Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, like Krazy Kat, appealed to a smaller audience than most comic strips. Comics historian Ron Goulart says it appeared in only 52 newspapers in the U.S. at its height. But the strip's readers were an appreciative elite. Barnaby hove into public view a scant two years before the demise of the intelligentsia's first love, Krazy Kat. Beginning April 20, 1942, the strip lasted into the early fifties. It was revived on September 12, 1960 and ran until April 14, 1962, but many of the stories were retooled from the first run of the strip, which ended February 2, 1952. By that time, both Pogo and Peanuts were on the scene.
The brief decade of Barnaby’s first run was brilliant. Among its passionate fans was Dorothy Parker who wrote a mash note about the strip when she reviewed a Holt book of reprints in October 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." She admitted that her review was not a review: it was a valentine, she said.
And Fantagraphics has given us another kind of valentine with the inauguration of its planned complete reprinting of the strip, Barnaby: Volume One, 1942-1943 (320 7x10.5-inch landscape pages, b/w; hardcover, $35) with prefatory essays by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer; Afterword and appendix by Philip Nel, Johnson’s biographer.
Presenting only two strips per page, the book gives generous display to Johnson’s art of elegant simplicity. Every strip is dated, and the endpapers reproduce original art with paste-overs and white-outs clearly visible. Ware and Heer offer heartfelt appreciations of Johnson’s genius, and Nel provides an appendix that explains topical references in the strip—plus an Afterword about the “invention of Barnaby,” which offers, in addition, a short biography of Johnson and a discussion of his working methods.
Johnson's title character was a bright (but not precocious) and level-headed preschooler. But it was Barnaby Baxter's co-star who stole the show— and captured the hearts as well as the minds of America's intellectuals. The real star of the strip was Mr. O'Malley, an Irish pixie purporting to be Barnaby's fairy godfather. O'Malley shows up on the second day of the strip. Barnaby has just gone to bed, visions of wish-fulfilling fairy godmothers dancing in his head thanks to the bedtime story his mother has just read to him. Suddenly, through his bedroom window flies a diminutive (his height is later established at two feet, eleven inches) round man with a bulbous nose and pink wings, who makes a crash landing at the foot of the boy's bed.
"Cushlamochree!" exclaims this personage (using the epithet he will make famous with regular use over the next ten years). "Broke my magic wand," he continues, staring at a bent cigar in his hand. "You wished for a godparent who could grant wishes?" he goes on. "Lucky boy! Your wish is granted! I'm your fairy godfather." "Let me be the first to offer congratulations," he continues the next day. "Yes, m'boy, your troubles are over. O'Malley is on the job."
"Gosh!" says Barnaby.
"I must be flying off now," O'Malley says. "High over the forests...."
He leaves by way of the window, but his navigational skills are apparently not the sharpest: he crashes into the flower bed beneath the window, creating a mess that Barnaby’s parents and grandmother notice the next morning.
"Gosh!" says Barnaby (as he will repeatedly for the next ten years).
The disturbance awakens Barnaby's parents, who, naturally, fail to believe their son's report that he now has a fairy godfather. We, however, are persuaded by the evidence that Barnaby finds after his mother and father depart—cigar ashes at the foot of his bed— as well as by the testimony of our eyesight. We’ve seen O’Malley, after all.
The episode introduces one of the leitmotifs of the strip, the chorus of adult disbelief about O'Malley's existence. Barnaby's parents never see O'Malley and therefore never believe in him, despite repeated evidences (albeit not his actual physical appearance) that bear witness to his being.
O'Malley confirms our belief in him by showing up again two days later. But when Barnaby wants him to grant a wish, O'Malley points to his cigar: "I'd love to, m'lad, but this fine Havana magic wand is a bit too short to grant wishes with."
When Barnaby says his father has a whole box of cigars in the library, O'Malley brightens immediately. "Well, m'boy—what are we waiting for?" he says.
And after he helps himself to a handful ("a few more for after dinner"), O'Malley bethinks himself of the main course to which cigars are the dessert. "I don't suppose your mother's icebox holds a bit of cold ham," he says, "or perhaps some leftover chicken?"
Barnaby, reconnoitering the icebox for provisions, displays mild irritation: "Who would ever think a fairy godfather could be a nuisance," he mutters.
