The term “graphic novel” doesn’t accurately describe what Lynda Barry has accomplished with Syllabus, her meditation on teaching and artistic expression. Barry has taught several interdisciplinary art classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and she has compiled what she learned from her students. The resulting album/scrapbook encompasses several terms worth of her instructions and exercises along with some of her students’ work. This complicated ebb and flow of her instructions, her own artwork, and the resulting work of her students feels overwhelming and unfocused at times. Yet overall, these pieces intertwine to create a narrative about art and expression, both beautiful and profound.
Barry made her students color with crayons, create scrapbook pages based on word association exercises, and forced them to draw a subject repeatedly under increasingly strict time limits, which are a few of the activities included in Syllabus. The students also read a wide variety of authors, such as Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Egan, and Ivan Brunetti. Barry tried to help her students reclaim their abandoned activities like drawing. She states, “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—it is a bad trade”. She is not just talking about drawing, but any activity that allows the expression of creativity, be it writing or photography or making music. People spend so much time telling themselves that they can’t draw, can’t write, can’t sing that they don’t spend time experimenting with what these activities can DO for them. Barry’s point is that they cannot learn about themselves without attempting to express themselves. Barry’s exercises force her students to confront these issues and the reader gets to go along for the ride. It is a fascinating journey.
I’ve had a hard time connecting to Barry’s previous work like One Hundred Demons or Cruddy. The cartooning was spare and autobiographical with a lot of prose—not what I’m used to reading. But in Syllabus, her cartooning provides a perfect entry into her meditations on teaching. Her characters are not contained in traditional boxes, but roam all over the page and mix with her prose in interesting ways. She uses several characters to introduce new topics and exercises, like Professor Chewbacca or a monkey with a bandana headband that clearly represents Barry. There is a LOT of prose in this book, so the whimsy and humor Barry deploys with her cartooning keeps things moving. She frequently poses interesting questions about art and self-expression, though she doesn’t offer many answers, which can be frustrating. The inclusion of her students’ works expertly illustrates her thoughts and teachings. This is one of the best books about teaching I have experienced.
Just about any adult who has doodled while bored, felt that they had a novel in them, or picked up a guitar at some point will find something to like in Syllabus. Every public library should have it. Older teens will be intrigued as well, though several sex scenes are depicted, so younger kids may be taken aback by some of the content (or their parents will). Syllabus is a tour de force and a fine example of comic non-fiction.
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
by Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 16+