Philip Sterwerf: The Freddie Stories by Lynda Barry

Lynda Berry’s The Freddie Stories

The Freddie Stories is a collection of four-panel stories involving the mentally-scarred little boy character named Freddie, and the countless and continuous predicaments he winds up in. Many themes are explored with this simplistic design of storytelling, such as trauma, parental neglect, race relations, and basically, tragedy altogether. It is truly amazing how these elements can be explored through the basic ‘doot-doot-doot-doot’ comic storytelling.

While the art seems crude and amateur, Lynda Berry uses her style to give the piece as a whole a more child-like approach. This aspect makes the brutal situations such as the house burning down, and Freddie’s skeletal hallucinations, more traumatic in atmosphere. It is an unspoken rule in storytelling, that in order to make something seem more dramatic, add a child. Since the main character is a child, it works very well, pulling on the readers’ emotions.

Of course, art like this, with dramatic scenes and traumatic characters, needs some comedy to lighten up the tone. No reader really wants to be thrown in the depth of Hell and be burned forever. Berry seems to know this, and deals with the grotesque and dark with dark humor, like Mr. File’s nose spray. This gives the readers a break from the dramatic tension, and it doesn’t drop the overbearing tone. There are sad moments, and funny sad moments.

As a fan of Will Eisner and Dave Gibbons/Alan Moore, I have to say my instinctual feeling from reading a graphic novel is thwarted. Usually, graphic novels give an equal balance in written words, and drawn emotions/explanations in order to make a great reading experience that uses both parts of the brain. I did not get this feeling from The Freddie Stories. I enjoyed the writing, and I enjoyed the art, but where it fell short was how dependent the drawings were to the words. It seems Berry is more of a writer than an artist, which I understand completely, but the art needs to have more of an effect on the words in order for me to absorb it the way where it completely absorbs me. This idea is mainly the difference between illustrated books and graphic novels.

To contradict myself, there is a fantastic example of what I mean on pages, 50-51 in the four panels titled, “Overheard.” In panel three, it shows Glenn the Spaceman by himself, and panel four shows Freddie surrounded by a large, darkened crowd of other kids. The disconnect between panel three and panel four work well with the comparison of Glenn being alone and Freddie being surrounded to bring out more emotion to the words; “ ‘I’m not his friend,’ I said, ‘I just know him.” It was true. But if I had known he was standing right there, I never would have said it” (51). The book had moments like this, but since every four panels are supposed to hold a single point of the story, I think there should’ve been more visual-written mastering. Many comic writers use the space between panels to execute the emotional hold of a story.

Philip Sterwerf: Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green

Justin Green dives deep into an extreme case of ‘Catholic Guilt’ in his glorious comic, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. As a former Catholic, I related to the coming-of-age, losing-of-faith story all too closely. Like most brilliant graphic novels, it is hard to imagine any other way to perfectly portray Binky’s story and psyche other than the classic comic book form. There’s magic between the words and images in these panels.

Published in a way to show every beautiful first-draft flaw, Green’s underground style shines an all-too-true light on confused Catholic adolescence. The reader follows Binky Brown, a half-Jewish boy learn Catholicism’s confusing ideologies while falling into the confusion of puberty. Hilariously, Binky’s sexual desires mix with his obsession with the church. In the heat of these two mentalities playing tug-of-war, Binky goes from a private Catholic school to a Public school full of Jewish kids. It is both cringe-worthy and enjoyable to watch someone following a similar path I’ve treaded before.

On page 27, Green depicts Binky having an orgasm because his crotch is rubbing against a Rosary in his pocket while riding a bike. The final panel on this page depicts this occurrence in a super surreal and cartoonish way, as opposed to the drawings from the start of the book. There is no way this scene can be as effective in any other format, the way I feel the emotional and strange sensations I get while laughing at this panel. Reading this comic not only reminded me of my upbringing and growing into myself, but it also reinforced my belief in graphic novel storytelling connecting to a reader in a way no other art form can.

The art and writing of the book is fantastic, as well as the way it is presented. The story is about a raw situation, which deserves to be shown with the whited-out, stained paged glory. It is interesting to see such a surreal imagining of sexual guilt and misunderstanding, as Binky’s body keeps sprouting penises from every phallic body part. The art is trippy when it needs to be trippy and realistic when the story calls for it.

One thing I’d like to see is the missing time between Binky’s loss of faith and his victory in adulthood. I felt like the story was rushed in that sense, but at the same time, I find a new reading of the story if I dive deep for a meaning in this skipping of time. In a sense, Binky’s lack of story from age 14-30, is similar to Jesus’ lack of story from age 12-30. If Green did this intentionally, it is brilliant. If he didn’t, who cares, it is still brilliant with this odd comparison.

Finally, this story has one of the most triumphant endings I’ve ever experienced in any medium of storytelling. Binky buying the Mary statues, setting them around him while nude, and smashing them with his ‘penis rays’ is such a wonderful finale that I could only compare to the triumph of Billy Bibbit losing his virginity from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Seeing someone smash through their mental cages is so fascinating to me as a reader. Justin Green gives me an ending like that, but with a blasphemous image that will not leave my mind any time soon.

Philip Sterwerf

I’m probably not alone when I say that the cartoons I watched as a kid inspired some kind of obsession I have now as an adult. In the 1990s, comic books were accurately portrayed in cartoons. Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, and Spider-Man were the first things that brought me into the realm of wondering how these creatures of modern-day mythology came to be. One day, some people down the street had a yard sale, and the very first comic book I’ve ever owned was in my hands.

As I aged, there has been a constant force in the literary world I feel has been overlooked. The Captain Underpants Series by Dav Pilkey, has inspired me more than anything ever has in my life. I discovered this series about two kids creating their own comics, and suddenly I started to do the same. Their adventures were always based in Piqua, Ohio, and I wondered why. Then I discovered Dav Pilkey used to be an Ohio boy like me, getting in trouble and making his own comics, and now he does it for a living as an adult. From that discovery, I realized that I wanted to do the same thing. I still want to write and create every day until I die.

Besides finding my life goal in the humorous children books, I also expanded my admiration for storytelling through a combination of images and words. I used my library card weekly, reading every comic book that caught my interest. I also started buying and collecting my own. Of course, I was still hooked on superhero narratives, because that is the first thing people think of when the word comic comes up.

But in high school, I discovered other comic books, starting with the black-and-white hormone-driven Frank Miller classic; Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. The art was wonderfully original and broke the mold everyone is so used to seeing. The characters followed in the story weren’t generally good guys, either. This shift of taste also pushed me in the wonderful universes created by the genius named Alan Moore. I noticed, the more I read these masterpieces literary people overlook, the better my own personal writing became. I entered college and discovered the amazing talent of Will Eisner from reading a collection of The Spirit stories, as well as his masterpiece, A Contract with God. The latter is a major inspiration to my thesis, Skyscraper.

I truly feel that graphic novels are an art form that ignites a unique reading experience to whoever holds one. It is read with words and pictures to create whatever world the writer wants the reader to be in. I’ve been in love with the form for ages now, and I feel that the medium keeps picking up more respect and admiration from unlikely audiences. No matter how old, graphic novels can appeal to everybody. I never understood people who thought comics were just for kids. If only they would experience the same stories I have.