But Barnaby's belief in his fairy godfather persists through years of O'Malley's self-serving contrivances despite his perception that the pixie is a pest. We, on the other hand, see immediately that O'Malley is much more than a mere annoyance: he is a con artist and bunco steerer of bombastic dimensions, a pretentious windbag, a bumbling blow-hard whose visage and demeanor evoke the honored icon of the breed, W.C. Fields (who was himself a fan of the strip, calling it "a whiz").
It would seem that Jackeen J. O'Malley has picked Barnaby to serve a principal part in his latest shell game— namely, that of the dupe. And certainly the boy picks up his part quickly, supplying both of O'Malley's chief needs—provender from his mother's larder and cigars from his father's humidor. But while subsistence alone is a worthy objective for the average confidence man, it doesn't seem enough for O'Malley.
We are quickly persuaded that the godfather racket is not just O'Malley's latest scam: he really is a pixie, and godfathering is apparently a career he intends to pursue with both dedication and sincerity. So in believing in his fairy godfather, Barnaby is scarcely the dupe he might, at first blush, seem. Moreover, while the boy is loyal to O'Malley, he is not entirely taken in by him. Barnaby's faith is of the pragmatic sort: it requires an occasional demonstration of his godfather's self-proclaimed magical abilities.
In balancing O'Malley's aspirations against Barnaby's mild (but persistent) skepticism, Johnson found the dynamic of his strip. Unfortunately for the would-be fairy godfather (but happily— hilariously so— for us), O'Malley's talent in the magic line is not up to any sort of par. His displays of power in this department often backfire— or go off in some wholly unanticipated direction. It's not that he fails exactly: it's just that he's remarkably unimpressive if not completely ineffectual.
At first, for example, he tries to dazzle his new godson with card tricks (the cheapest kind of magic), but he's incapable of pulling the designated card out of the deck. So he proceeds to more esoteric endeavors, volunteering to rid the household of werewolves or to charm the cattle and the crops against the ravages of evil spirits or to drive out snakes. When Barnaby demurs, O'Malley offers instead to "bestow the blessing of a never-failing water supply upon this plot of land."
"But we've got city water, Mr. O'Malley," Barnaby protests.
"Not to be compared in taste with the clear, cool, beautiful nectar of the natural earth," O'Malley croons. "Makes me thirst merely to describe it ... er .... Is there any beer on ice, m'boy?"
O'Malley is always hungry or thirsty and forever out for himself, so it doesn't take much to divert him from one self-serving project to another. But he's not always a complete failure. Once, trying to make an invisible leprechaun become visible, O'Malley waves his magic wand (the ever-present cigar) and—presto—makes himself invisible. There is just enough of this kind of evidence of his powers to sustain Barnaby's belief—and ours. But the comedy of the strip arises from O'Malley's ineffectuality— and from the subsequent wriggling he does to maintain Barnaby's faith in the face of his own failure. Take the time that Barnaby wishes to be an air raid warden.
"No trick at all for a first rate fairy godfather," O'Malley says. "A flick of the magic wand and you're an air raid warden," he goes on, waving his cigar over the boy's head. "I must be off now."
"But Mr. O'Malley," Barnaby cries. "Where's my arm band?"
"Of course you haven't an arm band, m'boy," explains the departing fairy godfather. "You're a secret air warden! Just stand by for very important instructions."
O'Malley, understandably, is astounded whenever his magic actually works. One time while they're strolling through the woods together, Barnaby asks the pixie to make some spies appear. (The strip was launched during World War II, remember.) O'Malley waves his cigar, and—Cushlamochree!—the next thing they hear is a voice with a German accent from behind nearby bushes.
"Your fairy godfather IS rather remarkable, eh, m'boy?" says O'Malley in amazement.
The voice, it turns out, belongs to a parrot. But— wonder of magical wonders— the parrot turns out to belong to a couple of genuine spies, and, in repeating parts of the spies' overheard conversations, the bird spills the beans about a plot they're hatching to sabotage the city's power plant. Barnaby calls the police and the spies are captured. By such indirections is the efficacy of O'Malley's magic proven.
Much of the humor in the strip is sophisticated irony, depending upon our recognizing things about O'Malley that Barnaby may see but never admits— namely, that the pixie is an authentic con-man, a grasping and self-centered social parasite, and a raving egomaniac. He's a trouble-maker.
