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By Terry Harpold

Johnson, Crockett. Barnaby, Volume One: 1942–1943. Eds. Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds. Foreword by Chris Ware. Essays by Jeet Heer and Dorothy Parker. Afterword and notes by Philip Nel. Design by Daniel Clowes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2013. 319 pp.

Johnson, Crockett. Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944–1945. Eds. Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds. Foreword by Jules Feiffer. Essays by R.C. Harvey and Max Lerner. Afterword and notes by Philip Nel. Design by Daniel Clowes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2014. 375 pp.

Figure 1: Barnaby, September 14, 1942
Figure 2: Barnaby, September 21, 1942

About five months into Crockett Johnson’s daily comic strip Barnaby, the parents of Barnaby Baxter take him to see a child psychologist. The reason for the visit is that Barnaby, a precocious five-year old, claims that he spends his days and often his nights with a little man, improbably named Jackeen J. O’Malley, whom his parents have never seen and who claims to be the boy’s fairy godfather. Dressed always in a fedora and an overcoat, a pair of pink wings poking through (he is the boy’s fairy godfather, you see), and clutching a sodden cigar that he uses—rarely with success—as a magic wand, to Barnaby’s worried parents Mr. O’Malley seems a little too fully realized an imaginary friend.

The visit to the shrink is one of the most knowing episodes of the strip’s nearly ten year run, from April 1942 to February 1952. While the psychologist pontificates about imagos and a child’s fantasies of a more glamorous, capable father, Barnaby is in the adjoining room with Mr. O’Malley, who is helping him out with the diagnostic tests meant to explain why the boy sees and talks with an imaginary person. Predictably, confusion ensues: the little man reworks a simple block puzzle into a teetering tower, shoves a marble up Barnaby’s nose (after warning him of the risk of such mishaps), improves on the boy’s chalk portrait of his father by redrawing it in his own likeness, and leaves in a huff when he overhears the psychologist describing him as an unconscious fantasy. In a brilliant visual gag at the beginning of the episode Barnaby, ignoring his parents’ anxious conversation with the doctor, regards a diagram on the wall showing Freud’s division of the mind into id, ego, and super-ego, and wonders aloud what’s keeping his fairy godfather. Mr. O’Malley’s obviously not there, not in the grown-ups’ map of the mental world; he’s next door, where he’ll leave behind in plain sight a picture of what he really looks like.

When I got my hands on the first of a projected five volumes of Fantagraphics’ new collected edition of Johnson’s comics masterpiece, I went straight to these pages—motivated, I’m sure, by traces of a childhood misadventure with a marble (prompted by these very panels; don’t ask), and probably also by an adult interest in Freud’s clinical doodles. (I remember a frisson of recognition felt the first time I came across Freud’s diagram in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis: where had I seen that before?)1 But I wanted mostly, I think, to revisit the gentle insouciance of Barnaby’s encounter—and Mr. O’Malley’s near encounter—with the shrink. Of course the boy’s parents fret that he imagines his bizarre mentor with too much conviction. Of course the psychologist mistakes the boy’s stories for fantasies of an idealized father. Of course the very real little man with pink wings takes offense at this and leaves by the window, just before the grownups could enter the room and discover that it’s all true. It’s the mildness of Barnaby’s response to everyone else—his oblivious parents, the bumptious, bespectacled shrink, and his ill-tempered fairy companion—that points us to the genius of Johnson’s matchless strip.

For Mr. O’Malley is, in the plainest sense, actually present in Barnaby’s world; you have to think past the comics convention that miracles happen sometimes to recognize that in Barnaby’s case the situation is simpler and more inventive than that. His parents and the psychologist don’t see the little man, but not because of a typical bit of legerdemain that makes fairies invisible and inaudible to all but an overwise child. Jane, Barnaby’s little friend in the neighborhood, can see and hear Mr. O’Malley perfectly well, as can lots of other kids. And so can a few grownups who have run-ins with the little man: a hapless gang of black marketeers, some corrupt politicians and a smarmy congressional lobbyist, a senile financier, and a genuinely scary if finally incompetent Nazi spy who tries to steal plans from the factory where Barnaby’s father works. And so can: a cheerful lion who escapes from a traveling circus and lives in the Baxters’ basement for awhile; Gorgon, the family’s talking dog (he didn’t know he could talk until he tried)2; a shy ghost; a querulous leprechaun; a mustachioed and firehat-wearing salamander whose pipe keeps going out; a trident-carrying “King of the Sea” named Davy Jones, who hates the water; a curiously shrunken giant (a mental giant, who speaks mostly in mathematical equations); a pointy-tailed printer’s devil named (of course) Shrdlu, whose job it is to cause all the typographic errors in the newspaper; all are as matter-of-fact participants in these adventures as the children, the grownups, and the little man with wings. And O’Malley leaves a trail everywhere he goes: missing food pilfered from the family refrigerator, cigar ashes a-plenty, a stray card from a failed magic trick, a photograph in the local paper, a voice heard on the radio, that chalk self-portrait in the shrink’s office, all manner of bizarre interventions in the lives of those who refuse his existence. It’s just that those who doubt that he is real don’t look or listen in the right places; he’s there alright, as plain as day. That’s the unalloyed brilliance of Johnson’s strip: in the end there’s nothing extraordinary in this world: only little flying men, ghosts and imps of all sorts, talking dogs, and the like, and a well-balanced little boy who doesn’t consider that anyone should think any of this to be unexpected. (It’s true that the leprechaun is invisible, but he disappears just to spite O’Malley, and maybe to remind us of how ordinary are the rest of the fairy crew.)

