“Baby Teeth”: Lynda Barry, Syllabus


Daily practice with images both written and drawn is rare once we have lost our baby teeth and begin to think of ourselves as good at some things and bad at other things. It’s not that this isn’t true . . . but the side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it. A certain state of mind . . . is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered and for most people, it stays that way for life.

The drawing class I’ve signed up for begins in about ten days. When I first mentioned on Twitter that I might do something like this, to be honest I wasn’t that committed to the idea: I was just floating it. But making a possibility public inevitably makes it more real, and the feedback I got was so encouraging that my motivation increased and I started looking around in earnest for plausible options. The one I settled on is called “Drawing for Adults.” Though the description explicitly promises that no experience is necessary, as it gets closer I get increasingly anxious about it, because as far as I’ve ever discovered I have absolutely no talent for drawing, not to mention no skill at it.

barry-making-comicsI am glad, therefore, that one of the tips I got on Twitter (initially from Dorian, then endorsed by others) was to look at Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus. I wasn’t really sure what kind of book it was, but I have great faith in Dorian’s recommendations, so I promptly put a hold on it at the library and I’ve had it on loan ever since. My first reaction to the book was bewilderment. I do not have a good working relationship with graphic novels, and while Syllabus is not a novel, it is definitely a graphic something. (Syllabus reproduces and lightly contextualizes Barry’s teaching notebooks for courses she offered at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she runs the Image Lab.) Worse (I thought), it doesn’t even tell a story, so there isn’t even a narrative thread for a text-bound person like me to cling to. Every page seemed chaotic! I had no idea where to look first, or next, or after that. Finally, Syllabus focuses (I thought) on drawing comics, which isn’t really the kind of drawing I’m interested in.

syllabus-imageStill, my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to stop trying to figure the book out (which is a hard habit for an academic and literary critic to break!) and just browse around in it for a while to see what it might have to say to me. It turns out it did speak to me: both to the part of me that wants to, but is afraid to, put pencil to paper and draw something, but also, and perhaps more significantly, to the part of me that writes stuff. This is because Syllabus isn’t just a book about drawing comics: it’s a book about creativity more generally, about the interaction between our conscious (and often inhibiting) thoughts and our unconscious mind, and about the way our fears of doing something badly hold us back from discovery and improvement–and also just from the potential fun and rewards of artistic self-expression.

Syllabus is loosely about these things, because it is not a textbook or a scholarly study (although Barry alludes to several of these, including especially Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, the introduction to which–following Barry’s instructions to her students–I have downloaded as further reading). This looseness, which frustrated me a lot at first, is actually what ended up making Syllabus accessible to me, because it let me just focus on comments or ideas or exercises that resonated with me and then sit with them for a bit. Then I carried them with me as I went through the book again from the beginning, and a lot more of it (including its seeming disorder) made more sense to me.


Syllabus includes a lot of different interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking elements, many of them not really suited for direct application to my own classroom or working / writing life–though it’s possible I underestimate the ways I could incorporate sketching, concentration exercises, or notebooks into my pedagogy. What I liked best about it was the way Barry directly addresses our (OK, my) fear of putting things out into the world that (other people might think) are not very good. This does not mean I don’t think we should strive to do the best work we can–but especially at the beginning of a process, or during a creative process, focusing on external judgment or validation, or even focusing on our own critical responses, might stop us from even beginning. “When we are in the groove,” Barry says, for example,

we are not thinking about liking or not liking what is taking shape, and it isn’t thinking about us either. . . . Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.

“Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists,” she remarks in a later section, “can keep us immobilized forever.  Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.” I don’t see this as insight or advice that commits us to the kind of “half-assed” model of creativity championed by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. At least as I see it, it’s one thing to find the courage to start, to take chances, to see what answer comes to us, as a project takes shape; it’s quite another to quit working on it when we know it’s only “good enough” instead of as good as we can make it. Where along that spectrum we’ll stop with any particular project will, of course, depend on its purpose in our lives.

barry-good-badOne particular bit from Syllabus that I know I will keep thinking about is the one I chose as my epigraph for this post, about abandoning activities we are bad at. I’ve often thought that one of the best things about advancing through life, and particularly through one’s education, is the freedom you gain to abandon things you dislike and/or aren’t good at. As I’ve often said to my own children, one of the best things about university is that you can finally choose your courses to play to your interests and strengths. It’s not that I don’t think we can get good (or at least better) at things: I wouldn’t be a teacher if I believed that! I believe in program requirements, too, because that’s how we discover what else we might be good at, or want to be good at, or just put a lot of effort into. (That’s how I became an English major, after all, with lasting consequences!) Still, I was very glad to leave some kinds of effort and attention behind me (I’m looking at you, calculus!). I hadn’t really thought about the way this process, while it enables you to flourish in your chosen domain, can also end up making you more risk-averse, or reinforce reductive narratives about what you are in fact “good” at.


