When Lynda Barry teaches people to write and draw — in her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops and in her books “What It Is” and “Picture This” — she tells them to think back to their earliest sense-memories. The best of her own comics about childhood center on the terror of being helpless in the world and trying to make sense of it.
“The Freddie Stories” is a collection of early-’90s sequences from Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” involving Freddie Mullen, a weird, sensitive fourth-grader. Freddie’s life is one catastrophe after another, and he acts out in ways that just make things worse for him. He’s accused of a fatal act of arson, he’s tormented by the teacher’s pet of his classroom, and eventually his mother stops talking to him. At one point, Freddie becomes so obsessed with portents of death that he’s convinced that he’s died: “And in the hospital the doctors brought a person back alive who was not me. And they called him by my name and he answered them. And I watched. And he did not know I existed.”
What keeps “The Freddie Stories” from being unbearably grim is Freddie’s irrepressible voice, a cartwheeling, goofy burble that delights in its own verve even in his darkest moments. His narrative captions take up half or more of each panel. That doesn’t leave much room for Barry’s gawky, off-center characters and chicken-scratch flourishes, but she packs those tiny spaces with dense imagery (occasionally rendered in the style of an enthusiastic 9-year-old). “ ‘I’m dreaming this I’m dreaming this,’ I whispered and some people looked my way,” Freddie tells us when he learns his abuser has died. “Cause of death not known until that night when the autopsy man found it. In the throat of Glenn a choker object. A peanut. Found a peanut. Found a peanut.” Beneath that wall of text, Barry scribbles poor Freddie in his bed with wavy scratches rippling over him, imagining monstrous eyes and claws at his bedroom window.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
THE FREDDIE STORIES
By Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly. $19.95