Serious playtime 

Lynda Barry, the cartoonist behind the classic alt-weekly strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” has kept busy in recent years with a number of side ventures. She sells original art — drawings of “Pook” characters like Marlys, and stranger ink paintings featuring subjects like a meditating monkey — on eBay; she has produced the occasional hand-decorated messenger bag; and she pops up around the country from time to time to conduct “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops, which appear to be sort of intensive, avant-funky, creative-writing seminars.

Now she has adapted some of her “Unthinkable” wisdom for a book called What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly). An odd little creature, What It Is certainly doesn’t look like any creative-writing text before it. It isn’t a textbook, of course: It aims at some kind of hybrid of workbook, memoir, and compendium of Zen koans, and will surely hit different readers (users?) in very different ways.

Longtime Barry followers will appreciate it even if they have no ambition to become writers, as it documents the wild paths the artist follows when not constricted by “Pook’s” four-panel narrative format. Though it does offer some chunks of comic-style illustration (often depicting the author herself in her quest to become a writer), the book also offers glimpses of her non-Marlys drawings (that monkey again, now rifling through old magazines for pictures to clip, or a many-eyed marine beast named Sea-ma) and swaths of quirky collage.

The dense construction of those collage pages is aimed at triggering unconventional reader responses to questions like “Where do we keep bad memories?” and “What is the difference between awake and asleep?” — little meditations that set the stage for practical creativity exercises found later in the book. What It Is just came out, so I can’t claim to have had time to put Barry’s techniques into practice, but I can say that just reading through them elicits a kind of weird-inclusive, giddy embrace of the possible that could hardly hurt a bottled-up adult looking to reconnect with a creative side not seen since pre-school.

Since the ’80s, Barry has been among the most distinctive and prominent women in the comix world. Around the same time, a woman who would eventually join her in the alt-weekly funnypages was working her way from the assembly-line corner of the comic book industry — “inking a lot of Donald Duck and Scrooge comics for Western Publishing,” as she recalls — to an indie series called Good Girls. One very peculiar storyline from that series has now been gathered in Last Gasp’s Goodnight, Irene.

A prolonged narrative that borders on the surreal, Irene tells the story of a fabulously wealthy heiress who is raised by an African tribe after her parents are killed on safari. During childhood, Irene did as local girls do: She underwent extreme face-adornment that Lay adapted from photos she’d seen of Ubangi women. She now has decorative scarring on her cheeks, for instance, and a five-inch disc embedded in her lower lip, which juts out like a duck bill (hello, Donald) — all of which presents a problem when the teenage Irene returns to America, where taking her place on the society circuit is obviously difficult, but finding true love seems impossible.

The illustrations here look nothing like the cartoony style of Lay’s current strips. Instead, the drawing mimics the old-fashioned Romance comics whose clichés Lay has so much fun with. (In Lay’s version of “Why hasn’t Brad called?”, though, sex actually exists.)

Lay’s extended satire evidently played well among her peers, as demonstrated by back-cover blurbs from Gary Panter and Jaime Hernandez, but it was also noticed by weirdsters from other artistic fields: Mark Mothersbaugh, onetime Devo leader, penned the collection’s introduction, which is apt since his own celebration of deformity is now available in bookstores. Beautiful Mutants (Grand Central Press), an extravagantly bound volume published to accompany a California art exhibition, isn’t a comic but will appeal to fans of Irene or her beautifully ugly forebears, the monsters drawn by Basil Wolverton. The portraits here are vintage photographs (the kind you find in antique stores, often housed in folding cardboard frames) that Mothersbaugh has scanned digitally, then sliced along a skewed axis and mirrored — resulting in perfectly symmetrical figures whose faces are sometimes adorable, sometimes disturbing.

The images (which he sells online and via a traveling art show) aren’t for everyone, but I feel sure that Lynda Barry’s collage-happy monkey would clip them all for a special envelope in her archive.

More by John DeFore



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