Once, long long ago, Judd Winick was viewed as one of the up-and-coming young talents in the independent comics field. His first major success, the autobiographical comic ‘Pedro and Me’, was seen as touching and funny and heartwarming all at the same time, and the art was charmingly cartoonish. He followed it up with an excellent syndicated strip, ‘Frumpy the Clown’, which he thankfully wound up before it became lazy. And then, before being hired to an exclusive deal with DC that eventually left him consigned to the hell of writing the event comics that Dan DiDio needed written to move his grand vision of the DC universe forward and to hell with character and plot log (a period of his career we won’t dwell on for the purposes of being relentlessly positive in these columns)…he wrote ‘Barry Ween, Boy Genius’.
The premise is not, on the face it it, particularly original; it’s about a pre-teen boy (the titular Barry) who actually is super-intelligent and has a secret laboratory in his room, where he invents super-science stuff and hangs with his best friend Jeremy (who is not a genius, but is in on his secret.) ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, to pick a predecessor at random, has essentially the same premise. But where ‘Ween’ differs is in its treatment of the idea. Winick said that one of the reasons he quit doing ‘Frumpy’ was that he felt that he had to tone down his ideas to the mainstream sensibility of the funny pages, and he definitely shows that in ‘Barry Ween’. This is really a series that could only be done in the medium of independent comics, because it’s the product of a single artistic voice with no intention of pulling punches to get onto Cartoon Network.
‘Barry Ween’ takes as central to its premise the idea that geniuses in real life are rarely what you’d call well-balanced, sociable individuals. They are all too frequently prone to problems fitting in with the rest of society, and that’s before you factor in the fact that as a ten-year old, Barry is even more out of step with his peers intellectually than even an adult John Nash. Barry is a cranky, irritable, impatient misanthrope, trying to force himself to fit into the world not to preserve his secret (it’s suggested at one point that he could easily invent a robot to attend school for him) but to keep himself from sliding off the deep end into madness. His friends and family are there to ground him and humanize him, something he knows he badly needs.
And yet, that never gets in the way of utter hilarity. A cranky, irritable misanthrope with awesome technology that makes him a modern-day wizard, hanging out with a normal ten-year old who’s kind of clumsy and doesn’t understand a thing his friend is doing or saying, is a recipe for comedy gold. Winick has a gift for using profanity as a sort of perverse, mellifluous poetry, giving his characters lines like, “Color me nine different shades of not giving a fuck!” and “Now you, my friend, will see how we kick ass in the suburbs.” The scenarios he depict unfold with the slow, gathering momentum of a freight train on a steep slope with bad brakes; what starts with Jeremy fiddling with some purple goop winds up with Barry having to erase someone’s memory because he’s collecting hair samples from the swimming pool to clone a new body for someone rapidly turning into a dinosaur. Time travel, dimensional portals, centaurs, super-intelligent gorillas from another universe, ebola-infected monkeys…pretty much every plotline sounds like it could be serious, and the series flirts with it at times, but all of them will leave you laughing. (Um, unless you’re easily offended by profanity. In that case, this is not the book for you.)
And all of this is illustrated by Winick as well. He’s not a realist; he’s never going to be confused with Frank Miller or John Byrne. But as a cartoonist, Winick is gold. His faces are hilariously impressive, and his art has a sort of claymation quality to it that suggests a world just slightly off-kilter from reality. It’s the perfect art for this story…or, perhaps, Winick came up with a story idea that perfectly suits his artistic sensibilities. Either way, it looks great.
A lot of people are frustrated by the substandard work Winick has turned out in his time at DC; for myself, I think his only real crime is being the hired gun who’s been asked to execute a lot of bad ideas. But I’ll admit, I’d still like him to leave DC. Not so much to see him avoid another ‘Titans East Special’, although that’d be a plus…I want to see him do some more ‘Barry Ween’ comics.