I discovered Barry Ween via Frumpy the Clown, but it took me literally years to getting around to reading his saga. What happened was I managed to acquire books 3 and 4 in the Barry Ween series, but never got around to finding books 1 and 2. This past weekend, I finally got around to reading the books I had, and then discovered this collection of the entire series. So, oddly enough, I read the whole series out of order. Strangely, it didn't have too much of an effect on the series as a whole; the first two books seem to be more funny-oriented, and the last two are a little more serious.
When it comes to the funny, the author does a great job of it. This isn't a surprise, since he honed those skills with Frumpy the Clown, a daily, syndicated strip he wrote for a few years. Here, though, he got a chance to mix it up for a more adult audience with some choice language and situations. The language is funny because of the characters -- they're supposed to be about 12, I'd guess -- but the situations are funnier. Barry is like an older Dexter (of Dexter's Laboratory, not the USA TV show), and his best friend, Jeremy, is a boy with serious ADHD and a generous lack of judgment. Typically, Barry creates some crazy contraption that can change the world, and then Jeremy messes it up somehow. Those antics are the heart of the stories, and they work well. Winick also has a deft skill for drawing expressions, and conveys a lot of emotion through that alone.
As for the serious, though, I can't really discuss that without giving you the obligatory
because the effect of his serious stories depends so much on how he ends the entire storyarc. The short of it is that Barry has a crush on a girl at his school named Sara, but he's never revealed his genius to her, because he feels like it would alter how she thinks about him. In the final two volumes, Sara is sucked into another dimension where she grows about 10 years in the 10 seconds where she's away from her home dimension. Over the course of the story, Barry gets involved with a battle that ultimately kills Sara. Of course, this devastates both Barry and Jeremy (Barry because of his crush; Jeremy because he feels as if he were to blame for her death), and when they return home, Barry manages to back in time just long enough to correct the mistake and save Sara. In the author's notes at the end of the volume, Winick talks about how he wanted to develop Barry's character and cement the relationship between his characters. In a way, I praise him for taking that initiative; in another, I think he failed miserably.
There are a number of reasons I dislike the way he ended the series, not least of which is his use of time travel to right the wrongs. The reader has been involved with a pretty intense storyline where some decisions were made that will have long-lasting effects on his main characters. Instead of taking the initiative to develop them in this way, he decides to erase all that's happened. I think Winick copped out at this point, and I think his readers suffer because of it.
Also, the more I think about it, the more I think Winick was misguided in how he developed Barry. Sure, he may have gone back in time to save Sara out of his feelings for her, but in the end, Barry winds up just being selfish. Granted, I don't think that anyone would choose otherwise if they were given a real-world situation where they could go back in time to save a loved one, but where Winick was hoping to make Barry more real, instead he made him more of a caricature. Plus, Sara and Jeremy's characters had gone through some heavy development of their own, and over the span of just a few pages, Winick erased that. In a way, Sara sacrificed herself to save Jeremy, which spoke volumes of how much her friendships meant to her, and though that was the end of her development, it didn't have to be the end of the story.
The way I see it, both Barry and Jeremy's characters could have gone through some serious development of their own, had Winick decided to leave Sara dead at the end of the story. After Sara's death, Jeremy suffered a lot of guilt, and Winick could have used that guilt to guide a lot of what Jeremy would do in the future. He could still be a wacky sidekick who creates a lot of trouble for Barry, but underneath that exterior could be a driving need to prove himself for Sara. In my mind, I see a scene where Jeremy drops that wacky exterior and gets serious with Barry, much like Delirium did with Dream in Brief Lives. But now that motivation is gone. It never existed.
With Barry, I could see him taking on the responsibility of finding Sara some other way. In that dimension, she was dead. That didn't mean she was dead in all dimensions. I think that Winick could have taken the story in a new direction afterward, where Barry's all-consuming drive to find Sara would be the main goal of the entire series. He could go through trial and error trying to find her, somehow, some way, in an effort to be with her again. I picture scenes where he finds a Sara, but not the one he hopes to find, or where he attempts to create her, only to find that she's a shell (most likely influenced by the Swamp Thing story "My Blue Heaven"), etc. I just felt like there was great potential there, and Winick opted to take the easy way out.
In the end, all this discussion is moot, since Winick doesn't seem to be pursuing Barry's story any more. But I can't help but get my gears going in that direction.
Of course, none of this is a way of saying that I don't recommend the series. As it is, I think the stories are above average, and would even go so far as to say that the entire storyarc is really good. I just think it could have been great, given a little more attention and time.