Barnaby is one of the most wonderful comic strips that it's been my pleasure to read. Elegantly drawn, with a warmth, sweetness and surprising amount of grit and complexity, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby is an absolute pleasure from cover to cover.
There are two main hooks for this story that make it so wonderful. First, this story is seen through the eyes of five-year-old Barnaby, a boy as sweet and troublemaking as any other boy his age. Like Little Nemo and Calvin, Barnaby has a very active imagination. He's always seeing things that may or may not actually be there– in his case not a talking tiger but his very own fairy godfather, named O'Malley, who leads our young hero into a series of absolutely wonderful adventures.
The second aspect of this story that has real resonance today is the fact that this strip premiered in 1942, while World War II was raging away. Johnson didn't avoid the stateside impact of the War at all; in fact, it's fascinating to read these stories and get an intriguing representation of the impact of the War in the United States. As historian Jeet Heer pints out in his introduction, it was a radically different idea at the time to present the realities of modern life through the eyes of a young boy. Comics of that era generally presented children in historical setting, or at the very least out of time, rather than in a modern context. The very first story in this book revolves around how O'Malley set off air-raid sirens as he flew over Barnaby's house.
Another story has to do with Barnaby's father's job as Sector Warden of his neighborhood, in which he's responsible for ensuring that all lights are off when the air raid siren sounds. Other stories revolve around spies in the neighborhood or on scrap collecting. This wartime setting gives these stories an odd sort of verisimilitude, a wonderfully resonant portrait of an America that most of us know nothing about. I was fascinated by this "accidental history" presented in Barnaby.
It's a surprising shock that elections go on as scheduled in 1942 and 1943, that kids still go to summer camp, ask for dogs and get Christmas presents. There's a long sequence in this book in which Barnaby's fairy godfather O'Malley runs for Congress against a crooked politician, and that section of the book has a striking amount of bite and viciousness. I somehow never considered that politics would be business as usual in the US during the War.
But as you can see from the samples I'm including with this review, Barnaby is about as light as any comic strip can be. At its heart, Barnaby is the story of a young boy with a wonderfully active imagination. He makes friends – both real and imaginary, as you can see from the above strip – and lives a pretty normal and very funny life with his friends, exploring haunted houses, chasing his dog, befriending leprechauns, and generally being both a burr and joy in his parents' side. Like all parents, Barnaby's mom and dad adore their child, even while they're completely (and hilariously) exasperated by him.
The great paradox of Barnaby is that while these strips are set firmly in one specific time, they absolutely feel timeless. Crockett Johnson's gorgeously clean line style, and his custom of always placing the center of the action in the middle of a panel, offset a small and consistent amount from the bottom of the page, gives these comics a fascinating sort of unreal reality. His metronomic repetition of characters' catchphrases (everyone loves Mr. O'Malley's "Cushlamochree"), his standard panel designs and consistent character depictions gives this series an odd sense of happy familiarity, of these eccentric squiggles becoming real under Crockett Johnson's dependable and passionate brush.
No matter the oddness of the setting or the eccentricity of the story, Barnaby is the delightful creation of a thoroughly idiosyncratic creator sharing his wonderful vision on the comics page. The more I read of Barnaby, the more I fell in love with Crockett Johnson's vision and the absolutely delightful world in which his characters live.