thought his were better. Neither of us was into our own Batmans, but we adored each other’s.
Barry anticipates this from students and gets ahead of it. “One of the best places to send a new drawing is into the hands of the person sitting next to you,” she advises, since we tend to be kinder to others people’s work. Throughout Making Comics, Barry illustrates the tragedy of art unloved by its maker by filling this book with her own exact copies of student drawings that she pulled out of the trash. She exalts these abandoned characters, who must have horrified or at least disappointed their creators. In this way, Barry honors both her students’ drawings and their impulse to destroy them.
Dozens of activities in Making Comics involve drawing some part of something and then passing the paper to the person next to you, who adds something new and passes it again—each student receiving and adding to the paper in front of them, letting it go to receive and add to another. Now, everyone is inclined to love or at least tolerate who or what shows up on the page because it isn’t ours alone—we are no more responsible for it being awful than we are for it being thrilling, gorgeous, and alive. In this and endless other ways, Barry gives each drawing “the kind of living chance it needs to survive its creator’s doubt.”
“Hold them so that the drawings can see each other,” she instructs her students, who (I see in my mind’s eye) raise their drawings and allow it to happen—not for critique, not for credit, but because the drawings have things to offer us and to say to us if we can stand to look and listen.
Inside Making Comics are at least a dozen different ways of doing a diary, including one where an animal you draw says the opening line of one of your diary entries from the week before. Another is called “You See It When It Sees You”— though the arrows that arc back and forth above the words of this title let me know it’s also called: “It Sees You When You See It.” In this diary exercise, what you draw gets to say what it sees when it looks at you drawing it. Then you draw what it sees (you) without a mirror, of course. The expression on your face, what you wear, your vibe, the shape of your mouth as you draw. The character can see it all. Of course it can. It’s us.
Then there is the one called “Blind Bones” where you draw an entire human skeleton without looking—using first a yellow marker, then orange, then blue—all within the same frame, eyes closed, a minute each. The effect of these three skeletons, layered and wonky on top of one another creates what Barry calls “a liveliness in the lines”—the effect of not knowing what the hell your hand is doing, and then repeating it. What you see when you open your eyes is a skeleton alive. No kidding. It’s moving. My pounding heartbeat tells me so. This skeleton, like so many of the other breath-giving images in Making Comics is Barry’s copy of a student’s work—who we might assume is not a “genius” though that is both irrelevant and the point. Look at what is happening there! When you notice what you notice. When you keep your pen moving. When you pass the drawing to someone who won’t kill it.
So that’s what happened. Here is what I saw: The outpourings and abundance of an artist whose own drawings did not survive her childhood (not a single one), and who tells us she watched, mesmerized, as one of her uncles, then a recent refugee to the US, obsessively drew monsters. He was later taken away by the cops—she never saw him after that. And here’s the quote I remember: “Have mercy on the unspeakable monster who has no other way to tell you it’s you.”
Anastasia Higginbotham is an author and illustrator. Her last book, Not My Idea, won a 2019 White Raven Award for children’s literature. She lives and works in Brooklyn.