October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated As Fantagraphics Books’ recent reprint of the complete run of the first two years of Peanuts proves, Charles Schulz’s comic strip was once funny, audacious, quirky, and inventive. These early strips first appeared well over a half-century ago, however, and in the last decades of its original run Peanuts was bland, repetitious, smug, and not particularly amusing.
Possibly Schulz was influenced by the nearly universal perception that he was a really sweet guy along the lines of your favorite uncle. Peanuts grew increasingly nice, cozy, and, too often, preachy.
With many comic strips, knowing when to quit isn’t a problem: The syndicate editors simply cancel a feature that is losing papers. Peanuts , though, has become a merchandising juggernaut, and its momentum has kept it going to this day, now in reruns. Bill Watterson, creator of the extremely popular Calvin and Hobbes , did know when to quit and closed up shop while Calvin and his tiger were just about as fresh and funny as they had been on their first day in newspapers.
Underrated Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby , lasting in its original newspaper run from 1942 to 1952, was also about life as seen from a kid’s point of view. It was in fact a favorite of Charles Schulz; he called it “one of the great comic strips of all time.” You can’t, though, buy a compilation of the strip today except from a secondhand book dealer. More restless, and quite probably less kindly, than Schulz, Johnson abandoned his strip after a decade. He later created Harold and the Purple Crayon and its popular sequels. These children’s books are still in print, and Johnson owes most of his posthumous fame to them.
Barnaby began in the spring of 1942 in the liberal New York tabloid PM. Its leading characters were Barnaby, a bright and articulate preschooler, and Mr. O’Malley, his windy and not completely effectual fairy godfather. Barnaby looked a great deal like Harold. O’Malley was a child-size, pudgy fellow who wore an overcoat that allowed his pink wings to flap freely. In the winter he added earmuffs to his ensemble. For a magic wand he used a Havana cigar. He never met a problem, big or small, that he wasn’t ready to deal with —or at least to discuss at great length. O’Malley really could work magic, and he could fly. But he was easily distracted and sidetracked, having a short attention span when it came to concentrating on working miracles.
He came into Barnaby’s life when the boy wished for a fairy godmother. That very night Jackeen J. O’Malley flew in through his bedroom window, crashlanding and bending his stogie. “Cushlamochree! Broke my magic wand!... Lucky boy! Your wish is granted! I’m your Fairy Godfather!” After promising, “M’boy, your troubles are over,” O’Malley went flying out the window, the effect of this impressive exit tarnished by his crashing into the shrubs below. When Barnaby attempted to explain his newfound magical protector to his parents, they of course didn’t believe him. “Try not to dream anymore, son,” his businessman father advised.
But Barnaby didn’t live in a fantasy world. He lived in the real world as perceived by a bright child, a remarkable place where reality and fantasy could comfortably coexist. Barnaby’s closest friend, Jane Schultz, had no trouble seeing O’Malley, but she considered him something of a dope, preferring to get her excitement from Captain Bloodbath Comics . When O’Malley wasn’t hanging around with Barnaby, concocting a new scheme or availing himself of the leftover roast lamb that was almost always to be found in the refrigerator, he frequented either the headquarters of the Elves, Gnomes and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society or Paddy’s Bar & Grill.
Johnson stacked the cards in Barnaby’s favor. One of the quiet ironies of the strip was that all the fantastic events that caused his parents to fret over his mental state were actually happening. What Johnson seemed to be saying was that to a kid the world is a much more marvelous place than adults notice it to be. That he was able to do this without being sticky or fey is one of the triumphs of Barnaby . The strip also managed to be consistently and quietly funny throughout its run.
During its heyday the subtle and thoughtful strip was syndicated to a modest list of newspapers and garnered raves from the likes of Time , Life , Dorothy Parker, Duke Ellington, and W. C. Fields, who probably felt a kinship with O’Malley. While it was running, Barnaby was reprinted in two hardcover collections and a short-lived digest. Dover reprinted the two books in the 1970s, and then Ballantine Books reprinted six undersized paperback collections of the strip nearly 20 years ago. Barnaby and his private pixie haven’t been seen since, except for a sequence of the strip reprinted in the second volume of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouley’s Little Lit series.