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Barnaby Vol. 1 HC
Philip Nel is an English professor at Kansas state university where he directs the graduate Program in Children’s Literature. He is also an author whose books include Dr. Seuss: American icon (2004) and Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: how an unlikely couple found Love, Dodged the FBI, and transformed Children’s Literature (forthcoming in September 2012). Eric Reynolds is the partner publisher at Fantagraphics. Together, they’re editing a five volume collection of Crockett Johnson’s classic comic strip, Barnaby. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently talked to Nel and Reynolds to learn a lot more about this upcoming project.
Spoiler Alert! The interview exposes how the strip ends.
Westfield: For people who aren’t familiar with the strip, what can you tell us about Barnaby?
Philip Nel: A little kid named Barnaby desires for a Fairy Godmother and he instead gets a Fairy Godfather, Mr. O’Malley. He uses a cigar for a magic wand and rarely gets his magic to work properly. O’Malley is sort of a con artist as much as he is a fairy godfather. The strip mixes fantasy with satire. It’s partly about the imaginary world that’s really not imaginary that O’Malley and his cohorts inhabit and who Barnaby and the other children see but the adults don’t see. It’s also partly about the political world of the 1940s. Johnson is making a mock of politicians and ideas from the period.
Westfield: who are some of the other characters in the strip?
Nel: There are Barnaby’s parents who worry about their child: they think that he’s spending a lot of time with his Fairy Godfather who they can’t see, although they do see evidence of him from time to time, they just don’t believe it as evidence of him. how did these cigar ashes get here? and what happened to the food that was in the freezer? They don’t put together that Mr. O’Malley has in fact been snacking. Again. There’s Jane, the next door neighbor. She’s a little girl who’s Barnaby’s age and is a pretty amazing character in and of herself. She’s not in any way a stereotypical little girl. She’s quite fearless and she’s smart — typically smarter than O’Malley. Of the other imaginary people, there are many. Atlas is a mental giant. He’s the same size as O’Malley, which is the same size as Barnaby (child-sized), and he works out everything on a slide rule. When he sees O’Malley, he looks at him and then he keeps in mind a formula that he has to remember O’Malley’s name. He works out the formula and then puts out his hand and says “O’Malley! great to see you.” who else must we mention, Eric?
Eric Reynolds: Gus the Ghost. The leprechaun.
Nel: McSnoyd the unnoticeable leprechaun speaks in a strong Brooklyn accent. He’s a pretty funny minor character, and foil for O’Malley. Gus the Ghost is a terrific secondary character because he’s kind of shy and a little afraid. He’s not all that terrific at haunting. He’s a little uneasy with his status of ghost, actually. He’s a ghost but he’s not really that frightening and, in fact is quite typically afraid himself.
Barnaby experiences an air raid.
Westfield: We haven’t discussed the designer yet. What can you tell us about Crockett Johnson?
Nel: probably a lot more than you want to know. My biography of him and his wife, Ruth Krauss, will be out in September. how much do you want to know?
Reynolds: maybe start by contextualizing Crockett in the world of children’s lit.
Nel: Sure! people today know Crockett Johnson because of Harold and the Purple Crayon and its six sequels. They are some of the greatest children’s books ever written — the a lot of succinct expression of imaginative possibility that you’ll find anywhere. The second reason people would know him is Barnaby. He was a man of diverse interests — many of which are reflected in the strip. and that’s one reason the complete Barnaby volume One and all subsequent volumes will have notes in them. There are not only references to contemporary politics but his lots of and varied interests. To give you an example, his occupation has three parts to it. The first part is comics, the second part is children’s books, and the third part is painter and amateur mathematician. For the last ten years of his life, that’s what he did. He painted geometric artwork that was based on other people’s theorems and then started to devise some of his own which he worked out visually on the canvas and then corresponded with mathematicians to help him work out the algebra. So when Atlas speaks in mathematic formulas in the revised strips (which appear in the Holt books), those are real mathematical formulae. You can actually fix them and they spell things. He was very interested in math. but he was interested in a lot of different things.
He was born in 1906 in Manhattan and he grew up in Queens. After a year in college, his daddy passed away and he had to drop out to get a job and support the family. He worked in magazine design and I think that sense of design really influences him as a cartoonist. He has a very strong spatial sense of exactly where everything must go on the page. Whether it’s a children’s book or a comic, he uses the space very well. With the collapse of the stock market in 1929 he, as lots of artists did, drifted leftward and he contributed cartoons to the communist weekly, new Masses. He was also art editor of new Masses from 1936-1940. and that brings us up to the beginnings of Barnaby.
Westfield: What makes Barnaby a good strip to collect?
Reynolds: Barnaby was really a holy Grail of a project for me personally for a number of years. how lots of years ago did I first feel you out about this, Phil?
Nel: You emailed me once. I don’t remember when that was. I said, “Yeah. That’d be great.” I don’t know what happened after that, but you emailed me again a few years later. I and George Nicholson, my agent, and the law firm that represents the estate of Ruth Krauss (since Crockett Johnson died first, everything was left to her) met with Eric and Fantagraphics to work out the details for the project. It’s the last, terrific uncollected comic strip.
Reynolds: Yeah, exactly. Unlike a lot of the terrific comic strips of all time, Barnaby was never in a ton of papers, so it was not the most commercially successful strip around. but it was absolutely one of the most literate and beautifully drawn and funny and captivating strips that I’m aware of. As we’ve went into this golden Age of strip reprinting, Barnaby was really a no brainer. It was just a matter of acquiring the rights to do it and that took the better part of five years. To answer your question Roger, it’s simply because we love it and we think it’s one of the last comic strips left that hasn’t been appropriately collected. I don’t know the commercial potential of it. I’d like to think that Harold and the Purple Crayon will help register that kind of awareness in the consumer’s mind because Barnaby looks exactly like Harold. but really, we’re doing it because it’s a labor of love.
