Talking ‘Barnaby’: An interview with co-editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Nel

by  in Comic News Comment
Talking ‘Barnaby’: An interview with co-editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Nel

For many fans and historians, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby was largely regarded as the best comic strip you never read. Or, if you knew where to look, the best comic you only read a few snatches of.

All that changed last year when Fantagraphics began collecting the strip in a series of handsome volumes, designed by Dan Clowes and edited by Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds and Philip Nel, author of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature.

The second volume just arrived in stores this week, which made it seem like the perfect opportunity to talk to Nel and Reynolds a bit about Barnaby, what makes it so swell, its legacy, and more. I want to thank them for their time and patience, especially considering this whole thing took place over the Internet.

Q: Like most people, my first introduction to Crockett Johnson’s work was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I didn’t come across Barnaby until I came across the 1977 Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. I’m not sure at the time, however, I realized immediately it was the same author, despite the distinctive style. How were each of you introduced to Barnaby and were you aware at the time that this was also the author of Harold?

ER: I was introduced to Barnaby by Dan Clowes at some point in the 1990s. I had actually never read Harold, although I was aware of it. But it was Dan who really got Johnson’s work on my radar, and on a trip to Amsterdam around 1996, I stumbled across a copy of the paperback edition of the original 1950s Barnaby collection, in the American Book Center (a great bookstore in the centrum). I was pretty hooked at that point. Rick Norwood also started running the strip in his Comics Revue magazine around this same time, and I religiously clipped all of those throughout that run. For years, that was my Barnaby archive. Johnson then became one of my initial obsessions in that early eBay era, along with guys like Boris Artzybasheff and Abner Dean.

PN: Harold and the Purple Crayon was a childhood favorite. Like Eric, I first met Barnaby in the mid-1990s. While reading early 1940s issues of the newspaper PM on microfilm (looking for the then-uncollected Dr. Seuss cartoons), at the end of each day’s paper, I noticed a comic strip starring a child who looked a heck of a lot like Harold. This, of course, was Barnaby. So, instead of just looking for Seuss cartoons, I made sure to read Barnaby in each issue of PM. Like Eric, I was hooked. Also, I’d had no idea that Johnson had an earlier career as a cartoonist! This discovery led me to start collecting Crockett Johnson books, and — since no one had then created a website devoted to Johnson — create The Crockett Johnson Homepage. That was in 1998.

ER: I must have been one of the earlier visitors to The Crockett Johnson Homepage. I think Dan first brought it to my attention. Here was this somewhat clunky-looking web page that contained more info on Johnson than the rest of the Internet combined! I totally imagined this Philip Nel fellow as a contemporary of R.C. Harvey’s or Bill Blackbeard’s, and not someone around the same age as me.

PN: Hah! My favorite tweet from last year’s Comic-Con (the first I’ve attended) was from Tom Spurgeon: “one of the odder discoveries for many comic-con weekend is that phil nel isn’t the 78 year old whitebearded man many expected.” Apparently, I write like a 78-year-old. Or perhaps higher education has corrupted my writing style, inflating my verbiage with amiable windbaggery, just like Mr. O’Malley! Not that Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather is especially well-educated, but he is a delightful and long-winded pretender to knowledge — which makes him a great character of possibility. In Barnaby Volume Two alone, he takes on the role of international financier, efficiency expert, fur trader, treasure-hunter, and chief advisor to Thomas E. Dewey’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

ER: I think we all just assumed that anyone who knew that much about Johnson had to have been someone who was reading Barnaby in PM from the get go.

Q: To the best of my knowledge (which, I admit, is pretty limited), Barnaby hasn’t been collected much at all apart from a few anthologies like the afore-mentioned Smithsonian book, Comics Revue and some collections that came out during the strip’s run. Why do you think it took so long for someone to attempt to do a Barnaby collection given its acclaim (at least in certain circles)?

