Believing is Seeing (or, Cushlamochree!)

I want to talk about something happy now, so I 'm going to talk about Barnaby.

Barnaby was a newspaper strip created by Crockett Johnson back in the 1940s. You may have encountered Johnson before, as he's the creator of the popular Harold and the Purple Crayon series. Those books are a lot of fun, and if you like those (or just like things that are good in general), you should also get a kick out of Barnaby.

The title character is a typical young American boy whose life changes one night when his fairy godfather, Mr. O'Malley, flies through the window. O'Malley is a short, squat little man with pink wings and a cigar that doubles for a magic wand, and he's a real W.C. Fields type of character. He professes to be an expert on nearly every subject imaginable (he isn't), claims to be quite a handy magician (though we never seem him do much more than a card trick), and will go to any lengths imaginable to avoid work of any kind, preferring to raid Barnaby's parent's icebox (and its seemingly never-ending supply of cold legs of lamb).

Barnaby, naturally, takes to his fairy godfather immediately. Misadventures ensue, much to the chagrin of Barnaby's parents, who don't understand their child's fascination with his unusual new imaginary friend (and at one point haul him off to a child psychologist).

But is Mr. O'Malley really imaginary? That's part of the strip's charm. The situations O'Malley gets Barnaby involved in are outlandish (invisible leprechauns, talking dogs, disastrous radio broadcasts and so forth), but Johnson never gives us any indication that this stuff isn't really going on. In fact, Barnaby is constantly trying to prove to everyone that his fairy godfather really does exist, but by the time the parents show up, O'Malley has wandered off, either in search of food or to a meeting of the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes and Little Men's Chowder and Marching Society that he had previously forgotten (kind of like whenever Big Bird would try to tell everyone about Mr. Snuffleupagus).

Barnaby's parents tell him that they don't believe in Mr. O'Malley because they never see him, and seeing is believing. O'Malley turns this around on Barnaby, saying "Believing is Seeing." And I think that's the heart of the whole strip. Whether or not Barnaby's adventures are really "real" isn't important. They're real enough to him (and to Jane, the little girl down the street who later gets caught up in the happenings) because he believes, they way all children can make their backyard adventures come to life. It's all a matter of perception.

I'm willing to bet this strip was a huge influence on Calvin and Hobbes. The big difference, though, is that we occasionally see the imaginary bits that make up Calvin's colossal adventures (Hobbes as a toy, cardboard boxes and plastic dinosaurs), and Johnson never really lifts that curtain here (Barnaby is also much more well-behaved).

There's a lot of other stuff to recommend here, too. The strip is very much a product of its time, as we see references to stuff like old time radio and the then-new fascination with child psychology, and though the war is never outright mentioned, it does serve as a backdrop. Storylines involve air raid drill blackouts and scrap metal drives, and Mr. O'Malley has a great monologue at one point outlining the troubles of taking his proposed ventriloquist act on the road at that particular point in time (blackouts prevent seeing your name in lights on Broadway, and a tour of Europe isn't such a great idea). It could be very chilling, seeing the effects of war on even the lives of children, but to Barnaby, it's all just part of life at the moment, in the background but never really all consuming. Chalk another one up to the Greatest Generation, I suppose, because I doubt we'd never accept anything so terrible with that much rationality.

So besides just being a great comic strip (and yet more proof that the funny pages used to be so much better than they are today), it's an interesting cultural artifact in its way.

And Johnson's art is really enjoyable. Nice, simple lines, clean layouts... very minimal, really. Enough to set the scene, but not much more (but it doesn't come off as lazy - we're not talking Ernie Bushmiller-era Nancy here). The style lies somewhere between Peanuts and a Saturday Evening Post cartoon. If you've ever read the Harold books, you know what I'm talking about.

There is a downside to all this, though, as collections are long out of print. It has been collected sporadically from the 40s all the way up to the 60s or 70s, so there are older copies are out there in the world. You just have to be willing to hunt for them. I found a copy of the first 40s collection published by Holt on eBay a few months back for around $10. It can be difficult to find sometimes, but it's well worth it, especially since this doesn't look to be coming back into print anytime soon. It's a travesty, really. Someone needs to bring this back to the light of day. It's the sort of thing Kitchen Sink would've been perfect for, I think. Surely Fantagraphics is making enough off of Complete Peanuts to fund a project like this, hm?

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