February 25, 2020

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Drawing on the past

Cartoonist's collection captures intense childhood emotions

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2016 (1284 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lynda Barry must have the opposite of childhood amnesia. Her comic strips go beyond reproducing memories to conjuring the sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of being an awkward, imaginative child in a time and place when childhood is a separate state from adulthood, its borders guarded by those alluring and terrifying creatures known as teenagers.

Barry is an American cartoonist, writer, and teacher born in Seattle in 1956 to parents of Irish, Norwegian and Philippine descent. These facts are visible in all her work, as she often returns to the milieu of her 1960s childhood and the complex experiences of being a working-class, multi-ethnic child in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood.

The Greatest of Marlys! compiles all of Barry’s 1986-2008 Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a weekly comic strip that ran in more than 70 alternative newspapers across North America, often alongside Matt Groening’s Life in Hell.

Barry and Groening pioneered the weekly alt comic that was part of 1980s and ’90s alternative culture. They developed cult followings, and have remained close even after he left to do The Simpsons and Futurama and she turned to teaching and publishing books. In July, they were both inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame at the San Diego Comic Con, one of the highest honours for cartoonists.

In the late 1990s, Barry published two coming-of-age novels, The Good Times Are Killing Me (adapted into a successful Broadway play) and Cruddy. These established her talent for representing the intense emotions of childhood and adolescence in a unique combination of humour, rawness and longing. More recently, she has published creative writing manuals that encourage readers to delve into their own early memories and experiences: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. She is now a professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Author Lynda Barry’s self-portrait.</p>

Author Lynda Barry’s self-portrait.

Barry’s 2002 childhood graphic memoir, One! Hundred! Demons!, blurs genres in what she calls an "autbiofictionalography." Similarly, the Marlys comic strips mine Barry’s own memories for a fictional cast of pre-teen characters: the main narrator Arna, her brother Arnold, and their cousins Marlys, Maybonne and Freddie.

The book is loosely organized around the many facets of Marlys. Title pages divide the sections into Singing Marlys, Cornerstore Marlys, Scientific Marlys, Comic Book Marlys, and so on. Most of the strips follow a large four-panel formula, with a few moving into more complex layouts. Together, they evoke a spectrum of childhood preoccupations, from the banal (dogs, candy, school lunches, bugs, TV, comics) to the formative (enemies, harelips, monsters, teachers, liars). The tone is generally light, though, and the appeal of the strips lies in Barry’s immersive childhood point of view.

Some of the panels are narrated by an older Arna looking back, in the style of a graphic memoir. Others are drawn by the young characters themselves, as though they are school projects on such topics as "Our Domestic Poultry." The pedagogic theme appears often, as smart-girl Marlys offers instruction on a variety of important topics, from "what to take camping" to "how to be very popular" (hint: give out candy to people and lunch meat to dogs).

Adult characters are limited to the occasional teachers and relatives, usually female and either distant or authoritarian. Like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, this is a realm in which children form their own imaginative reality. Unlike Charlie Brown and Lucy, however, Marlys and Arna embody the counter-cultural and chaotic energies of the 1960s. Their thoughts tend more to chatty stream-of-consciousness than philosophical punchlines. Their world is busy with activity and bursting with cherished objects.

Barry has a signature style of black-and-white heavy-ink line drawings with large text boxes that function as voice-over. The children are not conventionally beautiful — Marlys has glasses, pigtails, freckles and an overbite — but they are lovable in their eccentricities and obsessions. The complete edition of these strips can be read from beginning to end or dipped into at random. Like classic newspaper strips, the world stays the same and the characters remain in a continuous present, even as they experience big and small life-changing events.

Barry’s strips are always playful and funny, and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. They make you want to hang out with these kids and share their everyday triumphs and failures, thanks in large part to Barry’s underlying faith in the redemptive powers of childhood imagination.

Even if her turtles die and nobody wants her homemade valentine, there will always be another way for Marlys to "groove on life."

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department of the University of Winnipeg.


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