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You don't get it? Relax

(ran TP edition)

Before you hastily turn the page, let us explain.

These four panels are not the scribblings of somebody's kid brother.

They are the work of Lynda Barry, a cartoonist and righteous babe whose work appears in about 50 papers nationwide, including the Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly.

For fans, there's no need to explain the dark sense of humor that informs Ernie Pook's Comeek, which follows the adventures of Marlys, Maybonne and Freddie, three kids living the not-so-high life somewhere in 1970s America. Barry meditates on the ordinary details of their everyday existence, from how her characters make friends with neighborhood dogs to how they avoid the wrath of mean adults who yell for no good reason.

But for new readers, Barry herself offers this caveat: "Don't freak out. If you don't get the joke at the end, there isn't one _ think of it as a really, really short story."

Barry, 40, has been creating her version of the short story ever since her college pal Matt Groening (of Simpsons fame) published her work in the school paper at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. In the 19 years since, Barry has illustrated nine books, written a play, The Good Times are Killing Me, and been a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

She still looks to her own childhood for inspiration and authenticity, from remembering the fun of shining a flashlight up your nose to the comfort of having an imaginary friend.

"When I was a kid, I wanted an imaginary friend and I was so jealous of kids who had them, so I decided to pretend that I had one," she says, laughing.

So here's to our new imaginary friends: Marlys, Maybonne, and Freddie.

Just remember: Don't freak out.

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