Lynda Barry’s The Freddie Stories tells the tale of an agonizingly difficult year in the life of Freddie Mullen, the younger brother of Barry’s wellknown mainstay characters, Marlys and Maybonne. Freddie has “emotional problems,” writes Marlys in the foreword. “He is often called a fag and has had to run for his life on many occasions. He is a gentle person and this is a juvenile delinquency world… Sometimes his life has been very seriously terrible.”
The Freddie Stories was first published in 1999, and has since been redesigned and reworked, as well as augmented with material that was not in the original edition. This is also the first printed collection in over five years of stories from Barry’s popular serial Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which was syndicated for two decades in alternative newspapers throughout the United States. In a new addendum Barry writes, “When this collection was first put together in the early 1990’s, some strips were left out for being too strange or depressing… The original collection of stories along with some of the ‘lost’ stories, now here together in this book, make me wonder what new gaps have been made for a part of the mind that abides in things which do not connect straight away.” Many of us will no doubt relate in some way to this young boy’s impressions of being a very small outsider in a big, scary, mean world.
Freddie imparts his singular words of wisdom on everything from making a fried baloney sandwich (“It is the best food for sad people”) to his first day of school in fourth grade (“The first day of school is a most hopeful day. No one has black marks against them and the people haven’t been sorted into piles of popularity yet”) to losing a friend (“I did not know you could do something to a person, and then being friends with them would end for all time”). He’s terrified of his new homeroom teacher, Mr. File. His school friend, Glenn, joins the other kids in pestering him. His sadistic cousin, Arnold, loves to indulge in gay bashing with Freddie as the target. He’s set up as an arsonist when he tries to stop a crime before it takes place. His own mother tells him he wasn’t supposed to happen and tries to pawn him off for the summer at Arnold’s house.
If you had the amazing recall Barry apparently does, you will know that, although these stories might seem outlandishly brutal and horrific, they’re actually not that far out of the realm of possibility. Freddie’s experience is not an untypical childhood; a minefield of terrifying situations that you don’t understand and which keep you up at night staring at the ceiling watching the hours pass by. Barry’s singular genius is that she keeps within her the memory of what it’s like to be young and powerless and frightened.
When The Freddie Stories was first published, the problem of bullying hadn’t hit the mainstream, yet. Though it’s as old as time immemorial, it wasn’t until relatively recently that bullying has been named and recognized in the cultural zeigeist. Modern day Freddies, alas, sometimes make YouTube videos and then commit suicide, leaving a lifetime of regret for those who loved them and still couldn’t save them.
Bullying is finally recognized as a serious problem. Children are afraid to complain to parents or teachers, learning instead to internalize the stress and keep their heads down so as to minimize the chance of becoming a target. At an early age, this behavior has a clear tendency to reshape and remodel a personality. Cruelty can have an ‘all bets are off’ feel when the tormentor is another grade school child. Survival of the fittest starts young — too young.
Barry herself had a difficult childhood. Her parents divorced when she was 12 years old. While still in high school, she took a night job as a hospital janitor. Her career as a writer and cartoonist took off in the late ’70s after a college friend, Matt Groening, published her work in a student newspaper.
Like Barry, Freddie is a scrappy survivor. He figures out his own strategies and moves on in life. He’s lucky to have two great sisters who keep him on their radar, even as their family is extremely dysfunctional (again, this is something most of us can relate to). His voice is clear and strong, and there is no hint at all of him feeling sorry for himself. It’s just everyday life in Freddie’s world, where he warns omniscently, “The most innocent-looking things can blow your face off if you touch them the wrong way. Spies are everywhere.”