When O'Malley first visits the cellar in Barnaby's house, he murmurs that it reminds him of the time he was "incarcerated in a castle."
"Gosh!" says Barnaby.
"Yes," O'Malley goes on, still seeking to impress the boy. "Some varlet slammed the door of the wine cellar."
Suddenly, we know what O'Malley was doing in that castle—helping himself to the wine; but Barnaby, presumably, thinks only of his fairy godfather cooped up in a dungeon.
Another time, O'Malley is regaling his godson (as he often did) with recollections of one of his numerous earlier careers—this one, as a fire-fighter:
"I once got a fire in Chicago under control so neatly and with such dispatch that some of the outlying districts were scarcely scorched," he says. "Well, they may have been scorched a bit, but they weren't charred much. I remember the fire so well because it was the evening I'd had such a trying time attempting to extract some milk for an eggnog from a cow owned by a Mrs. O'Leary."
Barnaby is doubtless too young and unschooled to recognize that O'Malley has just confessed to starting the same famous and devastating Chicago fire that he also claims to have been instrumental in extinguishing. In the same vein, another time, O'Malley is bragging about his skill as a cartographer and admits to having "laid out a couple of adjacent tracts of land for two bosom friends named Hatfield and McCoy."
By now, we're more than willing to believe that the pixie started both the Chicago fire and the Hatfield-McCoy feud: we've witnessed several demonstrations of his magical ability, and we therefore know that his wand works—usually not in the ways intended and often with results bordering on minor disaster. But it does work. We may believe in O'Malley, but Barnaby Baxter's parents never do. And they often (without any success) try to dissuade their son of his mistaken conviction. And that leads us to the theme of the strip.
As Goulart once observed: "One of the quiet ironies of the strip was that all the fantastic events that caused the Baxters to worry and fret over their son's mental state were actually happening. What Johnson seemed to be saying was that to a child the world is a much more marvelous and wonderful place than adults notice it to be."
The fantasy world created by a pint-sized confidence man and an imaginative preschooler turns out to be quite real. Or real enough—real enough for Barnaby to have the adventures with Mr. O’Malley that we see transpire before us on the funnies page. It is a world the adults around them can never comprehend: adults are too realistic, too skeptical, to accept the world of the imagination. Thus, Barnaby is in part a kind of Peter Pan parable, testifying to the eternal appeal of the imaginary world of the young. The strip thereby affirms the power of the imagination—and its truth, the truth of faith. The power of the imagination is creative: what we believe in becomes fact—or acquires the force of fact—and thereby shapes our lives.
But Johnson did not at the first see his theme as clearly as it would eventually emerge in the strip. At first, he was feeling his way. And the most visible evidence of his tentative grasp of his material is in the appearance of Mr. O’Malley.
Barnaby has been reprinted twice before. In the 1980s, Ballantine issued six paperbacks that reprinted the first five years of the strip. The Fantagraphics volume at hand reprints exactly the same opening months of the strip (only in much better reproduction). But the first Barnaby reprinting was in the fall of 1943 by Holt’s Blue Ribbon Books imprint. Holt continued the project in 1944 with Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley, but that volume was the last of the Holt project. No matter: it is the first of the Holt books that is crucial to our argument.
The Ballantine effort, like the Fantagraphics book, is an authentic reproduction of the strip exactly as it appeared in the newspapers from the beginning. The Holt books, on the other hand, were both produced under Crockett Johnson’s watchful eye. And the strip they present is markedly different from the one that appeared in the newspapers. But it is a better representation of Johnson’s vision as it had developed by the fall of 1943.
The first difference is in the way Mr. O’Malley is rendered.
In his newspaper debut, the Irish con-man was chubby but not round; and his schnoz was noticeably large but not quite bulbous. Over the first few months of the strip, Johnson, feeling his way, gradually changed Mr. O’Malley’s physique, and in the Ballantine and Fantagraphics productions, we can watch as it happens.
Slowly, O’Malley got shorter and rounder. With the fully dated strips in the Fantagraphics book before us, we can see that by September 1942, he was decidedly plumper than he had been when he first flew in through Barnaby's window. The adjustments were subtle: O'Malley's body became slightly smaller, his head slightly larger, and his nose bigger and rounder. In changing the relative size of various parts of O'Malley's physique, Johnson made his pixie protagonist cuter—and, hence, more appealing. The adjustment rescued the character: O'Malley's self-serving personality was softened by his physical appeal.
