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BARNABY

BARNABY: VOLUME ONE 1942-1943
By Crockett Johnson
With prefatory essays by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer
Afterword and appendix by Philip Nel
320 7x10.5-inch landscape pages
b/w
hardcover
$35
Fantagraphics

Barnaby and O'Malley lift artCrockett Johnson's Barnaby, like Krazy Kat, appealed to a smaller audience than most comic strips.  Comics historian Ron Goulart says it appeared in only 52 newspapers in the U.S. But the strip's readers were an appreciative elite. Barnaby hove into public view a scant two years before the demise of the intelligentsia's first love, Krazy Kat. Beginning April 20, 1942, the strip lasted only into the early fifties, ending February 2, 1952.  By that time, both Pogo and Peanuts were on the scene. 

But Barnaby's brief decade was brilliant. Among its passionate fans was Dorothy Parker who wrote a mash note about the strip when she reviewed a Holt book of reprints in October 1943:  "I think, and I am trying to talk calmly, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American arts and letters in Lord knows how many years." She admitted that her review was not a review: it was a valentine, she said.

Barnaby Volume One coverThis volume, the first in Fantagraphics’ planned complete reprinting of the strip, is another kind of valentine. Presenting only two strips per page, the book gives generous display to Johnson’s art of elegant simplicity. Every strip is dated, and the endpapers reproduce original art with paste-overs and white-outs clearly visible. Ware and Heer offer heartfelt appreciations of Johnson’s genius, and Nel, Johnson’s biographer, provides an appendix that explains topical references in the strip — plus an Afterword about the “invention of Barnaby,” which offers, in addition, a short biography of Johnson and a discussion of his working methods.

Johnson's title character was a bright (but not precocious) and level-headed preschooler. But it was Barnaby Baxter's co-star who stole the show — and captured the hearts as well as the minds of America's intellectuals. The real star of the strip was Mr. O'Malley, an Irish pixie purporting to be Barnaby's fairy godfather. 

O'Malley shows up on the second day of the strip. Barnaby has just gone to bed, visions of wish-fulfilling fairy godmothers dancing in his head thanks to the bedtime story his mother has just read to him. Suddenly, through his bedroom window flies a diminutive (his height is later established at two feet, eleven inches) round man with a bulbous nose and pink wings, who makes a crash landing at the foot of the boy's bed.

"Cushlamochree!" exclaims this personage (using the epithet he will make famous with regular use over the next ten years). "Broke my magic wand," he continues, staring at a bent cigar in his hand. "You wished for a godparent who could grant wishes?" he goes on. "Lucky boy!  Your wish is granted!  I'm your fairy godfather."

"Let me be the first to offer congratulations," he continues the next day. "Yes, m'boy, your troubles are over.  O'Malley is on the job."

"Gosh!" says Barnaby (as he will repeatedly for the next ten years).

Barnaby's parents fail to believe their son's report that he now has a fairy godfather.  We, however, are persuaded by the evidence that Barnaby finds after his mother and father depart — cigar ashes at the foot of his bed — as well as by the testimony of our eyesight. We’ve seen O’Malley, after all.

The episode introduces one of the leitmotifs of the strip, the chorus of adult disbelief about O'Malley's existence.  Barnaby's parents never see O'Malley and therefore never believe in him, despite repeated evidences (albeit not his actual physical appearance) that bear witness to his being.

Barnaby1

Barnaby3

Much of the humor in the strip is sophisticated irony, depending upon our recognizing things about O'Malley that Barnaby may see but never admits — namely, that the pixie is an authentic con-man, a grasping and self-centered social parasite, and a raving egomaniac.  He's a trouble-maker.

The fantasy world created by a pint-sized confidence man and an imaginative preschooler turns out to be quite real.  Or real enough — real enough for Barnaby to have the adventures with Mr. O’Malley that we see transpire before us on the funnies page. It is a world the adults around them can never comprehend:  adults are too realistic, too skeptical, to accept the world of the imagination. Thus, Barnaby is in part a kind of Peter Pan parable, testifying to the eternal appeal of the imaginary world of the young. The strip thereby affirms the power of the imagination — and its truth, the truth of faith. The power of the imagination is creative: what we believe in becomes fact — or acquires the force of fact — and thereby shapes our lives.

But Johnson did not at the first see his theme as clearly as it would eventually emerge in the strip. At first, he was feeling his way. And at the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com) in Harv’s Hindsight for May 2014, we explore how he found his way to a deeper understanding of the relationship between imagination and reality and the truth of faith.

Fantagraphics has now published Volume 2 in the Barnaby enterprise, so you can continue to witness O’Malley’s world. Oh — FOOTNIT: In his Afterword in the Fantagraphics reprint, Nel offers Johnson’s explanation that “cushlamochree” means “pulse of my heart” in the Irish vernacular.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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