The reason why it all works for the reader, at one remove from this bright world, is because of the clarity and precision of Johnson’s pen. In his critical introduction to Volume One3, Jeet Heer cites Ron Goulart’s proposal that Johnson was influenced by the great book illustrator and Life and New Yorker cartoonist Gluyas Williams—Jules Feiffer makes the same connection in his foreword to Volume Two—and Heer repeats Chris Ware’s suggestion that Hergé must also have learned a few tricks from Williams. He also brings Charles Schultz into this rarified circle of influence, and it’s easy to see that Johnson is at home there. Apart from stray marbles and psychical maps, my childhood memories of Barnaby, from 1960s and ’70s Dover reprints of 1940s Holt re-editions of the strip, are mostly of blank spaces, paragraph-long speech balloons (typeset—an unusual Johnson practice—in Futura Medium Italic), and full, dark blacks. Where else in comics was a kite drawn as a solid black diamond? Or a boy’s short trousers, and tree trunks, a hammock, and fairy earmuffs drawn in the uninterrupted pitch of a starless night? In Williams, maybe, but he never drew a complete world, an imaginatively egalitarian world, this way. If anything, in these reproductions, Johnson’s clear line is stronger and more confident than I remember: generous, open, and optimistic.

Which is not to suggest that Barnaby’s world is free of menace. We have always to keep in mind the historical moment of the strip. It debuted on April 20, 1942, when victory in the Pacific was still doubtful and before the U.S. joined the European campaigns. Barnaby’s adventures in these first two volumes are set subtly but unmistakably against the backdrop of domestic life during World War II and the early post-War years. There are Victory Gardens and scrap metal drives to entertain a young boy, but also rationing, profiteering, nightly blackouts, and frequent air raid drills. (The first wish that Barnaby asks of his fairy godfather is to make him into an air raid warden, just like his pop.) As the war draws to a close, there are signs in the adults’ conversations of worry over postwar factory closings and new economic and political instability. Timid ghosts, irritable leprechauns, and printer’s devils are lighter stuff than smugglers, crooked political types, and greedy bankers, and they transmit some of their lightness to the strip’s criminal classes, but there is never any doubt—especially in early episodes involving the ogre cum Nazi spy—that some of these creatures really do mean Barnaby and his family harm. Yet, under the right conditions, menace fades into farce: when Mr. O’Malley helps out during an air raid drill by flying over the city, he is mistaken for a “mystery spy plane.” (It’s obvious from the photograph in the newspaper that the mystery is just a fellow in a hat and coat with a pair of Tinker Bell wings, but only Barnaby and the reader can see that.) O’Malley’s half-baked plan for a new sort of radio soap opera (“Grand Opera Soap Opera”—the drama is scored and sung, the commercial jingles are spoken) leads by way of an extended telephone game among potential backers to the belief that he is a “Wizard of Wall Street.” Bankers and stockbrokers, acting on imagined instructions from one of their own whom they’ve never met, extend him ever greater lines of credit until his potential net worth is equal to the whole of the American economy. The bubble suddenly collapses when O’Malley, in search of a smart pair of striped trousers, offers to pay the tailor in cash and word gets out that the financial genius has lost faith in his line of credit. Frantic stockbrokers sell off their holdings in his many shell corporations (which don’t seem to have actually produced anything); the S.E.C. subpoenas his nonexistent books; a national manhunt follows—O’Malley is reported seen in a dozen states when he spent the afternoon in the bullpen at Ebbets Field—and ends when O’Malley is thought to have committed suicide. (He jumps off a ferry into the drink when he mistakes a Salvation Army band for the cops, returns a minute later to retrieve his dropped cigar, and once again flies off stage right while only Barnaby is looking in the right direction.) The whole episode is alarming if you take the expanding bubble seriously; the collapse of O’Malley Enterprises could, after all, unleash economic disaster. The fact that everything goes back to normal (well, a sort of normal) has nothing to do with the invisible hand of the market or the shrewdness of its masters. It has everything do to with Johnson’s impish critique of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds, while making sure that O’Malley remains incapable of doing any lasting damage.