In preparing the strip for reprinting in the Holt book, Johnson redrew the inaugural strips to replace the early Mr. O’Malley with his later, more appealing version.
But that was not the only change Johnson wrought.
He also eliminated the first two adventures Barnaby shares with Mr. O’Malley—and several other incidents. The entire parrot story, which ends when Barnaby saves the city power plant from Nazi sabotage, is cut. Ditto the tale about an Ogre and Mr. Jones. The messed-up flower bed disappears—as does O’Malley’s picture in the newspaper, the shelves in the cellar that he collapsed while trying to get a jar of Barnaby’s mother’s preserves, an inadvertent oil strike in the basement, and the garage that is exploded by a firecracker that O’Malley was concocting.
And Barnaby’s grandmother is no longer in the Baxter household. Like any doting grandmother, she, presumably, would be attentive to her grandson and sympathetic to his “delusion.” But with O’Malley on the job, Barnaby didn’t need a doting grandparent: he had a persistent (not to say clinging) fairy godfather. Moreover, it is part of Johnson’s vaguely grasped notion that no grown-up should encourage Barnaby’s belief in O’Malley which is what a doting grandmother might do.
The Ogre/Mr. Jones episode provides a particularly revealing insight. It begins when Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley go for a walk in the woods and are captured by an ugly, horned Ogre with fangs who conforms, vaguely, to Barnaby’s recollection of a tale in a children’s storybook. The evil Ogre has a magic egg that transports Barnaby back to his own home. After a few more transportations back and forth, an executive in Mr. Baxter’s firm, Mr. Jones, comes to stay with the Baxters.
The minute Mr. Jones appears, we see what Barnaby sees: Mr. Jones looks exactly like the Ogre (albeit without horns and fangs). And he radiates evil. When he joins Barnaby on a stroll, he affects animals and plants as he walks by them—a horse whinnies, a cat spits, a dog growls, and a flower fades and dies. Obviously, Mr. Jones is the evil Ogre.
Back in the woods again, Mr. O’Malley inadvertently works the magic egg, and the Ogre disappears. But when Barnaby returns home, Mr. Jones is still there, smiling a sinister smile. Barnaby calls him a Nazi ogre, and the episode ends when the police arrive and arrest Mr. Jones, who, it turns out, is a Nazi spy. By happenstance, Barnaby supplies the proof of Mr. Jones’ guilt.
One could argue that Johnson removed both the parrot and Ogre/Jones episodes because they portray Barnaby in a heroic role—in the former case, the active agent in the arrest of criminals—which strains his credibility as a small boy. To make Barnaby believable, Johnson had to arrange for him to be more observer than actor. But I favor another explanation—one that also explains the removal of other incidents and of Barnaby’s grandmother.
By eliminating those two stories and the other incidents I mentioned, Johnson has made major alterations in his creation. He is not simply shortening the material to make it fit the dimensions of the Holt book: he is, rather, substantially changing his conception of the strip.
From the beginning, Barnaby has been at pains to convince his parents that Mr. O’Malley is real, not just a figment of his over-active imagination. All of the story elements that Johnson removed for the Holt book could tend to establish Mr. O’Malley as real in Barnaby’s parents’ eyes. They are all evidence of his reality. The messed-up flower bed, the exploding garage, Mr. O’Malley’s picture in the newspaper—all are tangible evidence of his actuality, proofs, so to speak, that the Baxters could see (although even when they look, they usually find other explanations for the strange happenings). And the endings of both the parrot and the Ogre/Mr. Jones stories in which the police confirm Barnaby’s suppositions about machinations of Nazi spies likewise establish the reality of the boy’s beliefs (and, hence, of the existence of Mr. O’Malley).
Why did Johnson destroy the evidence? By removing all this testimony to Barnaby’s veracity, he has undermined his protagonist. But the Holt version of the strip is clearly the incarnation that is closest to Johnson’s vision at the time. This is the Barnaby that he wants people to read and remember. Not only is this the way he wants his creation to be understood: this is the way that he then understood the function of human imagination.
All of Johnson’s work explores and exploits the way imagination works. His first success as a cartoonist, a continuing feature in Collier’s, “The Little Man with the Eyes,” depends upon the reader’s imagination. The cartoon in comic strip format simply depicts the face of a man over a different caption in each installment, and from panel to panel, the man’s eyes change their focus. With his eyes as hints, we imagine what he’s thinking about the subject of the caption.
