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.