Barnaby’s seeming nonchalance through all this is not of the same kind of harmlessness; it’s also not childish naïveté, exactly, or wishful thinking, as his psychologist might propose. He’s just more grounded and less prone to worry than anyone else. Every small surprise he meets with elicits the same sweet “Gosh!” with which he responds to his parents’ and pretty much every adult’s inability to recognize what’s going on. It seems to me that this word—and not O’Malley’s trademark “Cushlamochree!”—is the truer maxim of the strip, the signature phrase of a world in which the enigmas and dangers of adult life barely intrude on an assertively milder universe. And the corrective power of magic, what there is of it in this world, doesn’t so much reverse dangers as it dissolves them into a bright landscape, just a little unsettled, and dotted with peculiar silhouettes but only a few shadows.

There is a wider political agenda at work in all of this, and that has a lot to do with the strip’s continuing relevance some seventy years on, long after other, more popular comics of the era have lost their charm. Philip Nel’s afterwords to these books, drawing on his excellent 2012 biography of Johnson and his second wife, the children’s author Ruth Krauss, make clear that leftist advocacy, critical class consciousness, and anti-racism were foundations of their creative work singly and together.4 Between 1934 and 1940, Johnson had contributed more than fifty editorial cartoons to the American Marxist newspaper The New Masses, and he served as an editor of the newspaper from 1936 to 1940. Initially rejected by Colliers and King Features, Barnaby first appeared in PM, Ralph Ingersoll’s assertively liberal, pro-labor, pro-New Deal newspaper, which also published cartoons by Popular Front artists such as Carl Rose, Don Freeman, and Theodore Geisel, and the anti-Nazi adventure strip Vic Jordan.5 As the war drew to a close, Johnson and Krauss remained active and visible in leftist causes, even as the political mood in the US shifted rightward and the Popular Front coalition began to fall apart.6 In the first two Fantagraphics volumes, Johnson’s leftist critique is clearest in the comics of 1944–45: in O’Malley’s brief stint as a United States congressman—a farrago of incompetence and unintended consequences—and in the little man’s role as an informal advisor to Dewey’s first presidential campaign (Admiral Dewey, he imagines), working with a troupe of top-hatted ghosts whose watches run, tellingly, backwards.7 But these more openly political elements of the comic have also a general correlate throughout the strip, in Barnaby‘s expansive vision of normality, which is essentially a progressive, (little-d) democratic social program. You can see this as well in the collaborations between Johnson and Krauss, such as The Carrot Seed (1945, a tiny masterpiece of youthful optimism), and Johnson’s subsequent invention of Harold and his purple crayon (of the book of that title, 1955, and its six sequels): it’s part and parcel of a imagined social bond that excludes ressentiment, accepting everyone and the world as they simply are, and a faith in the entirely ordinary marvelous—which seems marvelous only if you didn’t expect it in the first place. Barnaby does. That’s a sign that his vision is clearer than anyone around him.

Fantagraphics’s complete Barnaby will include all of the original daily strips: those written and drawn by Johnson from 1942 to 1946, then by Jack Morely and Ted Ferro, and then by Morely alone, up through the strip’s conclusion in 1952, when Johnson returned to write and draw the final episode. (Barnaby‘s brief revival in 1960–62, written by Johnson and drawn by Warren Sattler, will not be included.) That we will have thus a complete reprint of Barnaby is in itself a remarkable achievement. Co-editors Reynolds and Nel report having had to piece together the first two volumes from public and private collections, as no complete run was archived in a single location and usable print copies of strips from the first two years were hard to find.8

