Less Story, More Play: All Aboard for Planet Marlys!

Legendary cartoonist Lynda Barry's most iconic character takes center stage in this large-format hardback.

The Greatest of Marlys

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 248 pages
Author: Lynda Barry
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-08

Eight-year-old Marlys stands on the toilet seat to see herself singing in the mirror. She appreciates a good lawn sprinkler, cow eyelashes, baton twirling, and gasoline fumes. She sneak-reads her sister's diary. She only steals from those who hate her. She is a natural born speller. She is the Queen of Gum. She grooves on life, says "Right on" a lot. She does the Funky Chicken, the Mexican Hat Dance, and front yard ballet. Marlys, the most iconic character in Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek, takes center stage in The Greatest of Marlys, Drawn & Quarterly's expanded edition of a thumping-big collection originally released in 2000 by Sasquatch Books.

Barry opens The Greatest of Marlys by revealing the artist's hand: "I let it write the pictures and draw the words," she says, as if an observer of her own creative process. Ugliful, to borrow the title of one of her strips, could well describe her childish cartooning style. Barry's intro also serves to correct a frequent assumption that her work is autobiographical, something she's addressed in interviews. Childhood memories, places she's known, and various details surface for her to combine as fiction, a process that evoked Marlys and, consequently, siblings Maybonne and Freddie, cousins Arna and Arnold, and the rest of the cast. With these fictional characters established by 1987, storytelling became a more dynamic option for Barry's Comeek since any event could be told from one of several perspectives.

The first strips in The Greatest of Marlys are narrated by a quietly observant eight-year-old named Arna, and so it's from her point of view that we get to know her "dreaded cousin" Marlys. Arna's shows of sympathy for Marlys, and vice versa, are extra meaningful because we've come to know and enjoy Marlys as a willful, sometimes jealous brat. In the strip that introduces Maybonne, we join Arna and Marlys who are spying on her as she studies her bra's fit in her bedroom mirror, behavior Arna doesn't understand. Barry's characters are often observing each other in ways that reveal truths about both observer and observed.

Barry is clever at juxtaposing the strip's dominant point of view, in the primary text, against cartoon and dialogue that reveal if not another character's perception, then some detail that alters reader perception. One of my favorite Arna-narrated strips dramatizes Marlys telling Arna about what she read in Maybonne's diary; this is tantamount to experiencing three perspectives at once, masterfully compressed and hilarious. Marlys, Maybonne, Arnold, and Freddie tell stories from their points of view, just not as much. The Greatest of Marlys is secretly Arna's greatest too, really. The Arna-narrated sequence ending the book, when she and Marlys have started fifth grade, makes for Barry's strongest writing in the Greatest.

On a broader level, perspective-wise, Barry is celebrated for reconstructing with heartfelt accuracy how kids navigate their world, specifically working-class kids coming of age as she did in the early '70s. Her characterization attends to fluctuating levels of naivete, awareness, and comprehension, reflecting a time that seems both safer and harsher. Her era-authentic details are never so quirky that they aren't also ordinary, reflecting a time as dated as it is classic. The Greatest of Marlys may not reflect pressing social realities to the same degree as collections centering on siblings Maybonne and Freddie, but this is a difference -- not a weakness. Still, I can't help but wonder why exclude a quite powerful Marlys strip that takes the form of a letter she's volunteered to write to a soldier in Vietnam and feels conflicted about.

Other than book size, narrative is the obvious way to distinguish between The Greatest of Marlys and other collections featuring Marlys, Maybonne, Freddie, et al. Strips typically alternate between self-contained narrative, extended narrative, and non-narrative. Maybonne-centered My Perfect Life (1992) and The Freddie Stories (1999) are all-narrative and mostly extended at that. Only in Greatest of Marlys does non-narrative dominate.

Narrative strips, though occasionally epistolary, do not vary in form like non-narrative strips that may resemble homework (e.g., essay outline), how-to guides, illustrated lists, catalog pages, newspaper layouts, mazes, or bingo cards, all bursting with humorous details. Arna's point of view may claim about 75 narrative strips in The Greatest of Marlys, but Marlys "hosts" just as many non-narrative ones. If I prefer Barry's other Comeek collections, it's because I prefer narrative and its potential for deeper characterization, yet I must acknowledge how perfectly non-narrative suits Marlys as a freer spirit. Maybonne, self-conscious adolescent full of longing, and Freddie, a mentally unstable nine-year-old targeted by homophobic bullies, are thoroughly embedded in their Comeek narratives.

Marlys is not bummer-free, as she might put it, but she is freer to live in the moment, playing or snooping or making believe. Within the narrative framework, she's the one who dances on the roof outside her bedroom window, singing "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" to passing traffic and giving the Black Power sign. Beyond the narrative framework, she bounces around brightly: teaching the top four rules to Band-Aid use, leading readers in a game of Beach Bingo, anchoring the Morning Bug-Out on National Bug Radio, or visiting a planet called Marlys where anyone named Marlys is #1.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.