BARNABY: The Greatest Comic Strip You’ve Never Read
Barnaby by Crockett Johnson
Fans of classic newspaper comic strips are in for a treat – Fantagraphics is finally reprinting Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby.
Never heard of it? You’re not alone.
Barnaby was never a hugely popular strip, even when it was first published – but it enjoyed a loyal following among those who did read it, including many of today’s most acclaimed cartoonists. In addition, creator Crockett Johnson is known to generations for the classic picture books he illustrated after Barnaby, including Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Carrot Seed. However, while there’s been some sporadic reprints of Barnaby over the years, including some strips preserved by the Smithsonian, there’s never been a comprehensive, chronological collection of the strip – until now.
With Barnaby by Crockett Johnson Vol.1 just released, we talked to editors Eric Reynolds and Philip Nel about bringing the strip back, why this was a passion project for them, and much more. In addition, we’ve got some sample strips of Barnaby to give you a taste of what awaits you in the full volume!
Newsarama:Eric, Phil – for those who aren't familiar with the strip, tell us about the premise of Barnaby and its characters.
Eric Reynolds: Barnaby Baxter is a precocious 5-year-old who has a Fairy Godfather, Mr. O'Malley. O'Malley is up there with Wimpy and Homer Simpson as one of the great characters of the 20th Century, in my opinion.
Barnabyhas a simple yet brilliant premise that allows Johnson a broad palette to create some of the most inventive and colorful characters of the 20th Century and spin some truly great stories that resonate on a number of levels. His humor was timely and timeless at the same time.
Philip Nel: The strip is part fantasy and part political satire. Only the children (and the occasional "special" adult) see Mr. O'Malley and friends -- who include Gus, a ghost afraid of his own shadow; Atlas, a "mental giant" who works everything out on his slide rule; and McSnoyd, an invisible leprechaun with a Brooklyn accent.
Barnaby's parents and other adults don't see "fairy world" characters, but they do see the effects of these characters (which they invariably attribute to something else).
So, we know that Barnaby's fairy godfather (and company) are real, but the adults don't. Part amiable windbag and part bumbling con-artist, O'Malley is a great character of possibility, allowing Johnson to satirize anything he likes.
During the course of the series, Barnaby's fairy godfather becomes Congressman O'Malley, filmmaker J. Darryl O'Malley, and the C.E.O. of O'Malley Enterprises. As Eric says, the humor is both "timely and timeless."
Nrama: Though it's not the best-known classic comic strip, Barnaby had many famous fans -- tell us about those, and its influence on Calvin & Hobbes in particular. I know that some would-be interviewers of Bill Watterson have tried bribing him with copies of the Barnaby collections from the 1940s.
Reynolds: You know, it's funny, I had heard that Bill Watterson was a big Barnaby fan but in the course of producing Vol. 1 I had the opportunity to talk to him about it and he actually had very little exposure to the strip, and any exposure he had came after Calvin was created. But Charles Schulz was a big fan, as was Jules Feiffer, who is writing the intro to Vol. 2.
I think Johnson's had even more influence on recent generations; Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Mark Newgarden and many others have cited what a tremendous influence it's been on their work. And in its prime, Barnaby had a lot of prominent celebrity fans, from W.C. Fields to Dorothy Parker.
Nel: Dorothy Parker -- whose glorious review we reprint in Vol. 1 -- said of the strip, "I think, and I'm 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."
As Eric says, Watterson wasn't a Barnaby fan. There's a definite affinity between his strip and Johnson's, but Watterson (as I recall) only encountered it in Bill Blackbeard's Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. He never read it closely.
Nrama: How did you first become familiar with the strip?
Nel: Before Dr. Seuss's World War II cartoons were collected in a book (Dr. Seuss Goes to War), the only place you could read them was in the left-leaning New York newspaper PM, on microfilm.
So, while a graduate student working on Dr. Seuss, I was scrolling through PM, and photocopying his cartoons. In April of 1942, near the end the day's paper, I came upon a comic strip starring a character who looked just like Harold (of Purple Crayon fame).
I started reading it each day, and was hooked. I'd been a fan of Harold and the Purple Crayon, but had no idea that Crockett Johnson had an earlier career as a cartoonist. That led to me collecting Johnson's work, starting a website devoted to him, and ultimately writing his biography.