In the children’s books he created after Barnaby ceased, Johnson again dealt with the power of imagination. In a series of books about Harold and his magic purple crayon, the protagonist creates adventures by drawing different surroundings for himself—an enchanted garden for a fairy tale with a king and castle, a rocket to take him up into the sky, a circus with animals and clowns, Santa’s house at the North Pole on Christmas Eve. The crayon is the instrument of Harold’s imagination.
In a dozen stories about a little girl, Ellen’s Lion, she talks to her stuffed toy lion, who talks back to her. Or so she imagines.
In a 1952 story, Who’s Upside Down?, a kangaroo in Australia chances upon a geography book that pictures the Earth as a globe with people standing on “top” of it—and a kangaroo at the “bottom.” She sees that Australia is on the “bottom” of the globe, and that people at the “top” are right-side up, but the kangaroo in Australia is upside down. She feels completely disoriented until her child turns the geography book around, and suddenly Australians are right-side up. Now she feels her old, happy self. By an act of sheer imagination, the kangaroo solves her dilemma.
But none of these stories are as nuanced and subtle about the role of imagination as Barnaby. Harold’s crayon is always unambiguously effective; neither Harold nor we have any doubts about the reality of the world he draws around him. And Ellen’s talking stuffed lion always converses with her. But then, Johnson wrote Magic Beach, a book that remained in unpublished manuscript form until 2005, when it was finally published, using Johnson’s sketches.
Written drawn in about 1959 after he’d written some of the Harold stories, Magic Beach proved a bit much for Johnson’s publisher, who thought it too depressing for a child. A revised version, illustrated much more realistically by someone else, was published as Castles in the Sand in 1965. But with the 2005 publication of the book with Johnson’s penciled drawings, exactly as Johnson intended the story, we have, as Johnson’s biographer Philip Nel says in the book’s afterword, “Johnson’s most developed examination of the boundary between real and imaginary worlds. ... It is not so much a departure from his earlier work as it is a more finely tuned, carefully nuanced exploration of his favorite theme: the powers and limits of the imagination.”
And with Magic Beach as a guide, we can now arrive at a better understanding of why Johnson made the changes in Barnaby for its first publication in book form.
Johnson’s wrote Magic Beach in response to a suggestion from his editor at Harper, who wondered if he might be interested in producing a book for the publisher’s “I Can Read” series. Appropriately, words are the source of power in the story.
A boy, Ben, and a girl, Ann, are walking along the beach, discussing stories and words.
“Stories are just words,” Ben says. “And words are just letters. And letters are just different kinds of marks.”
When Ann says she’s hungry, Ben takes a stick and writes “jam” in the sand. A wave rolls gently in across the sand and wipes out the word, and when the wave retreats, it leaves a silver dish of jam on the sand.
Intrigued, Ben writes “bread,” and the next wave brings thick slices of fresh bread on a dish. He writes “milk” and then “candy” for dessert. Milk and candy appear. When the sun beats down hot, he writes “tree” for shade, and a tree shows up.
“If this is a magic kingdom,” Ben says, “there has to be a king.” He writes “king,” and a king appears, seated on a rock with a fishing pole. Ann writes “fish” in the sand, and a fish is hooked at the end of the king’s line.
The children write “forest” then “farms” and “cities” and “castles,” and the king’s kingdom appears in the distance. Ann writes “horse,” and the king, after listening to a seashell that he puts to his ear, mounts the animal and heads off toward a distant castle, commanding Ben and Ann to leave the kingdom. But as he rides out of sight, they decide to follow him and set out through the forest.
Suddenly, the children are up to their ankles in water: the tide is coming in, Ben says. The water splashes up higher and higher against the trees, and Ben and Ann climb a hill of sand to escape. From the hilltop, they watch as the sea rises, and the forest and cities and castles sink beneath it. They watch as everything disappears under the water. Ann, disappointed, says:
“The story didn’t have any ending at all. When we left, it just stopped.” She paused. “The king is still there, in the story, hoping to get to his throne.”
But Ben has the seashell to his ear, listening to the sea and saying nothing.
Words magically created the story and its world, and the children’s imagination created the words they scratched in the sand. Thus, the king and the castles are products of imagination. When the children try deliberately to enter the imaginary world, that world disappears. The relation between imagination and reality is a fragile one. The imaginary is easily destroyed.
