Cushlamochree! Barnaby is magic.
Well, actually Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather Mr. O’Malley is the magical one, not young Barnaby, but the stories contained in this generous collection are magical in nearly every sense of the word: they delight and charm, they follow their own shaggy dog pace and rhythm, and they contain all kinds of enchanted creatures: ghosts and leprechauns and talking dogs and even Davy Jones, risen from his locker beneath the sea, anxious to get a breath of air.
This collection of the enchanting and long-lost comic contains strips from 1944 and 1945, lovingly restored and delightfully presented and… hey, what’s that? Do I see your eyes drifting to the side of the page, wondering what else is on Comics Bulletin we’re discussing that isn’t 70 years old? Hang on, don’t leave yet because if you do so, you’ll be missing some of the most wonderful comic stories ever published, timeless tales that charm adults and children even today – heck, a book like this is almost more charming now than it was back in the day.
A key reason for that charm is Barnaby‘s calm and often magesterial sense of grace. You’ve probably read some of artist Crockett Johnson’s childrens’ books over the years – he’s the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon among many others—and if you’ve read them you’ve seen his modernist, minimal line that tells stories with a delightful clarity and enchanting depth. He also never varies his camera angle, always presenting his stories as if the characters were actors on a stage, giving everything a unique clearness.
But why tell when you can show? So let me introduce a few of my favorite strips from the book and let you judge whether you want to pick up Barnaby volume two. (Spoiler: you will)
Sometimes Barnaby went for a bit of slapstick, as in this first piece in the volume:
And occasionally it went for clever political satire, with a strip that casts Mr. O’Malley as a Congressman who nobody ever sees but who has an outsized influence on his peers:
The theme of O’Malley as an unseen force is an idea that Johnson clearly loved, because he came back to it with equal glee several times, as in this section from a sequence in which O’Malley is mistaken for a very influential stock market manipulator:
In one whimsical tale, Barnaby and O’Malley kind of accidentally find a group of criminals and cause those to get caught, in a story so full of impossible twists and turns that it could only either happen in a comic or in real life:
As you can see, Johnson’s fanciful style gives real life a delightful twist, but he also loves bringing a twist to classical supernatural creatures, to the point where it becomes a trope of Johnson to bring on a creature like a Salamander and undercut his powers:
Or this cute way he treats Davy Jones of Davy Jones’s Locker:
Or, my favorite of this type of story, the cute and clever way he undercuts the story of Hansel and Gretel:
Johnson was creating daily pieces that worked on several levels, comics that both children and their adults could appreciate equally, and these fairy tale type yarns are some of my favorites in this collection.
And while Johnson falters at times, delivering sequences that don’t really amount to much (it’s clear sometimes that the crush of doing a daily comic can exhaust even the blithest of spirits), the art and wordplay always keep their charm:
And surprise with their sentimental sweetness:
But I had to wrap up this little gallery of strips with my favorite character, the talking dog Gorgon, who seems like a very thoughtful dog indeed.
If you can resist this comic, you have a harder heart than I do. The whole time I was reading this volume I had a smile of amused pleasure on my face. Whimsy will do that to the best of us.