Reynolds: I can't remember precisely where I first encountered it, but I bought my first collection in a used bookstore in Amsterdam, of all places, around 1997. It was my first sustained chunk of the stripand I was hooked. I soon found out my friend Dan Clowes was an avid fan and he quickly caught me up to speed on the publishing history up to that point and directed me to Phil's site, which at the time was virtually the only thing about Barnabyon the Internet.
Nrama: Though there have been a few sporadic Barnaby reprints over the decades, this is the first comprehensive year-by-year retrospective of the strip. Tell us some of what it took to get the reprint rights together and make this collection happen.
Nel: In my work on the biography, I'd been in touch with the estate, and I'd long wanted to see Barnaby reprinted. So, when Eric contacted me, we decided to team up as co-editors. My agent George Nicholson and I visited the executor of the estate, Stewart Edelstein, to discuss the details. Fantagraphics drew up a contract, and the rest (as they say) is history!
Reynolds: When I first became serious about publishing the strip, the first thing I did was contact Phil. He was my "in" with the estate. We had made one failed attempt at acquiring Barnaby prior to this. But we just couldn't get them to even hear us out. They're busy folks and didn't know us from Archie.
When I was named Associate Publisher in 2009 and given a bit more leeway in terms of publishing, I told Gary and Kim that my first order of editorial business was, "I'm going to get us Barnaby." I'm sure they thought, "Uh-huh, whatever." But I knew Phil was the icebreaker.
I also roped in Clowes and he was gracious enough to lend his stamp of approval to the series. I wrote up a formal pitch with some help from them and ultimately I honestly just think good sense and taste prevailed.
Nrama: For that matter, tell us a bit about the process of finding/restoring these original strips for the book, and how they'll be formatted for the reprint.
Nel: A lot of people think that for these comic-strip reprints there's a drawer full of original comic strips, well-preserved deep in a newspaper's archive -- and thus, all we have to do is go there and scan the originals. Nothing could be further from the truth. We rely on private collectors and special collections, and assemble a full run from multiple sources. It's a lot of work.
Reynolds: A lot of work and honestly more work than I anticipated. Much more. We've been spoiled with strips like Peanuts and Prince Valiantthat were so popular the syndicates kept really great proofs and files. BarnabyVol. 1 proved way more difficult than I anticipated. Vol. 2 has been easier, though, and I'm hoping that trend continues at least through Vol. 4.
Nrama: And tell us a bit about Crockett Johnson, whose work will be well known to many of our readers from when they were growing up, and just had that great bio of him and Ruth Krausscome out last fall.
Nel: Thanks for your kind words on the biography! Today, people remember Crockett Johnson as the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and its six sequels. In each book, Harold draws himself into and out of adventures, using only his wits and his purple crayon. The books are the most succinct expression of creative possibility ever published.
But, in addition to his children's books, Johnson actually had at least three other careers. He began in magazine layout and design in the 1920s, then in the 1930s and 1940s became a cartoonist -- notably for the Communist weekly New Masses (where he also served as art editor), Collier's, and of course PM (where Barnaby made its debut).
From 1952 to 1965, his main job was writing and illustrating children's books. For his final decade, he created over 100 abstract paintings based on mathematical theorems, and actually published two original mathematical theorems of his own. He was a very bright guy, and truly a renaissance man.
Reynolds: Virtually everything I know about CJ I know from Phil's book and my collection of his work. He comes across to me like a gentle giant. The two people I've spoken to who actually knew him — Jules Feiffer and Gene Deitch — both thought very, very highly of him, as a man and as an artist.
Nrama: What are some of the stories readers will see in this first collection?
Nel: The story of Gorgon, the talking dog; the mystery of the coffee smugglers (during World War II, coffee was rationed); the unlikely election of Mr. O'Malley to Congress; and Representative O'Malley's investigations into that notorious "red," Santa Claus.
Nrama: Why do you think the work will appeal to both kids and adults today?
Nel: The world of adults today is just as bewildering to children as it was in the 1940s. So, children should have no trouble identifying with Barnaby. The grown-ups will recognize today's world in these strips -- self-interested politicians, opportunistic businessmen, and all those unexplained events in any house shared with children.
Reynolds: Because Johnson was a brilliant fantasist, and an even better satirist, an artist who could write as well as draw.