Johnson acknowledged that the fishing king is an allusion to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend who was charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Fortunately, I am able to resist pursuing this aspect of the story, winnowing my way through the vast harvest of ever-varying medieval tales to find, at last, that the Holy Grail, for Johnson, is the imagination. For my present purpose, we’ve seen enough.
By the time Johnson wrote Magic Beach, he had arrived at a clearer understanding of the role of the imagination than he had when he launched Barnaby. But his understanding of this idea was still not as complete or as complex in 1943 when he prepared the strip for reprinting in the Holt book. In 1943, he had a better inkling, but it was still only an inkling. At the time he was preparing the early episodes in Barnaby for Holt, he only felt what he later came to know—that the world of the imagination is threatened by contact with reality. And so, in preparing strip for reprinting, he removed the most overt manifestations of reality impinging upon and thereby verifying Barnaby’s imagination and the world, Mr. O’Malley, that it has created. But he did not remove all such evidence—and he never would—because Johnson believed the power of the imagination is real.
Removing the most conspicuous evidences of O’Malley’s existence did not destroy his reality: it merely reduced the efficacy of proofs about it, leaving some doubt about his existence. And the evidence removed was almost all of the sort that adults need in order to become O’Malley believers. We—you and I, readers of the strip, Peter Pans all—need no such proofs, no evidence beyond our eyesight: we see O’Malley.
Still, to sustain the reality of Barnaby’s imagination, it seemed important to Johnson to maintain a reality in the strip in which O’Malley’s existence is not supported by easily verifiable external evidence. The ambiguity that otherwise distinguishes the interaction of Mr. O’Malley with the larger world apart from Barnaby is undermined by such incidents as the parrot and ogre episodes: the more evidence there is for Mr. O’Malley’s existence independent of Barnaby’s imagination, the less ambiguous his existence is. For the imagination to retain its power, the ambiguity of that world must be preserved.
The truth of imagination’s power is sustained not by fact but by faith, our faith in the validity of the imaginary. If there is no doubt, no ambiguity, there is no need for faith. And without our faith in it, imagination loses its unique power.
By the time the Holt book was published, Johnson had come to realize, more consciously, that the effectiveness—and much of the comedy—of the Barnaby strip depended to some extent upon the ambiguity, so by enhancing doubt, he preserved his guiding theme, the power of the imagination.
Bill Watterson said he had never seen Barnaby before he concocted Calvin and Hobbes, but we can compare the two creations for a little additional insight. When Calvin’s stuffed toy tiger Hobbes walks and talks, we know Hobbes’ reality is imaginary. But Mr. O’Malley—we suspect he might be real, or, at very least, that the imagination that sustains him is real. If we enter into that imaginary world, it becomes real. That is the power of the imagination. If, however, we try to make reality validate the imaginary—prove its reality—the imagination has perforce lost its power. To preserve the power of the imagination, Johnson needed to prevent any overt, unambiguous validation of its reality.
O’Malley’s existence continues to be confirmed, sort of, in subsequent episodes, but never unambiguously. In a later adventure, he and Barnaby visit a deserted house and uncover a black market in coffee (coffee being scarce during WWII), and one of the crooks “sees” Mr. O’Malley—and promptly faints. And in the deserted (“haunted”) house where they are storing coffee, the crook’s accomplice saw a ghost (Gus the Ghost, a friend of O’Malley’s)—and fainted.
Unsophisticated people, like the crooks, always maintain that they’ve seen ghosts in empty (“haunted”) houses, so the “fact” that one of the crooks sees Gus does not necessarily validate Gus’s existence. And with parallel faintings, Johnson gives the other crook’s encounter with Mr. O’Malley a similar ambiguity.
Mr. O’Malley is elected to Congress, but he never appears before voters. He is elected by disgruntled minions of a corrupt political boss, Honest John Snagg, as well as by ordinary citizens like Barnaby’s father, who approves what he knows about “J.J. O’Malley,” and all that he knows is mostly fictitious or cheery happenstance. The machinations of the campaign and the election constitute Johnson’s satiric attack on politics.
