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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Barnaby: Volume Two’

- - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

By Crockett Johnson
Edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds
Fantagraphics Books, $39.99, 376 pages

Cushlamochree, Barnaby is back.

In 1942, cartoonist and illustrator Crockett Johnson caught the American public by storm with his brilliant comic strip "Barnaby." Five-year-old Barnaby Baxter and his fairy godfather, Mr. O'Malley, had amazing journeys through the world (and dark underbelly) of politics, high finance and current events. They crossed the line between reality and imagination as often as we crossed the street, leaving readers spellbound and craving more.

Barnaby's long-awaited second volume has just been published by Fantagraphics Books. (I reviewed Volume 1 for The Washington Times last July.) Edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds, it includes a foreword by longtime syndicated cartoonist Jules Feiffer and a chapter penned by comics historian R.C. Harvey. There's a glossary to help readers understand the historical context of certain strips. The cover, featuring a classic Barnaby pose with a part-angelic and part-mischievous look on his face, couldn't be more perfect.

As World War II neared its end, Barnaby's magical world continued to grow and develop.

"During the height of the war years," Mr. Feiffer writes, "Barnaby and O'Malley emerged as the town criers of what was to become, within a decade, the new normality of the Cold War years: instability, disenchantment with authority, a subterranean sense of chaos." Johnson had the "politics of a young Marxist" and originally worked for the "communist-controlled New Masses" publication. When the cartoonist's political leanings shifted, he sought out "PM, the most leftist/liberal (non-communist) newspaper of its time," as a suitable home for Barnaby.

Yet, as Mr. Nel points out, this particular volume represents "the final moment in Johnson's comics career that the Popular Front values he shared (anti-fascism, pro-labor, anti-racism, pro-civil liberties) were also in the ascendant as American values." In the postwar period, "Johnson remained on the left, but the United States drifted rightward ... For now, though, his political views were still largely in the mainstream."

Consider Johnson's storyline about the "Average Voter." Barnaby wonders if his father fits this description, but is told it's "merely a figure of speech. A myth. A symbol ... He's imaginary. Just like that 'Fairy Godfather' of yours." When O'Malley hears this, the search takes on a whole new life: "So how can the Average Voter be just like me? It's absurd ... Unless ... er ... Cushlamochree! I'm the Average Voter!"

In Barnaby's world, the real and the imaginary can be remarkably similar. Why couldn't Jackeen J. O'Malley, a magical pixie who isn't supposed to exist, be the Average Voter who supposedly doesn't exist? As an aside, this theory could've been more plausible had O'Malley bothered to register to vote.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harvey writes, "In balancing O'Malley's aspirations against Barnaby's mild (but persistent) skepticism, Johnson found the dynamic of his strip."

O'Malley's brief tenure as a business tycoon perfectly illustrates this point. Starting with the Ack Ack Cereal Company, O'Malley purchases some factories — including the one that employs Barnaby's father. In spite of Barnaby's concerns, he presses on, admitting "at times I nourish misgivings about the entire venture." Senior people arrive at O'Malley Enterprises without knowing how they got hired — or who did it. Stock shares and company profits kept multiplying. Gus the Ghost and his spooky friend, Jacob Marley (an homage to Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"), eventually tell O'Malley, " ... you own the economic system!"

This is what some people used to think — and still think — about big business in their darkest moments. O'Malley Enterprises became a financial empire with no money, products or business plan to speak of. While O'Malley wouldn't have been classified as a 19th-century robber baron, it's a capitalist model many Americans feared and deplored.

Alas, all good (or sort-of-good) things must end. For O'Malley, this occurred when people discovered he paid cash to purchase a new pair of trousers "instead of charging it to his account." Confidence in his company wanes. The financial books have also disappeared: Gus and Marley took them, owing to a nagging $1.27 shortfall. When the Securities and Exchange Commission came a-knocking, the doors of O'Malley Enterprises (whatever it exactly was) are permanently shut.

That's a small sampling of what's in store for readers in "Barnaby: Volume Two."

In conclusion, Max Lerner's Oct. 7, 1943 PM article made this unique assessment: "As adults, we can get Barnaby's irony. But the children are wiser and more fortunate. They take the story straight." If there's a better reason to explain why we still admire, appreciate and enjoy this great comic strip, I haven't seen it.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.