Portrait of the Evil Genius as a Young Man
Barry Ween is a lonely 10-year old boy. Barry Ween also has an IQ, by his calculations, of about 350.
As you’d expect, the two conditions aren’t unrelated. Part South Park, part Dexter’s Lab, The Adventures of Barry Ween follows Barry’s exploits as he tries to navigate not only the perils of his own intellect he estimates the strain will render him clinically insane by adulthood but also the more mundane pitfalls of public school. For example, Barry’s attempt to stave off said insanity by improving his social skills. (Besides, his clones kept meeting with unforseen difficulties whenever they ate paste or saw certain letters of the alphabet). Fast-paced and profanity-laced, Ween’s universe is held together, deny it though he might, by the very randomness that he struggles against and his few bonds of friendship. Barry’s best friend is neighbor and classmate Jeremy Ramirez, whose pre-adolescent hormone levels rival Ween’s intellect, and whose mother tends to do odd, psychologically scarring things such as placing Virgin Mary napkins in Jeremy’s lunchbox (prompting Barry to sarcastically tease, “You’re gonna wipe your mouth with the mother of God?”). Jeremy is also the voice of Barry’s conscience, a trait that’s called up repeatedly in the wake of misguided experiments. In addition, Barry has a budding friendship/romance with Sara Tan unfortunately, for all his mental might, Barry flounders whenever he talks to her like . . . well, most regular guys when we’re trying to be cool in the face of possible female scorn.
These are relationships that grow slowly over the two collections, as the emphasis is largely on the ridiculous situations in which Barry finds himself. Drawn like a troll doll with a perpetually sarcastic and jaded look on his face, Barry is the picture of objective cool, but his scientific misadventures go far enough awry to render him wide-eyed and exclaim “Oooohh” or “Cool” (or something more colorful). Running experimental laser tests in his basement, he accidentally opens up a trans-dimensional portal that fills his house with mythological creatures and reverts his father into a sex-starved caveman. Helping out a stranded alien lands him in the middle of a space-age mob hit. Horsing around with a matter transporter lands him and Jeremy in the Old West, complete with racist, pedophilic thugs who spout some of the funniest mixed metaphors ever. Ultimately, Barry’s vast technological build-up brings him to the attention of a covert government agency bent on recruiting him.
But, even in the midst of such chaos, creator Judd Winick lays the foundations of the relationships, and further establishes their pre-existing landscape. Winick (an alumnus of MTV’s The Real World, but more importantly, an Eisner Award nominee and the author of the full-length graphic novel Pedro and Me) knows his way around said terrain, such that, even in the very first story, he’s able to establish Barry as a bit of a bully under pressure. When the aforementioned dimensional portal opens up, Barry loads Jeremy down with instructions, which Jeremy immediately resents. “Come here, go there,” Jeremy recites, “Help me build this bomb, gimme one of your kidneys. I’m sick of it.” It’s only after Barry apologizes (and promises to fix it so that Jeremy’s dad wins the lottery) that the dimensional repairs can begin.
At first glance, the academically impaired Jeremy would seem an odd match for Barry, but he fills in the personality gaps that Barry has allowed to develop as a result of his own intellectual pursuits. For all of Barry’s grace under fire, Jeremy speaks for the smothered child in Barry’s soul. He’s prone to gush at tears in the space-time continuum as “Dude! Totally Star Trek!”, to advise Barry that he should instead be using his vast intellect to get legitimate nude photos of celebrities, and to bounce around on a matter transporter like it’s a trampoline (all the while making the appropriate references to The Fly). Also, as emotionally detached as Barry tries to be, he can’t deny the huge role that Jeremy plays in his life. When Jeremy accidentally mutates into a dinosaur, Barry’s first instinct is to shoot Jeremy in the back of the head; however, he can’t, and as much as he rants about its cliched Of Mice and Men quality, it’s actually the stirrings of emotion that keep him from pulling the trigger. Likewise, Barry’s merciless retaliation when Jeremy is kidnapped by the government shows the lengths to which he will go in protection of those he cares about.
The relationship with Sara is in more of a gestational stage, even by The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius 2.0. Barry comes across as a total dork after rescuing her from a school bully through the use of a nerve poke that temporarily blinds the aggressor. (Jeremy’s response? “Love has made you evil, man” and “More innocents hurt in your pursuit of love.”) After he’s rescued her from hostage-taking art thieves, Barry succumbs to a smile of pure uncalculated happiness when Jeremy refers to them as “Lois Lane and Superman.” And, one of the series most poignant moments is yet to come for its third collection Barry has to wipe Sara’s mind clean of any memories concerning his intellect, thus destroying her concept of him as he truly is.
It’s a testament to Winick’s abilities as a storyteller that such moments hold such emotional impact and can’t be dismissed as obligatory moments of fleeting character development. As the series progresses, Sara and Jeremy continue to learn more and more about Barry, and, through them, Barry continues to learn more about himself. (Jeremy’s remark that Barry is always trying to be Lex Luthor is especially cutting and accurate.) Sure, Barry and Jeremy cuss like Tourettes-afflicted sailors, and Barry finds porn to be the most effective bribe amongst his age group, but it’s not out-of-bounds to consider the stories to be a sort of id-driven, nitro-fueled counterpart to Calvin and Hobbes. Somehow, Winick has put together a story that not only appeals to our inner Beavis and Butthead, or to our inner mad scientist, but which also satisfies our desire to have fun stories which, over time, truly amount to something.