While it seems on one occasion just after the election that Boss Snagg sees O’Malley, Snagg is, by that time, so discombobulated by the peculiarities of O’Malley’s candidacy and the wholly unanticipated outcome of the election that his perceptions are highly questionable. He might just be seeing things. In fact, he himself seems to think that’s exactly what is happening. Like the coffee crooks, he is not a reliable witness. That doesn’t mean that O’Malley doesn’t exist; it means only that his existence is ambiguous. And so the comedy can, and does, go on—with photographs of O’Malley in the newspaper and on posters all around town.
Barnaby’s parents believe in the political O’Malley, thinking he cannot be their son’s imaginary fairy godfather. But we know the truth.
When O’Malley gains notoriety by foiling a robbery (an unsought celebrity that leads to his congressional candidacy), his reality—his existence as well as his actions—is confirmed by eyewitnesses, whose testimony about O’Malley’s wavy hair and height quickly establishes them as unreliable.
Little Jane Schultz, Barnaby’s frequent companion, manifests no doubts about Mr. O’Malley’s existence (although she’s scornful of his ability to do magic). But she, like Barnaby, is a child and therefore an unreliable witness.
Unreliable as such testimony may be, it paradoxically confirms our fondest wish—that O’Malley lives.
By creating a world in which adults don’t believe in Mr. O’Malley but Barnaby, Jane and all of us do, Johnson establishes doubt and ambiguity in that world and thereby preserves and fosters the power of imagination.
In one of the most memorable sequences in the strip, Johnson turns his premise on its head: Mr. O’Malley encounters the myth of another ostensibly imaginary being, Santa Claus—and disputes that personage’s reality, accusing him of perpetrating a monstrous hoax. Still, we know better—about both Santa and O’Malley.
Crockett Johnson's drawing style helped preserve of the power of imagination. Its simplicity suited Barnaby's world, a child's world: Johnson drew in simple outlines, relying entirely upon flat blacks to provide visual variety. The drawings looked like the pictures in children's coloring books. No shading, no feathering. And no perspective either. No variety in camera angles. Everything was seen from the same side view. Backgrounds were rendered as flat planes, and we looked at the strip as if peering into one of those children's dioramas made of paper cut-outs. It was a matter-of-fact minimalism: the distillation of detail was wholly accurate in rendition.
Although childlike in simplicity, the drawings were not crude or amateurish like a child's early attempts. Despite the economy of line, Johnson's pictures were nonetheless sophisticated renderings, capable, with the cartoonist's subtle touches, of a marvelous expressiveness: the action was usually restrained, so a raised eyebrow was as provocative as a sounding trumpet.
The simplicity of the drawing style worked to enhance Johnson's strengths as a storyteller. Barnaby was a highly verbal production, and the simple pictures permitted Johnson to play his literate word games without much risk that his readers would be distracted by the visuals. O'Malley's baroque bombast acquired comic weight in contrast to the unpretentious pictures. And from the comedy emerged the portrait of the character (or vice versa).
Relying on word and action rather than graphic pyrotechnics, Johnson achieved a peculiarly satisfying triumph of characterization. O'Malley was a stock character and in many ways a one-dimensional figure, but his personality was revealed in always fascinating ironic nuance. Hence, our delight at his shenanigans—an essentially intellectual joy.
Johnson employed a highly imaginative supporting cast to bring out the pixie's best (or worst) traits. Most of them are as one-dimensional as O'Malley, but each of these dimensions threw O'Malley's into bolder relief. There is Launcelot McSnoyd, an invisible leprechaun with a nasty disposition and a thick Brooklyn accent, who delights in annoying O'Malley, and Jane Shultz, Barnaby's playmate who is the only other human to see O'Malley, but who has very little use for him and does not much conceal her disdain even in O'Malley's august presence. And then there's Gorgon, the dog Barnaby gets one Christmas. Gorgon can talk, and when he does, he claims his father is the original Hound of the Baskervilles. And he also commits an endless series of puns: "I'm dog tired," he'll say brightly.
O'Malley introduces Barnaby (and us) to an intriguing collection of old friends and former associates. We meet Gus the Ghost, the most timid spook on the face of the planet who is so frightened by the noises in the deserted house he is "haunting" that he leaves and takes up residence in the Baxter basement. (Later, he becomes a ghostwriter to produce O'Malley's autobiography.) And we meet an authentic giant—a mental giant (only three feet tall) named Atlas who can't conduct a conversation without working it out in advance on his slide rule.