PN: The second of Art Spiegleman and Françoise Mouly’s Little Lit books included a Barnaby sequence, but yes, you’re right. It’s not been widely collected. One reason is that it’s hard to extract, say, a week’s worth of strips. Crockett Johnson is a storyteller, and his narratives tend to unfold over several weeks or months. As a reader, you settle into the narrative rhythm, and that works well. Another reason is that it’s not a gag-driven strip. Nancy (for instance) is a brilliant gag strip, but Barnaby traffics in irony. Rather than laughing at the joke in the final panel, you’re smiling at Johnson’s gently satirical portraits in each panel. These qualities make it a strip that’s great fun to re-read — like Richard Thompson’s sadly short-lived Cul-de-Sac (which I’m currently re-reading), or Walt Kelly’s Pogo. And that’s why, in its original run, Barnaby fans like Dorothy Parker clipped the strip from each day’s paper, and saved it.

ER: Barnaby is one of the wordiest strips ever. This is typically not a selling point, and I’ve seen it put more than a few people off. But I can’t emphasize enough just how readable it is, despite the fact that some of its individual qualities – typeset lettering, lots of words, Johnson’s superfically cold line — have never particularly been popular approaches to strip cartooning. It also ran in a relatively small number of newspapers, in its time. It’s taken a generation of cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Art Spigeleman, and scholars like Phil, to make us pay attention and acknowledge this as something far greater than the sum of its parts.

PN: I guess I’d say that Mr. O’Malley is wordy, but Johnson is very concise. So, yes, O’Malley’s linguistic exuberance is key to the strip’s appeal. Johnson’s decision to use typeset dialogue (unique in a daily comic) allowed him to include — by his estimation — 60% more words, which in turn gave O’Malley plenty of room to develop the unique style that, as one critic noted, combines the “style of a medicine-show huckster with that of Dickens’s Mr. Micawber.” But, then, Johnson’s clear, precise line, and the clean, modernist Futura type offers a perfect, orderly frame for O’Malley’s meandering bluster. The tension between a typographer’s sense of precision (in Johnson’s art and layout) and O’Malley’s casual disregard for rules (in his language and character) makes the strip work.

Q: Jumping off that, Philip, do you feel your Johnson site helped renew interest in the artist and Barnaby?

PN: When I started the site, I never imagined that Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware would read it (and email me, and send me scans of Johnson rarities!), nor that it would lead to my biography of Johnson and Ruth Krauss (his wife, also a children’s book author), nor to the Fantagraphics Barnaby project. But, happily, The Crockett Johnson Homepage does seem to have brought us Crockett-Johnson-philes together!

ER: Without Phil’s site, I likely would have not met Phil, and without meeting Phil, we might never have been able to broker the Barnaby deal with the Ruth Krauss estate. Phil and his agent, George, were instrumental in getting them to listen to our pitch.

Q: How did this particular project get off the ground? Who contacted who first?

PN: Eric contacted me. It was perfect, really. I had long wanted to bring out the full ten-year run of Barnaby, and my first choice of publisher was Fantagraphics, because they do such beautiful reprints of classic comics. Then, out of the blue, Eric (whom I’d never met) emails me. Next, my agent — George Nicholson — and I met with the executor of Ruth Krauss’s estate, Stewart Edelstein. I doubt that the legal details would be of much interest to your readers, but the agreement between Fantagraphics and the estate was the next step. After that, well, I think people assume that, surely, there’s a series of file drawers containing pristine copies of any given comic strip, and that all we have to do is open the drawer and scan in the artwork. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eric, you can speak to this better than I can ….

ER: With The Complete Peanuts, we’ve been lucky to have access to what was then United Media’s excellently maintained archives of Peanuts proof sheets. There was no similar primary source for Barnaby strips. I underestimated how hard it would be to find many of the strips from the first two years, in particular, and the first volume was considerably late as a result. And even once you find a source, there’s usually a fair amount of clean-up/restoration involved. We’re indebted to a few private collectors and institutions like Harvard for helping us along the way.

Q: OK, walk me through some of the strip-finding here. Why was it so difficult to find copies of the strip? I think the layman might say, why not just scan in the page from the magazine? Are copies of PM that rare? How much clean-up is involved? And are you still having trouble locating strips?