It has occurred to me before that there is pedagogical value in being, once again, a beginner at something. (Appropriately, in this context, those reflections were prompted by my struggles to read graphic fiction well.) That is certainly what I’ll be at my drawing class. Syllabus gives me a bit more courage to face it, and some useful ways to talk to myself about it. I’ve also had a little fun already drawing some self-portraits “in the style of Ivan Brunetti,” which she proposes as “a quick and workable alternative to stick figures.” This alone could mean a significant improvement in the illustrative (?) sketches I sometimes make on my classroom whiteboards! I admit I really hope, though, that my teacher doesn’t start by asking us to draw Batman.

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Reading ‘The Warden’


Reading Persepolis: Comically Inept?

persepolisMe, not Persepolis, of course. Because Persepolis is highly acclaimed (from the cover blurbs: “brilliant and unusual,” “superb,” “a mighty achievement,” “a dazzlingly singular achievement”) and widely considered an outstanding example of its kind. So the truth must be that if I read Maus badly, I read Persepolis very badly — despite having dutifully read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the meantime.

I enjoyed Understanding Comics. I always like the feeling of starting off down a path that’s new to me while being guided by someone smart and, in this case, also fun. I think I got a lot out of it, too — not just some basic vocabulary for talking about the art and craft of comics (terms like “closure,” “gutters,” and “motion lines,” for instance) but a better, if obviously still superficial and preliminary, appreciation of comics as part of the broader landscape of both pictorial and textual art. I was intrigued and largely convinced by the argument that comics are a form that requires a high degree of audience participation to make meaning, and by the theory that “by de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” — in other words, something that might seem from a different perspective to be a flaw in comics (their more or less iconographic rather than realistic style of representation) is better understood as a feature of the form (not unlike the formulaic plot structure of the classic mystery). I was interested in the histories McCloud provided of various comic-like forms, and in the connections he made between developments in other theories and practices of art and things comics do and don’t do. I was both engaged and amused by the ecstatic tone of the book’s final chapter, which rises to a crescendo of enthusiasm about how one day “the truth [about comics] will shine through!” It’s a long way from reading my first book about comics to claiming any expertise, but by the time I finished Understanding Comics I thought I would at least read my next graphic novel with more appreciation.

04-persepolisBut I didn’t! If anything, I found Persepolis less satisfying to read than Maus. From start to finish I felt as if I were reading a child’s picture book about Iran: an illustrated oversimplification, rather than a sophisticated verbal-visual synthesis, which is what the euphoric conclusion of Understanding Comics holds up as the form’s highest potential. Satrapi’s decision to tell the story strictly from her childish point of view is one obvious reason for that: the book does effectively convey the frustration and confusion she felt, not just at events themselves but at people’s often puzzling and contradictory responses to them. I really missed the kind of framing perspective we get in Maus from both Art and his father, though; compared to Marjane the character, Marjane Satrapi the author certainly knows much more about, or understands much differently, the world of her childhood, but I struggled to find evidence of that in the book. Maybe it’s in the drawings — but if it is, I wasn’t able to perceive it. The art was often dramatic and sometimes beautiful, or disturbing, but it also seemed incongruously cartoonish to me, and it distanced me from the emotion and action of the story as a result. McCloud proposes that more generic drawings allow us to identify with characters rather than being preoccupied with their specificity, their difference from us, but since in this case the characters are highly specific, the degree to which they looked similar was frustrating and seemed to flatten out the narrative. I could see at times that the effect was appropriate: stamping out individuality in favor of conformity was clearly a goal of the Islamic regime, for instance, and being unable to tell which veiled girl in the group was Marjane played into that. Overall, though, I couldn’t shake off the desire to have a more rich and complex written text; for me, even the most complex of the pictures were not sufficient compensation for what I felt was missing.

understanding-comicsI think what I may be running into here is a limitation created by my own love of words. Though I can tell even from one reading of Understanding Comics that there is a grammar to the art work and a language and style (or rather, many languages and styles) to the combination of words and images in comics, I am by both training and inclination a different kind of reader, a long-time devoted reader of a different kind of texts. Right now it seems unlikely I’ll ever become an avid reader of comics, partly because so far I haven’t enjoyed them that much and partly because there is so much else I want to read (so many novels that aren’t ‘graphic’) that I can’t really see putting in a concerted effort to get better at reading them. If I did end up choosing to teach an example of the form, I’d have to put my personal preferences aside, of course, and do the work. I’ve done that often enough with other texts I have felt obligated to teach that I know I’m often led by obligation to appreciation and then to genuine liking. I’m done with comics for now, though, as I have to write up some notes on Middlemarch for tomorrow’s seminar … no shortage of words there! And on no occasion have I ever wished the novel had pictures, either.