Johnson concocted a number of settings or situations in which to test the orotund pixie's mettle. One summer, Barnaby and Jane and O'Malley and Gus go to camp. Another summer, they all go to Jane's aunt's cottage at the sea shore, and O'Malley goes treasure hunting (meeting his old friend, that legendary denizen of the deep, Davy Jones, who always has a cold—"The dampness, you know," he explains). The strip's premise allowed Johnson great latitude in which to ply his comedic and satiric talents. Once O'Malley runs for Congress—and wins. And on another occasion, he becomes a wizard of Wall Street so Johnson can poke fun at the pretensions of the financial world.
Appropriately enough for a strip in which the existence of the chief player is in question, Crockett Johnson didn't exist either. Crockett Johnson was the pen name adopted by David Johnson Leisk, who, at the time of Barnaby's debut, was a freelance cartoonist, most noted for his Collier's feature, "The Little Man with the Eyes." He had carted ice, played a little professional football, and worked in Macy's art department and in McGraw-Hill's. With a cartoonist's characteristic self-deprecation, Johnson claimed he decided to do a daily newspaper comic strip because he was lazy, implying that one of the world's most demanding and unrelenting jobs is in reality one of the easiest, something to be done on a spare afternoon once a week.
In practice, Johnson perhaps did reduce the amount of time necessary to produce his strip. He was also a typographer, and instead of hand-lettering the speech balloons, he set type for them. It probably didn't save that much time, but it did enable Johnson to cram more words into each panel than he might have by lettering it all by hand. And with a verbose protagonist like O'Malley, the innovation paid grandiloquent dividends.
Despite the typography shortcut, Johnson spent hours devising the stories in the strip, lacing them with highly literate allusions, refining O’Malley’s soaring rhetoric. He worked nights, Nel tells us, writing the strip for two nights; drawing it the next two. The last step was pasting strips of typeset dialogue into the speech balloons. And sometimes Johnson worked so close to his deadline that the glue was still drying on the strips when he delivered them.
Unhappily for its fans, Barnaby proved short-lived. Johnson, true to his own assessment of his industriousness, wearied of the unyielding daily, weekly, monthly, yearly grind of doing a daily comic strip and turned its production over to two others. By 1947 (only five years after Johnson started the strip), Barnaby was being written by Ted Ferro and drawn by Jack Morley. Johnson supervised the production, but apparently the magic started to fade. Never a widely circulated feature, Barnaby began to lose papers. Johnson took control once more in an attempt to save it, but his heart wasn't in it, and he ended the strip on February 2, 1952.
Barnaby is one of the few strips to have a conclusion as well as an ending date. Johnson's last story was, in a poignantly backhanded way, an affirmation of the strip's theme. As Barnaby approaches his sixth birthday, his father tells the boy that "big boys don't have fairy godfathers." Mr. O'Malley confirms Mr. Baxter's assertion, and after attending Barnaby's birthday party, the pixie says his farewell and flies away for good.
Looking out his window that night, Barnaby sees a shooting star, and, remembering that he saw just such a star on the night Mr. O'Malley first appeared, he seems to wonder for a moment if the star is Mr. O'Malley going away. Then his father, reminding him that he’s older now, offers to close the window. Barnaby admits that what he sees is “only a shooting star.” And he shuts the window, an act that certifies his being too old for fairy godfathers.
Later, lying in bed, Barnaby ponders these matters as he falls asleep: “Mr. O’Malley can’t come back HERE anymore,” he says, “—but, maybe, someplace else....”
In the next panel, we see the starry night outside Barnaby’s bedroom window, the same starry backdrop out of which Mr. O’Malley first flew in. And then, in the next panel, we’re in the bedroom of another little boy—and Mr. O’Malley is flying in the window, heralding his arrival with his customary “Cushlamochree!” and introducing himself to the “lucky boy” as his fairy godfather.
Can we believe our eyes? Is O’Malley launching himself on another fairy godfathering con? Or do these final panels merely depict Barnaby’s imagination at work, envisioning Mr. O’Malley “someplace else”? We don’t know. We can’t be sure. But it is satisfying to suppose that in the last strip, Barnaby’s imagination has given us, once again, the strip’s reality.
FOOTNIT: In his Afterword in the Fantagraphics reprint, Nel explains that “cushlamochree” means “pulse of my heart” in the Irish vernacular.