PN: There isn’t a complete run of Barnaby in any one location. So, we’ve had to draw on many sources. There are many strips (including a number of originals, and tearsheets) with Johnson’s papers, at the Smithsonian; and there are a very few originals at the Library of Congress. However, neither has everything, a fair few originals are deteriorating (the glue that once affixed the type no longer does, and so words have drifted into other corners of the box), and photographing originals from those archives tends to be more expensive. So, another option is to go to the original newspaper, because those are good quality — and better than microfilm. The strip made its debut in the Popular Front newspaper PM, and, at its height, was syndicated in 52 newspapers. PM was printed on good quality paper.  Unfortunately, when newspapers get microfilmed, the original papers get thrown away. Harvard has the papers for the newspaper PM, and has a considerable run of PM unbound. This is important: when bound, it’s hard to photograph the part of the strip that’s closest to the binding (because it curves). So, Todd Bachmann and Maggie Hale at Harvard’s Widener Library have been great, and getting photos from there has been a more economical option than the Smithsonian. Seussologist Charles Cohen has a run of PM during the years that Seuss contributed political cartoons (April 1941-January 1943). That overlaps with Barnaby (which debuted in April 1942) by about eight months. He’s been very helpful, too, sending Fantagraphics boxes of his 70-year-old newspapers to photograph. We’ve also gotten strips from Rick Marschall’s Rosebud Archives, the Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and individual collectors like Daniel Clowes and Kurt Busiek.  Collectors tend to have the strips that were not included in Del Rey’s paperbacks (six volumes, 1985-1986) — they covered up through 31 July 1946. So, finding the earlier strips has been harder than finding the later ones.

If the strips are being photographed on site (in the archives), it’s cheaper if the researcher marks which ones need to be photographed — otherwise, an archivist has to do it or has to employ someone to do it. So, when my travels take me near an archive, I arrive a day or two early so that I can go to Harvard, the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress. At the Smithsonian, I also mark other Crockett Johnson rarities for photographing. In each book, we’re including photos, other artwork, advertisements, different original strips for each endpaper, and other items of interest. So, I spend a fair bit of time finding those.

ER: We essentially have lined up everything for the remaining three volumes at this point. It was the first few years that were especially difficult to find. Microfilm was I suppose a great invention for institutions who archived newspapers, but it’s an utterly useless one when it comes to reproducing artwork. It is useful only for reference.

Q: How did you settle upon the design and layout of this book? Why the landscape format versus a more traditional book shape/format?

ER: That’s a good question. The answer is very simple: when we began to formulate the series, I simply started xeroxing strips on our office photocopier at different sizes and playing around with all possible layout permutations I could think of. At the end of the day, the size of the book is simply the size that looked and felt best to me, in terms of the readability of the strips and the comfort of the trim size, and how many pages the template would add up to, per volume. This was something I learned to do years ago from Kim Thompson: just get down to it and get your hands dirty trying all possible options. I came up with the size and ran it by Phil and Dan Clowes and they both liked it. The design is essentially all Dan Clowes’s. Years before we had acquired the rights to Barnaby, Dan and I had dreamed of doing these books and always had an agreement that if I could get the rights, no one else could possibly design it other than him.

Q: One of the things that interests me about Barnaby is that there’s never any question that Mr. O’Malley is real and that all the fantastical elements are real — adults are just oblivious to them. Compare that to, say, Calvin and Hobbes (an obvious descendent of Barnaby) where Watterson never reveals to the reader as to whether Hobbes is real or not. Or even Harold, where you’re not sure if it’s all happening in Harold’s imagination. Do you think Johnson is saying something about the adult/child relationship or perception of the world here?