Reading Maus Badly

mausIIn the comments to my last post, Bill said he hoped that my choice for a comic book or graphic novel for a course on “pulp fiction” would not be “some terribly respectable ‘graphic novel’ along the lines of MausFun Home, or Persepolis” — not that there’s anything wrong with these on their own terms, obviously — quite the opposite! — but that they wouldn’t really represent “the genuine pulp article.” In response, I mentioned that I have just recently read Maus ... which reminded me that I never wrote anything about it here.

Actually, it wasn’t that recent: I read it at the end of the summer, so several weeks ago now. Usually I blog about books more or less as soon as I finish with them: the time lag here is a sign of trouble. And the trouble was, I didn’t know what to say about Maus. Not that I always know exactly what I’m going to say about a book when I sit down to blog about it — but I do usually have some sense of direction, some sense of how to engage with it. I finished Maus, however, with the nagging sense that I’d read it wrong. You see, I read it like a novel: an illustrated novel, because obviously there are pictures, but still, like a novel, with my primary attention on the words.

You see my problem, I’m sure. Maus is neither a novel nor an illustrated novel: it is a graphic novel, which is another term (a sometimes contested one) for a comic book, which is, in turn, helpfully defined at the Internet Public Library as “sequential visual art, usually with text.” But I don’t know how to read “sequential visual art”: I don’t know what to notice, what to track across the sequence, how to interpret what I’m seeing. I looked at all the pictures in Maus, of course, but I didn’t scrutinize them: to me, they seemed secondary — they were only drawings of the story.

I’m not saying I didn’t notice that the Jews in the book were mice, the Nazis cats, and the Poles pigs — or that I didn’t think as I went along about the general style of Spiegelman’s drawings, which reminded me of  folk art with their rough-hewn quality, or of naïve art, with a deceptive simplicity that somehow enhances the horror of the telling by its childlike air. How can something so cute be so terrible? That’s as far as I could go, though: otherwise, I just read on to find out what happened to the people whose fates and relationships unfolded across the novel with such pain and urgency. (Of course, the pictures rapidly stopped meaning cats and mice to me, no matter what the drawings showed).

watchmenMaus isn’t the first graphic novel I’ve read. Several years ago a thoughtful student gave me a copy of Watchmen, and I worked my way through it with even less success than I had with Maus. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it, but in that case, I couldn’t even hang on to the characters or story. (In retrospect, to be fair, that might at least partly be because I read most of it on my one and only trip to Australia, including on long trans-Pacific flights while under the calming influence of Ativan.) Then too, I was aware that I wasn’t paying close enough attention to things besides the words on the page, which is, after all, what I’ve spent years focusing on pretty exclusively.

There are definitely things I understood about Maus, including the ingenuity of recasting its population as animals in such a potent metaphorical way. Lawrence Weschler puts it well in his essay “The Son’s Tale”:

There have been hundreds of Holocaust memoirs — horribly, we’ve become inured to the horror. People being gassed in showers and shoveled into ovens — it’s a story we’ve already heard. But mice? The Mickey Mice of our childhood reveries? Having the story thus retold, with animals as principals, freshly recaptures its terrible immediacy, its palpable urgency.*

And of course Spiegelman himself, quoted in the same essay, is eloquent about his reasoning:

Almost as soon as [the idea] hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as ‘vermin,’ for example, and plotted their ‘extermination.’ And before that back to Kafka, whose story ‘Joseph the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’ was one of my favorites from back when I was a teenager and has always struck me as a dark parable and prophecy about the situation of the Jews and Jewishness.

He goes on to explain that he also wanted to subvert the metaphor: “I wanted it to become problematic, to have it confound and implicate the reader.” In a way, though, what both writers are dealing in here is something familiarly textual. Once you get how the metaphor works, you can “unpack” it in the same way you would if nobody ever drew a picture.

mauscoverIn general I’m not that well educated about the visual arts, not trained to notice and appreciate them in any expert, or even well-informed, way. Once we watched a Great Courses series on the history of Western art, and that helped a bit. What is the comic book equivalent? Is there a primer of some kind on what to see when you’re looking at graphic novels? Or is it just a question of slowing down and really looking, not taking the lines on the page for granted, the same way I’m always telling my students not to take the words on the page for granted?

Or, and of course this is a real possibility, am I overthinking the whole thing? I was caught up in Maus: I read it with rapt attention, with interest, and occasionally with tears, after all. By some measure, that has to count as a good reading.

*As a side note, I am very grateful for the recommendation of Weschler’s essay, both because it is fascinating and because the same collection (Vermeer in Bosnia) includes Weschler’s  ‘Balkan Triptych,’ which I hadn’t read before either and which is stunning.

Update: Well, this is certainly timely!