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.

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