Lynda Barry’s landmark comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek appeared in 70 papers nationwide (including this one) during its nearly three-decade run, which started sometime in the late 70s and ended in 2008. The most beloved character to emerge from that title was spunky Marlys Mullen, a freckled, bespectacled eight-year-old with pigtails pointing in opposite directions. Loosely based on Barry‘s own childhood years, Marlys lives in a trailer park with her teenage sister Maybonne, her younger brother Freddie, and her cousins Arna and Arnold.
The Greatest of Marlys, originally released in 2000 and reissued this week by Drawn & Quarterly, collects 226 of the four-panel strips. Subjects addressed in the book include substitute teachers, science fair projects, family vacations, Arna and Marlys’s worst haircuts (performed by Marlys’s mom with dog clippers), an inventory of teenage Maybonne’s cool bedroom, and “the night we all got sick.” Barry has a knack for capturing the universal experiences of childhood (or at least midwestern childhood in the 70s) and communicating the kids’ personalities with perfectly drawn details. One series of three strips describes what the kids ordered from the Sears catalog: Arna, a shy bookworm, chose a baby doll that could cry; Marlys selected “molded rubber glamour wigs,” which turned out to look like “a bathing cap with a bad infection” and were ultimately used for dressing up as monsters; Arnold, the oldest and a frequent troublemaker, purchased plastic army men and then set them on fire.
The point of view shifts among the kids, but Marlys is frequently the star of the show. An enthusiastic oddball, she gets all A’s but doesn’t get invited to birthday parties. On the first warm day of the year, she climbs out her bedroom window onto the roof and sings “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” while doing “the butt dance in her pajamas.” When a car honks at her, she sticks her arm in the air and shouts “Black power!” (It’s her grandma.) “Marlys’ Guide to Queers” is a gut punch, an outline of how poorly her uncle John and his partner Bill are treated, and how she thinks they should be: “If you know other queers tell them ‘Marlys says hi.’ Say ‘Right on from Marlys.’ ”
In Marlys’s world, there’s drama everywhere, and beauty in unexpected moments, like the last kickball game on the night before school starts, the one “even the teenagers who could drive” played in—everybody ignored their moms’ calls to come home, and Arna kicked the last ball of the game right as the streetlights came on. Barry thanks Marlys in this collection’s afterword for being “the imaginary friend I never had.” Since concluding the strip she has written best-selling illustrated novels, memoirs, and how-to books on writing and drawing, and The Greatest of Marlys shows some of the earliest iterations of the weird, warm, boundless energy that has characterized her career. It also helps preserve a character who was considered by millions of readers (and hopefully now by millions more) a great friend. v