“The Fastest Runner Who’s Not Allowed to Win” by Judd Winick
Like a ton of people, my first exposure to Judd Winick was on the third season of MTV’s The Real World show. Can still remember how cool it was to see a real cartoonist being featured on a real TV show (I was fourteen, it felt pretty damn real to me) and because of that, he was always one of my favorite “characters” during that season. And to some that’ll always be his particular claim to fame, but you know what, Judd’s written some truly great comics in the years since on titles like Exiles, Batman, Blood + Water, and Caper, during stints at both Marvel and DC.
The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius is his true masterpiece though, and I wish comics could have more of it someday soon. Until then, we’ll just have to make do with what we do have—a wonderful twelve issue run of comics filled with irreverence, heart, and the emotional longing that comes from feeling different from everyone else around you. What begins as the (relatively) light-hearted adventures of a ten year old foul-mouthed inventor/genius slowly morphs into a heartfelt treatise on the power of friendship, and the inexorable weight of great responsibility. Nowhere is this more clear or compelling than in the final issue of the Monkey Tales mini, which we’re going to talk about today as another of my all-time favorites.
The issue begins with a sparsely illustrated page of a panicked Barry sprinting through an open field as the camera slowly pans around him, with the following narration—
“Even when you have all the answers. It won’t give you peace. And the greatest fear I have, and I have many…Is not in the solutions that evade me. It’s in the answers I have…That I’m too slow to execute. It’s when I “could have”…But I didn’t soon enough.”
Flashback twelve hours prior to Barry and his friends Jeremy and Sara trapped in the middle of a looming confrontation between two barbarian tribes, fighting over the fate of a giant ape with psychic powers. A giant ape who’s lured Barry and company into a strange dimension where Sara, the girl he has a massive crush on, has been aged ten years, and is now doing her best Xena impression. Oh yeah, and Ween is cut off from the majority of his famous inventions, forced to put together a battle plan with the scraps and raw materials of this backwards, prehistoric dimension they’re all stranded in. Not a huge surprise then, that once the massive battle is joined, all of Barry’s worst nightmares start coming true…
Sara dies violently while saving Jeremy’s life, and the young boy is clearly traumatized because of it. Even more so once he realizes that Barry’s usual bag of tricks can’t save her life and that her death is “all his fault.” Barry can’t do anything but promise revenge on the person (ape, really) responsible and take his devastated friend home. That’s when he has an idea and embarks on a desperate time travel gambit that could potentially end his own life. And even though it ultimately succeeds in a matter of panels, nothing can erase the memories of his greatest failure, and even a mind like his can only endure so much.
The one word that really sums up this final (for now, hopefully) chapter of The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius is culmination. It’s hard to separate out all the great little scenes, exchanges, and developments that really set the table for this particular issue, but the conclusion here serves up that perfect little moment of heartbreak, which sneaks up on you and punches you in the gut like five times. Then you realize the characters were always headed for something like this, and Winick somehow made it work without losing or compromising the overall tone and feel of the book.
It just all means so much more now, and though we’ve seen a lot from Barry Ween at this point, we’ve never gotten the angry, crumbled form of him that can do nothing but drop to the floor and sob uncontrollably after realizing just how close he came to destroying his friends. One of the most powerful endings to a comic that I’ve ever read, and hope Winick returns to the character one day to show us what happens next. Everybody says that “things will never be the same again,” but this is one of those stories where you’re confident that will actually mean something.
Great, great issue, and really offers a clinic on how to properly end a story…
Previous Anatomy Lessons-
Brandon Thomas writes comics and writes about comics. He’s written stories for Dynamite, Marvel, DC, and Arcade Comics, and co-created The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury, with artist Lee Ferguson, which is available right now from Archaia in OGN format. His personal blog is The Fiction House, and his Twitter handle is @mirandamercury.
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