Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book is a companion volume to What It Is, Lynda Barry’s autobiographical exploration of the mysterious processes that lie behind the impulse to make stories, and the purpose of creativity in our lives. It is another large hardcover, 204 pages long, with the same highly decorative collaged style of presentation mixing newspaper and magazine clippings, photos, and patterns with her ink and watercolour painted comics and drawings. To help the transformative part of her narrative exercises, Barry uses many aliases for herself in her educational works. She is Professor Skeletor in Making Comics and also Professor Sluggo, Professor Sasquatch and Professor Long-Title, and the ‘Nearsighted Monkey’ is another. It refers to the way she feels like a domesticated primate living a simple existence in her everyday life, working in her slippers, smoking cigarettes and watching tv.
Picture This is less a general investigation of the creative impulse and more focused on drawing, how we find imagery by looking closely at the world around us, allowing our hands and eyes to copy what we see and then following where they go to make lines and marks that put our feelings and ideas onto paper. A central concern is the way becoming aware of ‘how to draw’ can actually be immobilising, when an activity done freely and spontaneously as children turns into something that can be analysed, graded and assessed – and then too stressful to continue with. Some of this inquiry and demonstrations come from direct addresses to us from the Nearsighted Monkey, and some in the form of comics featuring Marlys Mullen and her cousin Arna. Marlys is the embodiment of experimentation, allowing her feelings to guide her even when she doesn’t know why or where they come from. So her appearances here are very much like a companion for the reader, as she and her sister draw their ideas and feelings and sometimes argue about what they mean.
The mixture of exercises, prompts, suggestions, examples and questions makes Picture This a fascinating reading experience even if you have no desire to try exploring the path Lynda Barry lays out for you. This book will change how you think about drawing. If you want to continue working with these new ways of thinking, more specific exercises for making your own comics can be found in the classroom-in-a-book Syllabus and follow-up volume Making Comics.