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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

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.