Barry’s recent novel (Cruddy, p. 1999) proved what her comics admirers already knew: she’s a splendid writer with a phenomenal ear for everyday speech. And her comics work, syndicated in dozens of newspapers, has grown with her. After collecting stories featuring her character Freddie (The Freddie Stories), Barry celebrates another of her wonderful creations, Freddie’s sister Marlys.
There are over two hundred Marlys-centered pieces here, some dating back to 1986, making it possible to chart Barry’s growth as writer and artist. Though she still relies on a scratchy, wobbly messiness to echo her subject, Barry’s lines calmed down a bit, and her frames became less busy. Barry likes to play with the borders to her mostly one-page stories, and she eventually broke out of her strict four-frame format. A number of the earlier pieces are told by Marlys cousin Maybonne, who hates her guts, partly because Marlys doesn’t hesitate to remind everyone that she’s a gifted child. But their childhood together is recalled with bittersweetness: their marginal social status, the absence of fathers, their tough-talking matriarchs. As the girls remember it, though, it’s mostly about gross food, nasty neighborhood dogs, plastic toys, and goofy haircuts. Beneath the joyful flotsam of their youth, Barry peeks in on their desperation. She also knows the junk well: the bikes, the batons, the turtles, the caps, the candy cigarettes—she’s a visual archaeologist of American childhood. The best stories are in Marlys own voice: her riff on the word “groovy”; her little lessons addressed to readers on drawing, school reports, and local news; and her hilarious “guides” to mud, Band-Aids, bugs, and “poodle poetry.”
Barry has a genius for remembering the odd things kids and grownups do, especially during those times that linger between meanness and joyful innocence. Beyond nostalgia, her deceptively simple art, in all its spareness, breaks your heart and makes you laugh, often at the same time.