BARNABY, by Crockett Johnson, is less a newspaper strip than it is an object of love. Only mildly successful during its 1942-1952 run (a warm-up for the career-making, genre-defining classic HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, which features an identical protagonist), it has attracted not a large fan base but a wildly, irrationally enthusiastic cult of supporters and proselytizers, including Dorothy Parker, Art Spiegelman, Duke Ellington, Chris Ware and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Now that’s a dinner party.)
Fantagraphics’ faithful and reverent new edition, with its beautiful banana-yellow, era-appropriate book design by Dan Clowes and wonderfully informative and enthusiastic essays, brings this nearly-forgotten material roaring back to life. Jeet Heer writes, “It’s hard to talk about BARNABY without raving.” Parker writes, “I cannot write a review of Barnaby… it is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Having newly become aware of this comic, I am a late convert to their brand of tongue-twisted devotion to this wonderful proto-Calvin & Hobbes creation — this off-beat, sweet-hearted suburban saga located at the junction where modernism meets magic.
The subject of BARNABY is the relationship between the titular adolescent boy and Jackeen J. O’Malley, his glad-handing, possibly-imaginary roustabout of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a character for the ages — less guardian angel than drunken uncle, full of patter and tall tales, possessed by insatiable appetites for food and drink and self-regard. He bluffs his way into Barnaby’s high esteem, and shanghais him into ill-considered schemes and misadventures. It all plays out against the backdrop of the second World War – a perfectly appointed middle-class idyll disrupted by air raid sirens, rationing and the draft. BARNABY is entirely a product of its era, with many references to the politics of the day, but it also has a folkloric quality. It seems to float, as the best newspapers strips do, in some eternally mythic American moment.
The central joke is that Barnaby, unlike Calvin, is no hyper-active kid with an outsized imagination. He’s calm and collected, a reasonable, well-adjusted little boy. His personality is perfectly reflected in Johnson’s almost translucently clear-line cartooning, in which everything is boiled down to its barest essence — life as one big declarative sentence. Not a pen-stroke is given to nuance or shading. Barnaby’s belief in O’Malley is equally uncomplicated and complete, emblematic of his character as a whole: his fairy godfather is magical and heroic by definition, and no failure to display his powers or act heroically (or even decently) will convince him otherwise. Everything about Barnaby is matter-of-fact; everything about O’Malley, from his braggadocious claims to his very existence, is a matter of fiction. The sweetness of their relationship is that O’Malley gets to be grand and mystical in the eyes of the kid, and the kid gets proof positive that the world is an enchanted place. O’Malley is just a mostly-incompetent con man with wings, but he gives the gift of magic to this quiet, cool-tempered child.
Everything in Barnaby’s world is trying to shoot down the fantasy. Parents, teachers, and child psychologists all conspire to snap him out of the delusion. But his faith in the supremacy of his fairy-godfather can’t be shaken. Despite the fact that O’Malley’s “magic wand” seems to be a cheap cigar, and excepting his power of flight O’Malley never exhibits a single supernatural ability, Barnaby is utterly convinced of his pal’s near-omnipotence.
There’s a curious blurring of the strip’s reality halfway through the book, when it turns out first O’Malley can be seen by other children, and the later by mobsters, drunks, and other fringe elements. So the strip, which initially seems to be about a boy and his imaginary friend, gets an authorial endorsement of its fantasy: O’Malley is real — he’s just invisible to members of the establishment. The rock-solid button-down social machinery of work, school, home, whether in peacetime or war, cannot be penetrated by the very real outre magic of Barnaby’s backwoods.
Until Mr. O’Malley is elected to Congress.
This is the kind of great joke that Johnson specializes in: oddness and disruption so deadpan it seems obvious. Barnaby’s dog Gorgon, it’s suddenly revealed, can talk — but he turns out to be such a rambling bore that everyone just wishes he would shut up. When Barnaby and O’Malley go to visit a giant, he turns out to be three feet tall and “sensitive about his size.” There are very few belly laughs to be had here, more quiet chuckles, and many of the strips seem to forget to supply any punchline at all. But you don’t care — you’re not here for payoffs, you’re here to be immersed in this clean, cracked world, the wry amusements and the utterly recognizable characters who stick with you. The solid earth of perfectly crisp drawing and flawlessly defined personalities allows Johnson to play fast and loose with his invented reality.
The brilliance of all this is that, through some mysterious alchemy of cartooning and character, it manages to provoke an immense reaction of love in the reader, without ever resorting to any kind of sentimentality or manipulation. There are no occasional moments of heart-tugging sweetness, like there were in Calvin & Hobbes, no Schulzian pathos. Just a dry, almost clinical depiction of the adventures of this boy and his favorite figment. The depiction is so coldly clean, so unwilling to invest itself in its characters’ points of view, that for all of its charm and ease it has an almost autistic, Kubrickian gaze.
And yet, when Dorothy Parker describes these characters as “important additions to my heart,” I am right there with her. There’s something unguarded and hopeful in the total lucidity of the storytelling and the sharp-relief definition of the characters, something unjudgemental and welcoming and unafraid, that invites you in. And if you answer that invitation, before you know it, Mr. O’Malley will storm into your house, ravage your ice-box and light up a cigar.
Maybe that’s unsurprising — O’Malley is a pure force of blustering charm & friendly bullying presumption. It’s his nature to tromp in where he isn’t invited. But you will also find that, very quietly, this little watchful boy with his wide American eyes and gullibly observant optimism has pulled up a chair. He sits there with his polite smile and uncanny enthusiasm, and compels you to invest some small, unconflicted piece of yourself in the most mundane & preposterous magic.
And like Barnaby, we will take our magic where we can get it.