A few years ago, I read a biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. I knew Johnson from his iconic, Harold and the Purple Crayon and I was familiar with many of the children’s books that Krauss was involved in. I do not remember, however, if I knew about Barnaby before then.
Barnaby was a syndicated comic that Johnson drew and wrote between 1942 -1952. A unique feature of the comic is that instead of hand-lettering the dialogue, the strip used typography (Italic Futura Medium to be exact), which allowed for many more words in each panel.
Barnaby didn’t have the syndication power of some of the more popular comics of the day, but it had a fervent and loyal fanbase. Famously, Dorothy Parker wrote that she could not review the Barnaby compilation book that was published because “it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.”
Oh Dorothy, I so get you, sister! I adored reading my 13th book of the year, Barnaby, Volume 1 that covers the time period 20 April 1942 to 31 December 1943. The book is published by the amazing Fantagraphics Books that has done so much, so beautifully, to bring comics to the attention of new readers. It is beautifully done, and its format works so well with the four-panel, black and white strips that Crockett Johnson drew.
The premise of the strip is that Barnaby is a five-year-old boy who wishes for a fairy godmother. His wish is kind of granted when a tiny man with wings crashes into his room one night and introduces himself as his fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. From there on, it is just a delight! Barnaby is adorable in his faith in his godfather, even though he is not what you would want your kid to be hanging out with. His magic wand is a cigar that is always hanging out of his mouth, he seems to hang out with a questionable crowd in some questionable places, and he is almost always unwilling (unable?) to perform the magic that Barnaby could use. There are so many clever inside jokes and political commentary intertwined in the stories. Barnaby’s parents are forever worried about his preoccupation with the imaginary O’Malley, but that never dampens Barnaby wanting to be a faithful godson to his O’Malley.
I too can only write a valentine to Crockett Johnson.