The Greatest of Marlys collects Barry’s comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which ran in alt-weekly newspapers like The Chicago Reader and The Seattle Stranger. The book features a selection of stories about Marlys, a scrappy red-headed prepubescent girl living with her mom and siblings in a circa early 1960’s suburb. The strip ran from the late eighties until 2008, ending around the time that alt-weeklies precipitously lowered rates for freelancers and dropping comics.
Barry has since moved on to a new phase of her career as a teacher, both at the University of Madison with experimental art classes for scientists and other “non-artists,” and with her books for Drawn & Quarterly about the creative process, What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus.
Marlys continues D+Q’s reprint series of Barry’s entire output. The original edition, a floppy paperback from Sasquatch Books, gets an aesthetic update as well as a new comics introduction from Barry. The yellow brick of a best-of feels like a textbook, and thanks to the immersive nature of Barry’s comics, a reader can get lost for days in these semi-self-contained strips, picking up a few at a time at leisure.
The semi-autobiographical stories continues Barry’s juxtapositions of sweetness and horror in the lives of young people, but this group of strips lets a little more light in than usual (as seen in works like The Freddie Stories and Cruddy). One strip, “Who Are the Dogs?” goes down the list of dogs in Marlys’ neighborhood, each with wild, Muppet-y eyes.
Bleaker elements come through subtly, due to the child protagonists’ take on the situations. A strip called “Marlys’ Guide to Queers” ends with Marlys narrating, “If you see my Uncle John and Bill, please say I miss them and come back soon.” (My heart!)
The visuals switch between drawings of the “real” world (diagetic drawings?), and strips ostensibly written and drawn by the child characters. Her real world drawings are full of crude grimacing children, and oppressive-looking brush hatching. The child characters’ drawings, as seen in “If You Want to Know Teenagers by Marlys” uses scratchier line drawings and claustrophobic speech balloons. Here we see these characters wrestle with, as often is the case in Barry’s comics, beauty norms. The love Barry clearly feels for this group of freckly weirdos is evident nowhere more than in their longing.
Here Barry seems to prove the theses she puts forth in books like What It Is about the relationships between creativity and childrens' modes of play. At times the renderings recall the vitriolic drawings of Girls and Boys, now collected in the career retrospective, Everything Volume 1.
She makes use of a powerful technique throughout the stories: often the visuals focus on a character reacting to a situation that has either already occurred or is now happening, while the characters’ narration tells the rest of the story. This implicates the reader, inviting her to fill in with her imagination, creating a rare level of interaction and play between cartoonist and reader. In “Jump Shot,” Barry shows Marlys looking out her window, with the narration talking about Marlys looking and listening for “the teenager name of Richard” who “comes out late some nights to shoot baskets by our corner.” This is analogous to a John Porcellino comic using the term “Fall Sounds” to hint at much more than what’s being shown in the image. Here, Marlys’ longing for an unseen figure, like Charlie Brown for the Little Red-Haired Girl, charges the images the reader does see, knowing that there’s something just out of reach.
A great introduction for new fans, an excellent choice for young readers, and a gift to Barry’s devotees, The Greatest of Marlys comes as a reminder of Lynda Barry’s stunning, evocative, hysterically funny, haunting cartooning.