By Alan Bisbort
2:05 PM EST, February 20, 2013
The Freddie Stories
By Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly), 177 pages, $19.95.
The arrival of any new collection of Lynda Barry's cartoons is cause for celebration. Barry, a cartoonist, painter and teacher, is best known for her syndicated comic strip "Ernie Pook's Comeek," a staple of alternative newspapers since the 1980s. Over the past decade, Barry has developed into something more than this. In brilliant books like What It Is and Picture This, she is more like a philosopher of the human imagination and a healer of the psychologically damaged than a comic-strip artist. Mostly, though, she is funny in the best way — you don't feel empty after you've laughed as you do with some cartoonists who mine similarly twisted veins.
The newest collection of Barry's work, however, is not particularly funny, nor is it intended to be. The Freddie Stories (Drawn & Quarterly) is a Diary of a Wimpy Kid for adults, or a Diary of a Wimpy Kid as channeled through David Lynch with a soundtrack by Daniel Johnston. The main character is Freddie Mullen, a Linus figure who has stumbled onto adolescence after a childhood of psychological and physical abuse. He has grown up to be a saintly, gentle soul, despite being mercilessly picked on by everyone from his mother to his cousin to his schoolmates and various assorted sadistic bullies. According to his sister Marlys — one of Barry's winningest characters from Ernie Pook's Comeek — Freddie has "certain mental disorders known as emotional problems."
These started out as an inability to sit still, developed into weird conversational tics and, ultimately, into visitations by invisible specters in the night. Needless to add, Freddie's eccentricities make him an easy target for other children. The bullies who torment Freddie are far worse than normal bullies, they are budding sociopaths. One even burns down a house, killing an old woman, and then tries to lay the blame on Freddie, who is briefly apprehended and held as the suspected arsonist. But the adults in the stories are the most hideous creatures, especially Freddie's mother, a chain-smoking hysteric who can't speak without snorting or threatening.
Though the earliest entries in The Freddie Stories — which chronicles a year in the life of Freddie — have some reliably wacky Barry moments, they turn into something else, a meditation on the cruelties inflicted on sensitive adolescents and about mental illness itself. As Freddie's inner torments worsen, Barry's drawings become more like scribbles or Rorshach test images. The monsters who visit Freddie in the night when he is trying to sleep, for example, are conflated in his head with the school bully who uses him in a game called "Basement Prisoner" (it's exactly like it sounds).
While The Freddie Stories captures the fears and fantasies of coming of age, the book pushes the boundaries on what a normal reader can take (Barry's fans will not flinch; they're used to it). The volume is ultimately rescued by the final 30 pages, which are strips that have never been printed before and which Barry calls the "Lost Stories." Here, one finds the gentle, radiant spirit that saves Freddie in the end. This is vintage Barry, so funny that the reader just falls in love with Freddie and, like his sister Marlys, wants to shield him from all the cruelty that people so afflicted seem to attract like magnets.
A typical Freddie question is "Do you ever wonder why when you go 'What's the animal you would vote to turn into' nobody says 'an anteater'?" and a typical statement is "If you see the monitor lizard blowing the mind of the vulpine possum, throw your shoe at it."
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