Linda Barry’s work has always had a focus on childhood and the strangely indeterminate state of being a child, largely powerless to affect anything in the world around them and therefore dependent on the whims of adults who have their own unknowable agendas. Her astonishing ability to evoke the inner world of children, the rituals, the obsessions, the imaginative play, has filled several book collections such as The! Greatest! Of! Marlys!, The Freddie Stories and Come Over Come Over with some of the most compellingly complex child characters in American comics.

This interest in the world of children informs her interest in creativity, the way that children have direct access to a creative state that most adults do not, a way of communicating with their subconscious and channelling what they find onto paper with almost no friction. Where does this ability go when we grow up? How can adults find their way back to this part of themselves that they have left behind? What It Is examines this situation in densely collaged pages of drawings, patterns, photos, phrases cut out of books and overlaid in colourful assemblages that pose lots of questions for the reader to think about.

“At the centre of everything we call ‘The Arts’, and children call ‘play’ is something which seems somehow alive. It’s not alive in the way you and I are alive, but it’s certainly not dead. It’s alive in the way our memory is alive. Alive in the way the ocean is alive and able to transport us, and contain us. Alive in the way thinking is not, but experiencing is, made of both memory and imagination. This is the thing we mean by ‘an image’,” writes Barry in a section that makes you look again at how you might understand what a picture contains. What It Is becomes progressively more and more metaphysical as she deconstructs the basis for the typical thinking around creativity, gently pointing out how much we don’t question about the workings of our inner selves, and suggesting ways we can begin to access them again.

Autobiographical strips about imagination in her own childhood (“One by one most kids I knew quit drawing and never drew again. It left behind too much evidence. Why did I keep drawing? Because I figured out how to make the good kind.”) take us to the final section of this book. It’s filled with exercises for the reader to work through to begin making stories themselves.

What It Is provides a pathway for people who believe they have no artistic ability to rediscover their creative selves without the barriers that we typically put in our own way. It’s a brilliantly intricate and intimate book that only requires you to be open and willing to try a different way of thinking, and trusting the results. It was winner of the 2009 Eisner Award for Best Reality-based Graphic Novel.