Monday, March 24, 2008

Barnaby (comic strip)

Words and art by Crockett Johnson Barnaby Home Page

Barnaby to my mind is one of the top five comic strips ever written. While the others -- Krazy Kat, Pogo, Doonesbury, and Calvin and Hobbes are still well known (or known with just a little bit of digging into comic history), Barnaby is pretty much unknown except to a few. It ran for only a short time in the 1940s and collections are hard to find.

The title character is a boy of about five or so who one day wishes he had a fairy godmother. What he got instead was a fairy godfather -- J. J. O'Malley, a man about his height with pink wings and a cigar as a magic wand. Equipped with The Fairy Godfather's Handy Pocket Guide, he tries to help Barnaby out. To Barnaby Mr. O'Malley is a wonder, but the reader noticed quite soon that he hilariously overstates his talents, usually creating more problems than he solves in the rare cases when his magic actually works. O'Malley is a charming braggart and blowhard, who's all too willing to help Barnaby out -- to disastrous results -- when he isn't spending his days at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes & Little Men's Chowder and Marching Society. Some have compared to him to W.C. Fields (Fields didn't think so, though he liked the strip enough to write a blurb for one of its collections).

O'Malley leads Barnaby into various adventures, often by taking what Barnaby wants and then mistaking things to a hilarious level. In the meantime, Barnaby meets a wonderful gallery of fantasy characters. Gus the Ghost, who's afraid of everything; McSnoyd, the sarcastic invisible leprechaun; Gorgon the talking dog; Atlas, the mental giant; and many others. Barnaby is joined by Jane, a girl his age is who a bit more skeptical of O'Malley's talents. Barnaby's parents, meanwhile, keep trying to get to forget about his imaginary fairy godfather (they always miss meeting O'Malley in the flesh -- and he them).

The strip had some features that made it different:

  • Simple drawing style. In a time when things were always cross-hatched and filled in, the drawings were usually outlines, with splashes of pure black for depth. In style, it anticipated things like Dilbert.
  • Typeset word balloons. The balloons were also rounded off squares. Johnson did this because the strips had lots of dialog, and this let him fit more on a page.
  • Humor that built up over the course of an adventure. The strips were funny on their own, but they were all part of longer stories, and the more you read, the funnier they became. Johnson threw in plot twists and outrageous events that fit in perfectly; he was one of the best continuity plotters in comic strip history.
  • Implied humor. Many of the jokes come not from what was said, but what was not said. For instance, O'Malley saying, "I don't boast about it, m'boy, but I've had a hand in more treaties and confabs than you can shake a stick at -- Versailles, Geneva, Munich -- " (all in one word balloon). Once you realize that even then, those conferences were considered failures, you get an idea of the style.

Johnson (real name: David Johnson Leisk) only worked on Barnaby from 1942 to 1946. It was a critical success, and did well enough to be marginally successful (only 55 papers), but he had other things on his mind. He left the strip to a couple of assistants and started a second career as a writer and illustrator of children's books. In that light, he's best known for Harold and the Purple Crayon and other books starring Harold -- who looks very much like Barnaby.

The others tried -- with direction from Crockett -- but the strip was discontinued in 1952, after a short ten-year run. Johnson returned for the final continuity, and tried to revive the strip in the early 60s, to no avail.

During its run, there were two collections. And in the mid-80s, science fiction editor Judy-Lynn Del Rey announced they would publish the entire run -- one of the first times that was planned. Alas, Judy-Lynn died in 1986, but not before six volumes were produced, which, luckily, covered all the strips while Crockett Johnson was working on it. The books are now selling used for upwards of $30.

Barnaby was one of the greatest delights of the comic strip, and deserves to be as well known as strips like Calvin and Hobbes.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was about Barnaby's age when my mother started reading that strip to me. I looked forward to the boy's daily adventures with his fairy godfather. It served as a welcome distraction from the menace of the war years, which was an especially frightening time for a child. I was heartbroken when Barnaby outgrew him and Mr. O'Malley flew away.