Archive for March 26, 2011

Crockett Johnson’s first comic strip

He’s famous for Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and the comic strip Barnaby (1942-1952), but Crockett Johnson wrote an earlier strip — one that was popular enough to feature in a series of Ford advertisements in the late 1940s.  Popularly known as The Little Man with the Eyes, Johnson’s strip ran in Collier’s from March of 1940 to January of 1943.  As Eric Reynolds and I work on co-editing The Complete Barnaby for Fantagraphics (designed by Daniel Clowes!), I’ve been looking through Collier’s, selecting a few Little Man strips for inclusion in the first Barnaby volume (April 2012).  Along with the first two years of Barnaby (1942-1943), the book will include a small taste of Crockett Johnson “ephemera,” such as early work, photographs, advertisements.

Here a few Little Man strips that might end up in the Complete Barnaby, vol. 1.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 10 Aug. 1940

As you can see, it’s a very subtle strip, relying upon slight changes in the Little Man’s eyes and posture to register the joke.  Its subtlety confirms my impression that Johnson must have been influenced by Otto Soglow, whose The Little King made its debut in the early 1930s.  I also suspect that the strip may be a little too nuanced for the general reader.  In addition to both preceding Barnaby and running concurrently with it for eight months, the Little Man has one other reason for inclusion in The Complete Barnaby, vol. 1: the book likely represents its sole chance to reappear in print.  (I also include one Little Man strip in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, forthcoming April 2012.)  I hope I’m wrong about that — I would love it if Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or [insert name of publisher here] wanted to pursue a Little Man with the Eyes collection, …as perhaps you might intuit from the fact that I’ve collected vintage Collier’s magazines for the sole reason of getting copies of Johnson’s strip.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 4 Dec. 1941

Above, the strip that ran in Collier’s on December 6, 1941 — the day before Pearl Harbor.  Unlike Johnson’s New Masses cartoons (1934-1940) and Barnaby, the Little Man was an apolitical strip.  During the war, Johnson’s comic did occasionally register world events, as in the strip below.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 3 Oct. 1942

That said, even though the above strip is topical, its focus is the Little Man‘s initial mis-identification of the plane — and not, say, Hitler or Isolationist politicians.  Johnson did do some political cartoons both prior to and during Barnaby (itself a political strip), but the Little Man was a more gentle figure.  Indeed, save for his diminutive stature, the Little Man was rather like Johnson himself.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 3 Jan. 1942

I’m selecting these from my small (about 25 or so) collection of Collier’s magazines from 1940-1942.  If you have any old issues of Collier’s and would like to nominate other strips, I’m open to suggestions: philnel – at – gmail – dot – com

Other examples of Crockett Johnson’s work (from this blog):


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