Barnaby Volume 1

Barnaby Volume 1 cover

The author of the wonderfully imaginative Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, brought that creativity to the comic strip format during World War II. This first volume of Barnaby contains comics from April 1942 through the end of 1943.

Barnaby is a typical boy who’s visited by the world’s strangest Fairy Godfather. Mr. O’Malley wears a hat and trenchcoat and is never seen without his cigar (which he calls his magic wand). It’s unclear, at times, whether he’s really a magical creature, a con artist, or a figment of Barnaby’s imagination (which would have to be rather odd to dream up this guy).

Johnson’s work is immediately visually distinctive, from the typeset text to his spare, clean-line style. It’s part of the modernist trend of the time, but its clarity keeps it readable and relevant today. There’s an odd conflict at the heart of the strip, between practicality and flights of fancy, as seen by how, early on, when Barnaby is trying to tell his parents about his new friend, Dad responds, “Try not to dream anymore, son.” That tension suits readers, who likely know, as Dad continues, “Nobody believes in pixies any more, son,” but maybe want to hope for something to disrupt daily life anyway.

Barnaby Volume 1 cover

Which happens soon enough, as O’Malley sets off the air raid sirens and keeps raiding the icebox and catches spies with the aid of a Nazi parrot and rounds up iron for a scrap metal drive, all while Barnaby’s parents worry about his “imaginary friend”. There’s an Ogre and Gus the ghost and a trip to the child psychologist and a new neighbor girl named Jane who gets very confused between what her parents tell her about seeing things and what she sees. My favorite is Gorgon the talking dog who, in one set of strips, starts teaching himself tricks.

O’Malley is a windbag who makes himself out as more than he is, and his tricks often leave Barnaby to take the blame for the garage blowing up, for example, but somehow, it all works out all right in the end. Barnaby’s good-natured, even-handed survival is inspiring, and O’Malley is worth having around just to make things more interesting. A wonderful read with humor that stems from the tension between suburban expectations and a yearning for a more creative, magical way of living.

Barnaby Volume 1 also contains information on how Johnson developed the strip (by Philip Nel, author of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature), an appreciation of his style by Jeet Heer, Dorothy Parker’s “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson”, and a set of annotations to inform the modern reader of the historical and literary references in the comic.


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