Barnaby & Mr. O’Malley get into some trouble.
Nel: We’re hoping that bringing out the first volume of Barnaby at nearly the same time as the biography will also help each book call attention to the other one. As Eric says, it was never a popular hit at its height. It was syndicated in only 52 papers. By contrast, a strip like elegant Young’s Blondie was in about 850 papers at that time. Barnaby never had mass distribution. It was like Krazy Kat in that respect. It’s not a strip that reached the masses.
Reynolds: Unlike Krazy Kat, it didn’t run for forty years so it didn’t quite have that legacy.
Nel: There was only ten years of the strip because Johnson got worn out of it and left.
Reynolds: another interesting thing about what makes it a terrific reprint project is the fact that, unlike any other strip that I can think of, Barnaby has a finite ending. It actually has closure and an ending in a way that literally, I cannot think of another comic strip that does. That will be really interesting because I don’t think that ending’s ever been appropriately reprinted. All the other prior iterations of Barnaby books over the decades never got that far.
Nel: It’s a really beautiful, bittersweet ending to the strip too where Barnaby, if he’s going to turn six, has to give up his Fairy Godfather and all the pixies from his world. It’s quite moving.
The strip is very influential, but not widely read. It’s like what people say about the velvet Underground: they offered very few records but everybody who purchased a velvet Underground record started a band.
Reynolds: If Peanuts was the Beatles, Barnaby was the velvet Underground.
Nel: Yeah. Schulz read Barnaby. bill Keane read it. Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware are all fans of it. Dorothy Parker was a big fan of it. duke Ellington read it. It was a strip the culturally prominent loved. So it’s crucial and influential, but it’s not something that lots of people have read because it’s not been unavailable or hard to find. Or “it’s a strip people who are not comics people haven’t read,” I must say.
Westfield: You discussed Dan Clowes and he is working on the book with you, correct?
Reynolds: That’s correct. much the same way that Seth defined the visual technique to The complete Peanuts, Dan’s going to be doing that for Barnaby. Dan’s actually the person that I think turned me on to Barnaby. I can’t completely remember if he told me about it first before I’d actually read it or I just happened to read one and asked him about it, but he’s the one who sparked my interest. I was in Amsterdam in the mid-‘90s and I was in this big bookstore called the American book company that’s a store that has a substantial collection of English language books. I was looking through their humor section and Ifound the Pocket books paperback edition of Barnaby that was published in 1946. I purchased that because I wasn’t really familiar with it. I loved it. I discussed it to Clowes and he was like, “Oh my god, yeah. He’s the greatest.” then I started actively collecting all of these old hardcovers and paperbacks. I became a real fanatic. I started clipping pages out of Comics Revue magazine that Rick Norwood has been publishing for 20 years. I would get the magazine and just cut out the Barnaby pages.
Nel: Rick Norwood published the ‘60s retreads of the Barnaby’s. Dan Clowes contacted me early on, too. I started a web page dedicated to Crockett Johnson in 1998 for several reasons, one of which is because I wanted to learn how to put together a web page because I thought that would be useful. and two, no one else had done anything for Crockett Johnson on the web and I thought “Jeez. someone must do that.” So I set up this web site and Dan Clowes was one of the first people to contact me. I didn’t know who he was. This was before Ghost world had been published as a single volume. He had been cartooning, but I wasn’t familiar with his work. I just thought, “Oh, this is a great fellow who shares an interest.” I would put images of stuff up on the page and he sent me a color photocopy of one of the Barnaby quarterlies which I then scanned and put up on the page because I didn’t have it. He was very nice. then a few years later I started to read his work and I put it together and I realized “Holy cow! I’ve been talking with Dan Clowes.”
Reynolds: There really was nothing else on the web at that time. I remember being knee-deep in this Barnaby fascination. I purchased the first Holt hardcover from the ‘40s but it didn’t have a dust jacket. Dan made me a color Xerox of his dust jacket so I could put one on my book. There was a real passion to collect this stuff. I remember at a certain point Dan telling me, “There’s this person named Phil Nel and he did this web site that’s the only thing on the Internet about Crockett Johnson. You’ve got to check it out.” I’ve had that web site bookmarked on my browser for the past 10 years.
Nel: and that web site begat the biography of Johnson and Krauss and this project too.
Reynolds: When I knew we wanted to acquire Barnaby, at that point I already knew that Phil was working on his bio and it was a complete no brainer to ask him to help edit the series.
Nel: It’s been terrific working with you and I’m really delighted with how things have turned out so far. I think it’s going to be a real credit scores to the Fantagraphics reprint series which are such stunning books. It’s terrific that Barnaby’s going to take its place along with Peanuts and Pogo and Krazy Kat. I can’t think of a better home for it.
Chris Ware is another person who I met through the web site because he’s also a substantial Crockett Johnson fan. He first emailed me seven years ago or so and would send stuff for the web site. At one point he emailed and said, “I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to ask, but I’d love to be involved with the biography in some way. I thought I might design the jacket and case wrap for it.” I, of course, thought “Oh my goodness. Yes, please!” Chris is so humble and self-effacing about his extraordinary talents that that was the way he put it. I’m undoubtedly paraphrasing what he wrote. So he did the cover to the biography because he loves Crockett Johnson and he did the introduction to the first volume of Barnaby as well .
Barnaby & Mr. O’Malley get into a lot more trouble.
Westfield: You’ve discussed the relaunch in the ‘60s and some of the strips were redrawn for the collections. Does this go back to the original, this is what appeared in the newspaper, strips?
Nel: Yes. and that has been the substantial challenge of this: finding all those strips. These are the original newspaper strips as they originally appeared. He redrew them for