Lynda Barry – Cartoonist, Novelist, and Filipina Redhead:
Reads The! Greatest! of! Marlys!

Review by Ariadne Unst.

Cartoonist and novelist Lynda Barry gives hilarious book readings.

First, she makes a great dramatic entry. At her reading in Santa Cruz, she enters tossing handful upon handful of Halloween candy into the applauding, cheering audience. In less than a minute, she empties a paper bag. She says, "Marlys told me, 'When you're nervous, throw candy.'"

Second, her cartoons are about the weird things that we and our friends did as little kids - funny, peculiar, and bitter-sweet. And the things our own kids do. We recognize ourselves.

But how does one read cartoons to a standing-room only audience? For all 200 cartoons in her new book, The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, it's easy. The text tells the story. About half of each cartoon strip's real estate is text. The cartoons themselves are more than icing on the cake - they retell the story and add more jokes and depth in the retelling.

She reads one of the first cartoon she published, written (like many of her cartoons) from the view point of 4th-grade Arna:

Home-Ec (© Lynda Barry 1987).

Mrs. Vorice was my first period teacher and her subject was the cooking part of Home Ec. On the first day she passed out these triangle scarves and told us nothing takes the joy out of a carefully prepared meal more than finding a big wad of hair in it. So please, wear your scarves.

Our first cooking project was: the tangy breakfast squares. The first step was mix instant Tang with 3 tlbs. of peanut butter, Quaker Oats, a raw egg, and some raisins. Some girls automatically started coughing from all the Tang powder floating in the air. It was worse than powder bubble bath.

Then, while your partner is pre-heating the oven and greasing the cookie sheet, you cut the crusts off some bread. My partner was Marlys who didn't listen when Mrs. Vorice said always check inside the over before you turn it on. It's mainly because of that our tangy breakfast squares mainly had the flavor of a burnt-up rubber eraser.

Just as important as the flavor is the presentation of the food. Mrs. Vorice said we must always strive to make our meals look attractively beautiful. But you know with tangy breakfast squares I just don't think there's any way.

[The last section of the cartoon shows the diary writer, Arna, saying, "I just don't think that cutting them up into the shape of the cross is really gonna help." Marlys, the optimist, says, "You watch. No one gives anything less than a B- to the shape of the cross."]

Arna is somewhat of a goodie-goodie. But soon it's clear that her school-mate and cousin Marlys is the brains and has the greatest talent for extending the envelope.

The reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz is standing-room only. When I first glimpse Ms. Barry, she looks JUST like her heroine, Marlys - the same round freckled face, big glasses, bulky red hair, and plumpness. Forget that Marlys is in the 4th grade and Lynda Barry was born in 1956. Ms. Barry may be a chronological grownup. But she has a 4th-grade heart.

Ms. Barry makes lots of off-the cuff remarks. She is so very fond of her main heroine, Marlys. "Once," she says, "I got really sad and teary. This was after a few beers. I had just realized that I never would be able to meet Marlys."

Ms. Barry's focus on the humor of family relationships comes, directly or indirectly, from her childhood in a Filipino family. She offered several nonchalant, conversational phrases in Tagalog.

Her Grandma is from Ilo Ilo in the Philippines; her mother grew up in Makati. They came to the states in the mid 50's. Some of her recent on-line cartoons in the 100 Demons series at show a Filipina grandma, telling part of the story of the aswang, the most dreaded of supernatural beings.

A little Filipino material appears in her cartoon book. My favorite is in Fine Dining. Arna describes her own and her brother's favorite meals. These are stomach churning. Then she writes (© Lynda Barry 1986):

At everyone's house their family ate at least one thing that was scary.

  Deena's: mustard and onion and relish sandwiches.

  The twins: Jelly on spaghetti.

  Our house: "dinou gouaan" (a.k.a. "midnight meat" and "blackout"). [Spelling Bee Marlys says, "You dork, that is spelled dinaguan."]

  Marlys: "Bagoung" (scary pink fish condiment that the smell would make you start running). [Spelling Bee Marlys says, "Dirt clod, that is spelled bagoong."]

  Walter's: Sardines and Coolwhip.

When she reads her cartoons, she mimics voices and body language. She introduces Marlys' teacher, Mrs. Brogan, who makes "a pointy face," to give an insincere and threatening smile. Ms. Barry makes her upper lip horizontal, and makes her lower lip "V" down into her chin. This displays a startling triangular mouth, the very image of the teacher's in the cartoon.

Borders of her cartoons are decorated and embellished, some a little, some a lot. Most cartoonists might decorate and embellish at the end. But not Ms. Barry! She says she doodles the ornate borders while trying to think of what to write in the cartoon. The longer she thinks, the more ornate the border.

She encourages everyone to write, if that's what they want to do. "Look," she says, "if someone offered you the ability to be able to time travel, would you say, 'I only want to do it if I can make a living at it?' "

All too soon it's over with the final cartoon, told from Arna's viewpoint:

Valentine (© Lynda Barry 2000).

She's in our room with glue and glitter, red-red paper and blue-handled scissors, shaping left ventricle and right, for someone, someone, who?

Marlys says, "Should I use silver glitter or red? you pick?" Arna says, "Silver." And Marlys says, "No, red."

Marlys folds and snips until she gets the heart just right, asks how to spell "anonymous" then she writes it out in glue. Glitter sparkles. Glitter falls. She taps the extra off. Some glitter falls on her sandwich but she eats it anyway.

Marlys says, "A mayonnaise and red glitter sandwich. Ever ate one? In France they are so popular."

My brother says nobody wants her home-made Valentine, a heart sent by anonymous is going in the trash. Marlys waves it so that the sparkles catch the light, says if her heart lands in the garbage, well it won't be there for long.

Marlys says, "If they throw it away, no big, it still counts. It still totally counts." Arna says, "Yeah, but who is it for?" And Marlys says, "You."

Great books by Lynda Barry:

Buy The! Greatest! of! Marlys! by Lynda Barry

The! Greatest! of! Marlys! by Lynda Barry. Endearing, hilarious, and touching, the life of goofy and creative pre-teen Marlys, with her sister, freaky brother, and cousins. The messy excitement of adolescence in the best (or Greatest!) of selected cartoons from 1986-2000,
Buy One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry. The latest!!!! A treat to see her art evolve in new voices, leading to this beautiful, all-color book of heart-breaking cartoon stories.
Buy Cruddy by Lynda Barry Cruddy by Lynda Barry. An illustrated novel that is engaging and harrowing. This is an extremely dark and weird and funny book.

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