You cannot read Lynda Barry’s Picture This (Drawn and Quarterly). You just can’t. You can’t read a book this profoundly exquisite, this acutely emotional, this deeply weird. “Reading” is simply the wrong word for the experience of leafing through the 225 pages of her latest book, a graphic work that defies easy categorization. And the right word? I don’t know if there is one.
Which is exactly the point Picture This wants to make.
Near the middle of the book, Barry, best known for her long-running strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, talks about her experience learning to read and write as a child. “I could pick out certain letters, but they were still pictures to me, and I was drawing them,” she says. “And somehow drawing a letter becomes writing it. What is the difference? What changed?”
Picture This is, in many ways, Barry’s attempt to rediscover those pre-verbal days, and at times the book feels like a child’s picture book. What does this picture of a monkey with glasses and a kerchief on page one have to do with this picture of a rabbit racing under a full moon on page two? Is there a narrative? Or are they just pictures? And does it matter?
The answer to all three questions is simultaneously “yes” and “no.” That’s the marvelous thing about Picture This. It’s a mélange of watercolor and comic-strip panels, collage and memoir, art instruction and philosophical musings, craft projects and self-help suggestions.
The cover of the book proclaims, “Do you wish you could draw? Take art lessons from a monkey!” It’s that second part of that cover tease that’s quintessential Barry.
As much as there is a narrative in the book, it is that the Near-Sighted Monkey, a shady character who may or may not be an imaginary dream figure but who definitely does smoke imaginary cigarettes, read tabloids, and own a pet chicken, is teaching Arna how to embrace her artistic side. (Arna was one of the regular characters in Ernie Pook’s Comeek and makes a welcome return here, along with her irrepressible cousin Marlys.)
But the real narrative is a thematic one. “What makes us start drawing? What makes us stop?” Barry asks. “What makes kids draw? What makes adults scared to draw? Yes, it is real fear, but of what? Why aren’t kids scared of it? And what is it that one day comes to make them afraid?”
As Barry examines this idea, she acknowledges the impossibility of our adult minds returning to the state before letters were anything but lines. Page after page of hauntingly beautiful drawings, all of which could stand on their own, are embellished with scraps of text: The cartoonist cannot, in the end, let go of her captions. A dark, shadowy rabbit peers with glowing blue eyes; a box says, “Where is my rabbit.” A tissue paper ghost is labeled, “Shapes go everywhere.” There are words in doodles, and fragments of letters, from a classified ad or a page from a phone book, peek out underneath the ink covering them.
Although much of the artwork is on legal paper or pages of old books or scraps of magazines, it isn’t “found” or precious—it’s nothing you’d see on Etsy. But in some ways, Picture This is indeed a nod to that Etsy craft aesthetic. There are pages with the basics of drawing and color theory, just like a textbook. And there are projects, too—pages to color in, shapes to cut out, things to copy or trace.
Yet this is Barry, after all, one of the most supremely weird comic artists around. Near the beginning of the book, she has instructions for the type of art project you might do in preschool, using cotton balls and glue to make a chicken on a piece of paper. She calls this project “A Chicken in Winter,” and her description and instructions are exactly what make this book so magical.
“Sometimes in life when we are very sad, it is good to make a chicken in winter. It is not a beautiful chicken but it is a chicken that will guard you through the hours and hours, quietly,” Barry writes.
There are fragments of Emily Dickinson and other poets scattered throughout Picture This, but it is Barry’s own poetry that reverberated with this reader—just like in all the best picture books.