PN: The permeable boundary between real and imagined fascinated Crockett Johnson — in Barnaby, in the seven Harold books, and in the two books about Ellen and her lion (whose relationship parallels that of Calvin and his tiger, Hobbes). The topic has fascinated many artists, but Johnson is closest to those — René Magritte and Saul Steinberg, for instance — who enjoy posing this as a philosophical question. Steinberg has characters who draw themselves into existence. Magritte’s Human Condition paintings (all of which are paintings of paintings) are deliberately vague about where the painting ends and the world begins. Harold’s world is fully real and the only reality he ever inhabits (there is no “outside the picture” for him), but it is also a continually invented, imagined place. In Barnaby, the “real world” is and is not separate from the “fairy world”: O’Malley and friends have an actual effect on the lives of “real” people, even though he remains unseen by most people (save for children and the occasional adult, such as eccentric banker Mr. Dormant or Mr. Baxter with a high fever).

So, if this theme is about the artist (who, of course, transforms ideas into an aesthetic reality), it is — as you suggest — also about the child’s relationship to the “real” world. In Johnson’s works, children and exceptional adults (like artists!) understand that fact and fantasy overlap, influencing one another. Barnaby, Jane, and their friends have not yet lost this wisdom. So, they can see and talk with O’Malley, mental giant Atlas, printer’s devil Shrdlu, Gus the ghost, and “Licensed Witchcraft Practitioner” Emmylou Schwartz. In learning to distrust fantasy, the adults of Barnaby have limited their understanding. They’re still susceptible to the fairy world, but it bewilders them. In contrast, adult realities bewilder the children of Barnaby, but fantasy does not.

This difference in understanding motivates a lot of the comedy of Barnaby, and gives the strip a reality that’s emotionally resonant for those of us who have not forgotten our childhoods. I suspect that’s why so many creative people love Barnaby. They are among that select group of adults who still remember what children take for granted: the imagination creates reality. It creates painting, literature, music, comic strips, and — helpful for Johnson’s satire in Barnaby — belief in such appealing fantasies as “American democracy” or “free market capitalism.”

ER: Phil addresses this far better than I could, but it’s interesting, Chris, because R.C. Harvey and Phil and I recently had an exchange on this very subject. Harvey had a theory that Johnson might have regretted grounding O’Malley in reality so unequivocally, to the point where some of the edits in the first two Barnaby hardcover collections from the 1940s may have been made in an effort to blur things on that front. I’m not convinced of it, but it’s certainly not impossible. But some of my favorite storylines, like the O’Malley for Congress saga, wouldn’t really work at all if O’Malley was purely a figment of Barnaby’s imagination.

Q: Minor confession: I found the Harold books to be almost unbearably sad as a child, because Harold had to invent the entire world around him; he was utterly alone except for whatever he willed into being (which never interacted with him).

PN: Chris Ware did, too. As he writes in his foreword to Barnaby Volume One, “the metaphysical implications of this hugely isolating ending [to Harold and the Purple Crayon] still upset me.” I see his point: Harold is trapped within the existential uncertainty of the blank page. There is no world except that which he invents! What a precarious, lonely existence. Yet Harold doesn’t experience it that way. He’s following the line of his imagination, pursuing it wherever it may lead him. Though there is peril (nearly drowning, falling from a cliff), the Harold books tend to emphasize power and possibility, rather than danger.

ER: Huh.

Q: Another theme in Barnaby seems to be the ideal world of fantasy that runs up against mundanity. O’Malley is a magical pixie, but he’s lazy and incompetent. Gus the Ghost is meek and cowardly and easily pushed around. Davey Jones hates to get wet. And so forth. Is Johnson saying something about either the real or imagined world here or is it just a simple way to evoke humor?

ER: It’s a study in contrasts mostly for comedic effect, but I think much of the charm in Barnaby, which I think you have to remember was a product of WWII, is definitely its escapism, albeit a different form of escapism as we’re used to in comics, like what Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were doing in Captain America at the same time (they barely seem to occupy the same planet).  As he does in Harold, Johnson has a way of grounding fantasy in the real world, but it’s fantasy for skeptics, and it’s absolutely effective. Johnson was an amateur mathemetician, and that yin/yang quality to him is undeniably part of what makes him such an effective artist (in the same way that he uses a font effectively despite it flying in the face of everything I know about what makes a comic work).