Daniel Clowes’ restrained design for the books is gratifyingly faithful to the clear line: a landscape format, two daily strips to a page, that showcases the comic’s progression, subtle shades of paper color to distinguish the comics from the editorial front– and backmatter, endpapers reproducing original paste-ups that show how the finished panels were assembled. The comics are brighter and crisper than they have been since, well, ever. (An effect of Fantagraphics’s usual high quality paper and crisp reproductions is that the whites are whiter and the blacks blacker than was possible in newsprint, even on the good stock used by PM. So we trade just a little bit of fidelity to the originals for a kind of idealized edition of the whole of the strip: the Barnaby we remember and want to read again. It’s a fair exchange.) Volume One includes a foreword by Chris Ware and historical afterword by Nel (“Crockett Johnson and the Invention of Barnaby“), Heer’s essay on the clear line, and Dorothy Parker’s celebrated “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson,” reprinted in full for first time since 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…”). Volume Two includes Feiffer’s foreword and Nel’s afterword (“O’Malley Takes Flight”), an essay by R.C. Harvey on O’Malley’s ineffectual magic and Barnaby’s constant faith,9 and Max Lerner’s 1943 editorial “Barnaby’s Progress,” in which he, tongue only a little in cheek, compares Crockett Johnson to John Bunyan (“Everything comes out well in the end. All the topsy-turvy things happen in a world that operates according to some moral law. The Fairy Godfather does arrive. The dog does stay. The lion turns out to be harmless. The gangsters are captured.”) Both volumes include Nel’s extensive notes, detailing the rich literary and political subtexts of the strips.

These are gorgeous and charming books, fine harbingers of future volumes in the series, and a necessary reminder of the gentle pleasures of, as Ware observes, the last great uncollected comic strip: “Great like Beethoven, or Steinbeck, or Picasso. This is so great it lives in its own timeless bubble of oddness and truth” (9).

Gosh! He’s right!


[1] The diagram appears in Lecture XXXI of New Introductory Lectures (1933). Johnson’s version looks less like Freud’s vaguely cerebral organ than an irregular landform—a resemblance that is not, I suspect, unplanned (See below, note 5.) Freud’s lectures weren’t published in English translation until 1964. My guess is that Johnson based his diagram on a third-party source.

[2] Johnson returned to talking dogs in the one panel strip Barkis & Family (1955), which featured an excitable Norfolk terrier, the strip’s eponymous hero, whose energetic barking is translated for the reader in thought balloons. (For example: As a little girl tosses a stick and calls to him, Barkis remarks to the puppy standing at his side, “Oh, I know what she wants. But I have to maintain a certain level of misunderstanding.”) The later strip narrows the logic of Gorgon’s conversations in Barnaby while keeping to the notion that there’s nothing strange in, for example, a talking dog: Barkis knows exactly what he’s saying, and the reader can see that this is only sensible; it’s Barkis’s human family who haven’t a clue.

[3] “Barnaby and American Clear Line Cartooning,” 11–14.

[4] Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

[5] Milkman, Paul. PM: A New Deal in Journalism, 1940–1948. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997. PM‘s coverage of the war effort must have daily reminded readers of Barnaby‘s only partial contact with a darker version of the world. The newspaper’s cover stories for the September 14 and 21, 1942 strips reproduced above are, respectively, “Vichy Sells French Men and Women Into Nazi Slavery” (an outraged account of U.S. appeasement of the collaborationist regime), and “We’ve Let the War Make Lawbreakers of Children” (an exposé of wartime breakdown of welfare services in New York City). Barnaby’s encounter with his shrink’s mental landform is preceded six pages earlier by PM‘s regular “Newsreel of the War” section, which featured Harold Dietje’s superbly-drafted maps of the war’s progress in the same high-contrast black and white as Johnson’s strip. The map for that day’s paper is of the Battle for Stalingrad, then entering its most brutal phase.

[6] Nel, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 91.

[7] Nel observes in his afterword to Volume Two (343) that Barnaby was noticeably less engaged with homefront realities of the War as it ended. The strip’s stories from mid-February to mid-August 1945, for example, include the “Wizard of Wall Street” episode, a run-in with an even-tempered witch living in a gingerbread house (perhaps pointedly, she claims to know nothing about ovens and children), and a extended misadventure in which O’Malley helps Barnaby’s Aunt Minerva secure a food column in the local paper. All the while, PM was reporting with due seriousness on the final push of the Allies toward Berlin, the collapse of the Third Reich and victory in Europe, the horrors of the liberated concentration camps, the savage last phase of the Pacific war, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrender. Nel speculates that the strip’s mild irony wasn’t up to even oblique commentary on the nightmares of this period.

[8] See Mautner, Chris. “Talking ‘Barnaby’: An Interview with Co-Editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Ney.” Robot 6. <>.

[9] “Appreciating Barnaby and the Power of Imagination,” 11–16.

Works Cited

Mautner, Chris. “Talking ‘Barnaby’: An Interview with Co-Editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Ney.” Robot 6. <>.

Milkman, Paul. PM: A New Deal in Journalism, 1940–1948. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

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