Nrama: And tell us a bit about the unique qualities of Johnson's illustrative style.
Nel: Jeet Heer (who contributed an essay to Barnaby Volume One) gets it right when he places Johnson in "the American Clear Line school." Though popularized by Hergé (Tintin), the clear line style dates back to American cartoonist Gluyas Williams -- as Chris Ware points out in his foreword, Johnson must have read Williams.
The clear line style is succinct, neat, excising all needless detail. In the hands of a master (like Hergé or Johnson), images function as words, in a visual grammar that communicates so swiftly with our brains that we seem to be simply seeing the story rather than reading it.
Reynolds: One of the things that has surprised me with our first book is that I feel like I'm seeing Johnson's "line" in a new light. What few prior iterations of Barnabybooks there have been have not set a high bar on that front aside very the very first Henry Holt editions in the 1940s.
And even those were largely redrawn for those books, and so the newspaper strips have never been printer properly. There's a real subtle weight and soft touch to his line here that only adds to my longstanding love for his work.
Nrama: What does it mean to you, personally, to have Barnaby back in print?
Reynolds: Honestly, it means as much as any book I've ever put into print. I mean, this is what it's all about, Zack. You get into publishing because you like books and you want to publish books that you like.
And I couldn't publish a book that I personally like more than Barnaby. I've dreamed of this for years and now that I've held the first volume in my hands I can honestly say it exceeds my expectations, thanks to the wisdom and vision of my co-conspirators, Phil Nel and Daniel Clowes.
Nel: What Eric said. It's a dream project. Can't imagine a better team of co-conspirators or a better publisher to work with. Fantagraphics really cares about the look and feel of books. I've never been involved with a book as meticulously and beautifully designed as Barnaby Volume One has been.
Nrama: How are plans for future volumes coming along?
Reynolds: Excellent. Knock on wood but I think the first volume was the hardest and now we have our sea legs for the rest. We've located all the strips for Vol. 2 already and are on track to release it next spring, a bit less than a year after Vol. 1. Jules Feiffer is writing the intro to Vol. 2, and Phil Nel and R.C. Harvey are contributing essays.
Nel: This fall, I'll begin my essay and start writing the notes for Vol. 3 – for those who care about this sort of thing, I'm providing (at the back of each book) a guide to all allusions that may elude the contemporary reader. But you don't need to read the notes to enjoy the strip. They're just there for readers like me.
Nrama: Are there any other great-but-lesser-known comic strips you'd like to see get a comprehensive collection, and if so, can you tell us about them?
Reynolds: None that I've wanted to do as much as Barnaby. With Barnaby, all of my personal, all-time favorite strips have now received the proper treatment for the ages (and for what it's worth, that would include Peanuts, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley and Dick Tracy, amongst a few others).
Nel: Perhaps predictably, I'd like to reprint Johnson's earlier strip, "The Little Man with the Eyes" (it ran in Collier's from 1940 to 1943). Mark Newgarden and I hope to interest Fantagraphics in this as a post-Barnaby project...)
Nrama: Okay, hard-sell our readers on this collection as hard as you can.
Reynolds: It's one of the best comic strips and one the funniest, cleverest, most imaginative works of art of the 20th Century. Really.
Nel: In its combination of Johnson's sly wit and O'Malley's bluster, a child's feeling of wonder and an adult's wariness, highly literate jokes and a keen eye for the ridiculous, Barnaby expanded our sense of what comics can do. It's truly one of the greats, up there with Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite current comics/creators readers should check out?
Nel: Since Barnaby was a strip, I'll stick to strips. In my humble opinion, the greatest contemporary comic strips are Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac, Patrick McDonnell's Mutts, and G.B. Trudeau's Doonesbury.
Reynolds: That's a tough one to answer without pissing off three people for every person I mention. Sticking to the strip theme, I think Tony Millionaire is the best strip cartoonist out there these days, the last of a dying breed. Ben Katchor, too.
But the strip end represents a very limited spectrum of my interests as far as comics goes. My all-time non-strip favorites are guys like Crumb, Clowes, Burns, Woodring, the Hernandez brothers, Chester Brown, Deitch... those are my people.
Meet Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley in Barnaby by Crockett Johnson Vol.1, out now from Fantagraphics.