PN: I think it’s a bit of both. The contrast is funny, as Eric notes, but it’s also a wry observation on the predicaments that life presents us. O’Malley is a fairy godfather who’s rather inept at magic, Gridley is a fire pixie who is ever in need of a match, and so on. Johnson is bemused by life’s little ironies.

Q: Reading the second volume, I was surprised at how political some of the storylines got, especially the Dewey election one. I knew Johnson was an avowed leftist, but my previous experience with the strip didn’t prepare me for the frequent jabs he gets in towards Wall Street and classic conservatism/big business. To my eyes it seems like the most overtly leftist strip prior to Doonesbury. Is that accurate to say or is that just hyperbole?

ER: Well, it did run in PM. Phil can probably assess this better than me, I honestly have never been too conscious of the politics. That’s more for a scholar to assess. I think something like the election storyline is just such an effective piece of storytelling that the politics — even when bordering on the heavy-handed — become unnoticeable, as in the very best of Harold Gray’s work. Luckily, Johnson seems eminently more level-headed and never veered into the loopy didacticism that plagued cartoonists like Gray, Chester Gould or Al Capp later in their careers.

PN: I wouldn’t agree that Barnaby was “the most overtly leftist strip prior to Doonesbury,” no. I say this, in part, because such a claim would overlook Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1948-1973), which definitely leans left, and was still running when Doonesbury started. Also, while Johnson was firmly on the left, Barnaby’s politics tend to be more nuanced. Yes, there are flashes of (what, for Johnson, feels like) anger in his anti-Poll Tax strips. But, in 1944-1945, Barnaby’s  — and Johnson’s — Popular Front politics were more mainstream than they would be later in the decade. Remember, too, that Dewey lost the 1944 election soundly, carrying only 12 states to Roosevelt’s 36. Johnson wasn’t the only one making fun of Dewey.

Q: I completely forgot about Pogo. I am shamefaced.

Barnaby is such an utterly unique and often odd strip, visually, with it’s razor thin line and everyone constantly viewed in profile. I mentioned its influence on Calvin and Hobbes, but are there any comics (or cartoonists) you can cite that were influenced directly by Crockett’s visual style?

PN: Chris Ware, Charles Schulz, Daniel Clowes, Bil Keane.

ER: One thing about the razor thin line . . . Before putting together this series, I’d never seen one of Johnson’s originals, let alone see even high res repros of any of the strips. With all due respect, the image quality of things like the Del Rey paperbacks of the 1980s and the Comics Revue run were less than optimal and the linework in each was reduced and/or degraded. But working on these books, I’ve been surprised to notice that there’s more line weight to Johnson’s work than he gets credit for. Compared to say, Joost Swarte or Chris Ware, some of Johnson’s originals look like Charles Burns inked them!

I don’t have much of a point to this except to say that I think our books are bringing out a more human side of Johnson’s line than has ever been seen before.

Q: In the end notes you mention how Johnson pursued a spin-off musical and cartoon with Barnaby. Just how popular was the strip anyway? I know it had a following among certain (for want of a better word) sophisticates, but I always thought it was regarded as a cult strip to some degree. Philip, you essay at the end seems to imply otherwise.

ER: I honestly don’t know. I always think it was a very NY-centric flavor-of-the-month amongst a certain set of intellectuals and taste-makers, but having read Phil’s biography of Barnaby, you realize that Johnson certainly harbored ambitions for exploiting Barnaby into other media. I could be wrong about this, but for all of his success, Johnson seemed oddly ineffective at leveraging that success. Phil, is that off base?

PN: Like Krazy Kat, Barnaby was never a popular success. At its height, Barnaby was syndicated in only 52 newspapers. A truly popular strip, such as Chic Young’s Blondie, was then appearing in over 800 papers. Also like Krazy Kat, Barnaby attracted influential and devoted readers. Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Louis Untermeyer, and many other culturally connected people read the strip.

