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Graphic Stories

Though Lynda Barry is one of the country‘s top comic-strip artists, her second novel, Cruddy, a work of serious fiction, has been met with some skepticism; the literary world appears to have little interest in a person whose primary mission is drawing pictures and writing dialogue in word balloons for little made-up characters published in the back pages of a fish wrap. But Barry is one of the most amusing, character-driven comic artists in America, and Cruddy is a brilliant illustrated novel that deserves attention and praise.

A wild, picaresque story, Cruddy follows a teenage girl named Roberta, who tells the reader on Page 1 in a suicide note, ”If you are holding this book right now it means everything came out just the way I wanted it to.“ The story jumps between scenes with her father, an ex-butcher who treats her like a boy (he calls her Clyde), a superaggressive, cigarette-obsessed weirdo-girl named Vicki Talluso who thinks everything anyone says is a lie, and the Turtle, an articulate freak who calls Roberta ”Hillbilly Woman“ and never seems to be without his customized psychedelic drug called ”Creeper.“ Roberta’s father is the type of fellow who likes to get drunk, smoke, cuss, run people over in his car, set things on fire and kill. He‘s deeply bitter that his father sold the family butcher business and left him with zilch. He broods like a wounded animal, and yammers on like a dangerous comic criminal to his daughter, whom he occasionally knocks around. Cruddy definitely has its share of bleak goings-on, but reader beware, this book is seriously funny.

Barry’s sense of humor is relentless and blunt, and incorporates violence as elegantly as a Cormac McCarthy Western. Barry has a great eye for detail; her sentences are strong and clear, fun to read. As fucked-up as everything is in Roberta‘s life, Barry treats every wacko episode coolly and with great intimacy. The reader is her essential confidant. Cruddy is full of remarkable vignettes about being too high on drugs, spacing out on trains, bizarro people with faces like beef jerky, flies, body parts, fires, loneliness and the Navy. When Roberta wanders into a Laundromat and tells the psychotic lady proprietor that she spelled dyeing wrong on a sign, the response is guttural: ”Cram it up your ass.“

Cruddy is packed with Barry’s dark, gloomy drawings, which often seem like images glimpsed through a keyhole. They are equal parts spontaneous, gothic and raw -- not a single belabored picture. Without the constraints of tight little comic-strip boxes, Barry is able to broaden her loose signature style (she draws the best monkeys in the world) into something more detailed and cinematic, like film stills from a bleak crime drama. A curlicuey oval frame within the rectangular book page surrounds every illustration. At 305 pages, Cruddy is one of the cheerful morbid gems of 1999.

Ethel & Ernest is a sweet, heartfelt -- though ultimately not so engaging -- 104-page graphic book about the real parents of Raymond Briggs, a noted children‘s-book writer from England. The story begins in 1928, when his parents were young pups, and ends in 1971, when the father dies. One can’t help but make comparisons to Maus, the cartoon novella written 13 years ago by Art Spiegelman, who told the story of his father‘s survival in Auschwitz. While few comix will ever stand up to the power and articulation of what Spiegelman created, every human life story is profoundly worth telling -- which is one reason why E & E is so disappointing. Briggs renders his characters’ lives way too simplistically, his drawing style isn‘t especially fetching, and his dialogue is stiff. There are consistent forced attempts at naturalness, and there’s a lack of subtlety and invention.

Accustomed to writing for kids, Briggs can‘t seem to transform his material for a more sophisticated audience. His approach remains milquetoast safe, making the writing sound generic and one-dimensional -- at best, it’s painfully polite, quaint. When his parents prepare for a German invasion and try on gas masks, a moment that features some of his best drawings, they hear about an IRA bombing in London. Here, he attempts to show his parents‘ shortsightedness:

Ethel: Oh, those Irish! They’re like the blessed Arabs and Jews -- always at it.

Ernest: Yes, and don‘t forget the Serbs and Croats. They’re just as bad. Then there‘s the Hindus and Moslems.

Ethel: Why can’t they all just be like us and live in peace?

Yeah, and why do these characters have to sound like mannequins in a sitcom? It‘s not their politics that are especially disturbing, it’s the lazy dialogue, which reads like shorthand for real conversation.

Ethel & Ernest is a noble effort; documenting his parents‘ lives is a constructive act. It is a piece of social history, though not an especially original or articulate one -- if it were published 25 years ago, maybe. But in the wake of so much lively, innovative work in the graphic-novel form published during that time, this book comes off as woefully conservative and predictable.

Benjamin Weissman’s story ”Marnie“ appeared in our Summer Fiction Issue. He is the author of a collection of short fiction, Dear Dead Person.


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