Blessed with legions of ardent fans, Lynda Barry is nonetheless critically underappreciated. Google her byline accompanied by the word “review,” and you come up practically empty. Many people bump into her only in the context of her long friendship with Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. And yet for nearly thirty-five years she’s been producing great, funny, unique comic strips — not graphic novels per se — many of them centered on a quirky adolescent girl named Marlys Mullen and her family.
Luckily for her readers, Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly committed recently to getting all of Barry’s lamentably unavailable work back into print. Their latest offering is The Freddie Stories, tales centered on Marlys’s weird, geeky brother. And this handsome new edition features thirty pages of material not previously seen.
Each strip in this volume comprises four panels, and, while independent, the installments often flow into one another to sustain longer narratives. Unlike the vast majority of her peers, Barry favors a text-heavy style, almost making her creations into illustrated fiction rather than comics. Each panel generally features half or three-quarters of its acreage filled with text in Barry’s distinctive hand, with the illustration crammed in below. Ornamental details abound in each initial panel, thematically evocative of the presumed origin of these mini-narratives in an adolescent’s doodled journal. But Barry’s art does not suffer from the top-heavy text. Her thorny thicket of lines and ink, blots and scratches always registers cleanly and boldly, recalling the work of Mark Alan Stamaty and Ben Katchor.
Freddie and his family occupy a generically suburban milieu that emerges as a late-sixties landscape, consonant with Barry’s own Boomer childhood. Many period references cleverly evoke the era without bludgeoning the reader’s sensibilities. Freddie’s consciousness is quintessentially pre-adult: aware, say, of “Fool on the Hill” issuing from the radio but certainly not of, oh, antiwar protests in Washington.
But the lives of Freddie and his siblings are hardly Beach Boys idyllic. (His sisters, Marlys and Maybonne, figure only intermittently, indicative of Freddie’s isolation.) Neglected by a hard-drinking single mother, Freddie has to navigate through both the internecine world of his peers and the inexplicable ecosphere of adults, with no direction or advice. And given that Freddie resembles Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons in his addlepated naïveté and flights of hallucinatory daydreaming, his misfit life is bleak. Anyone who thinks Chris Ware’s comics are a chronicle of hardship and misery should scope out Barry’s work.
And yet the ultimate tenor of these strips is somehow upbeat and positive. Freddie is unjustly imprisoned briefly in juvie due to being on the periphery of an act of murderous arson. So he makes friends with his cellmate and has a new pen pal when he’s released! He sees the flaming skull of the arson victim everywhere — until he has a dream of grace and unburdening. It’s summertime, and the family’s shabby house is full of flies — so Freddie makes one his pet. The boy’s sheer indomitability, coupled with his imaginative powers (which, true, are sometimes a millstone), leave the reader hopeful that Freddie will grow up into wellness and happiness and accomplishment. He’s the original poster boy for the “It gets better” meme.
Barry’s drawings are messily splendid while also graphically precise, able to convey personality and setting and emotional complexities with economy and depth. But her text is the real knockout component in these stories. There is a lot of deadpan humor. Freddie’s hung-over mom moans, “Three beers are my limit”; later that day, Freddie observes she’s on her fifth. And while staying achingly true to Freddie’s age and mentality, Barry nonetheless consistently achieves Faulknerian complexity and style:
2 + 2 + 2 + 2 onward to infinity. I have been getting sinister headaches and if you have ever heard a dog whistle it has a sound that is in my brains and wants to break my glasses. Marlys is now begging me. Stop, Freddie. No more math, Freddie, stop.
The Freddie Stories as a graphic novel version of The Sound and the Fury, Freddie a strip-mall hybrid of Benjy and Quentin Compson? That’s not too far a stretch for Lynda Barry’s talents at all!
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.