Eric, you’re quite right that Johnson was unable to realize his ambitions for Barnaby. There were two different radio pilots (1945, 1948), neither of which found a sponsor; a stage play that flopped (1946); two television pilots (1959, 1966) that went nowhere (even though the one starring Ron Howard as Barnaby and Bert Lahr as O’Malley received great reviews). I think that one reason these never took off is that it’s hard to adapt Barnaby for other media.  It works well on the page, but in translating it for dramatic performance, something is lost. Of course, something is always lost in a dramatic adaptation, but in the case of Barnaby that missing element often turns out to be a key ingredient. Perhaps Barnaby (the comic strip) is a soufflé — tamper with the recipe, and it’s going to collapse in on itself.

Q: What effect did you think the choice of typeface had on the strip? How does it alter the way we absorb and read it versus a strip with a handwritten font?

PN: Like Johnson’s style, Paul Renner’s Futura (the typeface of Barnaby) is spare, modernist, yet warm. It excises needless detail, but gently, carefully. Its geometric proportions are open and inviting.

Both Futura and Johnson’s clear-line aesthetic make Barnaby’s design — make Johnson’s meticulous work — seem invisible. Handwriting makes us aware of the artist. Comparably, a looser style (like, say, Richard Thomspon’s or Dr. Seuss’s) makes the hand of the creator feel more present in the finished work. In contrast, Barnaby’s type and art are so precise that we seem to be looking at a perfect diagram of reality. It feels less mediated, and this quality (I think) allows us to absorb it more fully.

ER: What’s odd about the use of the font is just how harmoniously it works with the strip. I am, in general, dead set against the use of mechanical fonts in comics. It tends to suck the life out of a page and work at odds with the organic quality of the cartooning. Yet Barnaby is the quintessential exception to the rule.

Q: Johnson abandoned the strip for awhile to concentrate on children’s books. Are you going to be collecting the material done by Jack Morley?

PN: Though I’ve also read that allegation somewhere, Johnson in fact didn’t abandon the strip for children’s books. He did illustrate two children’s books in the 1940s while he was doing Barnaby: Constance Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943) and Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1945). But he didn’t get back to children’s books until the early 1950s.

Here’s what he actually did. Though he stayed on as a story consultant (sometimes more actively involved, and sometimes less so), Johnson had Ted Ferro doing the scripts and Jack Morley doing the art. This arrangement lasted from January 1946 to September 1947, at which point Johnson resumed writing the strips, and Morley continued doing the art. I’ve seen (and we will print some) draft material for these Morley-Johnson strips: Johnson is also providing the layout, doing character designs for new characters. So, Morley is the artist from 1946 until the final weeks of the strip, but Johnson remains involved in the art, too.

And yes, the Morley-Ferro-Johnson strips will also be printed.  They’ll comprise most of Volume Three (1946-1947).  In the afterword to this book, I’ll go into further detail about the collaboration, and just what Johnson was up to during this period.

ER: The most remarkable thing about the Ferro/Morley period is just how little the strip misses a beat. Those guys were unbelievably effective at mimicking Johnson’s voice and style.

Q: Is this truly the last great strip to be collected? What strip would you guys like to see re-introduced to readers, either via Fantagraphics or another publisher?

PN: The other great strips have all been collected or started getting collected before Barnaby: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Pogo, Peanuts, Cul de Sac, Gasoline Alley, Calvin & Hobbes, Doonesbury, Moomin, For Better or For Worse, and… well, I could write a much longer list. As many have observed, we live in the Golden Age of comics reprints! Yet, for decades, fans of Barnaby have had to get the two 1940s collections (all of which were redrawn strips) or seek out the scare 1985-1986 Del Rey books (for the originals). So, though I realize I’m partial to them, these new Barnaby books really are making available the last great uncollected strip.

At this point, more than bringing out any one individual strip, what I want is an anthology of comic strips that I could teach. I want to teach a class on the comic strip, and — when I do so — I’ll find it prohibitively expensive to assign full book-length collections of all individual strips I’d want students to read.  It might also be prohibitively expensive to edit such a collection, but it should at least be possible to do a reasonably priced compendium of all important Public Domain (pre-1923) strips.

ER: That’s not a bad idea. I have a few things I’d like to see, but I don’t want to tip my hat. Barnaby truly was the last great strip to be collected, for me, though.