The scene: A quaint and placid college campus, circa 1989. In the student union sits a just-past-the-voting-age freshman. Her bangs are crispy from years of chemical encrustation, a 10-lb. Ecuadorian wool sweater is itching her neck, and there might be a Monet poster on the wall back in her dorm room. She's reading the "alternative" weekly paper from the big city up the road, and she's just not too sure about Lynda Barry.
Actually, it's not just that she's "not too sure" — she's actually rather deeply uncomfortable. Lynda Barry is so ... abnormal. Why is there so much stuff in every panel of Ernie Pook's Comeek? Why aren't the characters prettier? Why do such strange and painful things have to happen in her world?
The freshman eventually grew up, fortunately (hint: It was me), but that first experience of Barry left its mark. In the years since, as Barry's work has been collected into books and won rave reviews, I've always thought the critics' praise seemed too ... blithe. Take the reviews for The Greatest of Marlys, a collection focused on Barry's most buoyant creation that's being reissued by Drawn & Quarterly this month. Entertainment Weekly called it "poignantly funny." USA Today said "her world ... will make you laugh as much as it'll make you pause, cry and think."
But lots of artists are poignant, and lots of them "make you pause, cry and think." Barry's unique genius lies in her capacity to wiggle under your skin and, once there, to wiggle some more until you're gasping and twitching, not sure if it's with laughter or something else. She provokes existential squirminess. If you've gone a while without noticing how weird life is, or if you've never noticed (if, for example, you're so eager to have the "right" kind of college experience that you've tacked up a Monet poster and armored yourself inside a 10-lb. Ecuadorian sweater), Barry makes you feel it.
The Greatest of Marlys is a reminder of just how much of that feeling Barry conveys viscerally, through her immediately recognizable style. She's got a surgical instinct for revelatory narrative moments, but her vision of youth can also be too sweet, too nostalgic. If it weren't for her clashing linework — from thick, sweeping, assertive strokes to disorderly scribbles — to say nothing of compositions that drag the eye around each frame as if to physically shake off old habits of seeing, her reader might be able to nestle comfortably into her stories of childhood. This collection, focused as it is on the unsinkable Marlys, is rich with much uncomplicated fun: late-evening kickball, fights over TV channels, experiments with bean seedlings and bugs in jars, visits to colorful neighbors.
But the darker stories here are invariably unsettling. In one series of episodes, Arnold stumbles into another kid's all-too-well-planned plot to burn down a house. The situation is no less unnerving than the way Barry's "adult" style gives way to Arnold's childish drawings as the boy considers the situation. Then there's Freddie's attempt to rescue a jarful of bees from a sadistic kid — it's moving, but also kind of creepy. So is his project of growing mold in jars under his bed.
Mostly, though, this book is devoted to the sweeter side of Barry's world — as in Arnold's account of his passion for a girl known as Jeanette the Harelip.
"How come every story every book every movie turns out better than life in real life?" Arnold wonders. "In the movie of me and Jeanette there's a kiss of splendor a magic kiss from me and her lip goes normal and the hare lip flies onto our mean teacher Mrs. Fennewald who saw Jeanette kick me and said, 'Jeanette go to the office!' and I shouted, 'No!' and guess who also got sent to the office?"
Arnold does eventually get his magic kiss, in an episode that's classic Barry — soaring sentimentality and strangeness at once. Entwining one quality inextricably with the other, she ensures that even her warmest moments are at least a little bit squirmy. All the better to capture what is, after all, a pretty weird world.