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The Greatest of Marlys is Lynda Barry at Her Greatest

Comics Reviews Lynda Barry
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<i>The Greatest of Marlys</i> is Lynda Barry at Her Greatest

Writer/Artist: Lynda Barry
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: August 16, 2016

STL012230.jpeg The Greatest of Marlys reintroduces a collection of Lynda Barry’s four-panel strips, which ran in alternative newspapers across the country from roughly 1980 to recently under the Ernie Pook’s Comeek moniker (she still makes work, but the newspaper business isn’t faring quite as well). Barry has remained reliably prolific for decades, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she gets her “complete works” in print someday, but for now they’re available in bits here and bits there. These specific 224 pages collect selections from the comic published from 1986—when she introduced the characters of Marlys, Arna, Arnold, Freddie and Maybonne—to 2000. If you grew up reading Barry’s output, sandwiched between copious local event listings, ads for sexy telephone lines and angry letters focused on city minutiae, opening this book will jolt you back to those days.

Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake Bible, published by Fantagraphics in July, makes for an interesting comparison. Both artists exercise a compulsive need to fill up the page with words and images, as well as border decorations and pattern, and both have a love of outsider culture. Recurring characters pop up in both works, and both present a world largely occupied by women. However, Barry creates emotional involvement with her characters by breadcrumbing an ongoing narrative. One piece of her work is nothing. A whole bunch of pieces constitute a nourishing meal.

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The Greatest of Marlys Interior Art by Lynda Barry

Barry displays insight into the childhood mindset like almost no one else—in any medium, not just comics. Her work is a bubbling font of immediate, sensory experience: the joy of late summer evenings with the radio on, the itch of lying in the grass, the brainless pleasure of acting like a goofball. Marlys is both young enough and old enough to be interesting. Her dreams are fresh and uncrushable, and the contrasts Barry draws with her older sister, Maybonne, and her single mother induce a warm sadness in the reader. Third grade is a golden era. You can read. You exert a little independence. You have differentiated yourself from your parents. But the complications of hormones have yet to enter the picture, and you’re still free to behave as goobery as you want.

At the same time, Barry weaves considerable chaos around her characters. Arnold destroys things, Freddie gets called a fag, Maybonne is a full-on teenager and Arna wants to disappear. Each of them gets a chance to narrate from time to time. They move into a trailer park, then out. Adults are never positive authority figures; they make incomprehensible decisions or attempt to exert the little power they have over younger folks.

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The Greatest of Marlys Interior Art by Lynda Barry

With all of this in the background, Marlys emerges as a force of creativity and love. Rather than temper her natural weirdness (or even worry much about it, although she’s certainly conscious of what defines popularity), she instructs the reader in crafts, costuming, games and life lessons. It’s a “let’s put on a show… on a shoestring budget” attitude that calls to mind drag shows of the era as much as unquenchable childhood desires to make things. It’s also, of course, in line with Barry’s own inability to stop drawing, and the methods she uses for instructing those who would follow in her footsteps. If you move your pen, even just in circles, you will enter the headspace of someone who makes things, and then a thing will form. Voila: you are a creator.

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The Greatest of Marlys Interior Art by Lynda Barry

Some weaker moments exist, mostly in digressions that stretch too long (enough about bugs already!), but it’s also nice to see Barry’s work reproduced on this scale, on large pages measuring 8.5 × 10 inches. Some pages feature a single drawing of Marlys, allowing the reader to stop focusing on the story and admire the lines Barry makes, in pure black and white, with rare filled-in areas and a nice variation of thicks and thins. It’s not so easy to stuff in your pocket, but it is a fine brick of evidence in favor of Barry’s status as one of the greats.

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The Greatest of Marlys Interior Art by Lynda Barry

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