Crockett Johnson’s Elusive Allusions: Errata for Barnaby Volume Two

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945, ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds

You don’t need to get all of Crockett Johnson’s allusions to enjoy his classic strip, Barnaby. But I’m the sort of person who wants to know these things. So, at the back of each Barnaby book (5 volumes, Fantagraphics, 2013-2017), I’m providing notes for other readers like me. You know who you are.

But Crockett Johnson was smarter and more widely read than I am. So, even though I’m his biographer, I occasionally miss things. For Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (just out this month), two readers have already written in with corrections. (Two! Already!) Here are the strips in question, my original note, and the correction.


Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, 26 Sept. 1945

SWAMI ESYAYOUISIJA (26 Sept.). The Swami’s surname spells “YES” in four languages: Pig Latin (ESYAY), French (OUI), Spanish (SÍ), and German (JA).

That’s correct. But as Mr. Russell (@belmontlibrary on Twitter) pointed out, Johnson has also embedded the word OUIJA here.

I expect that Johnson first noticed that “oujia” included the words for “yes” in both French and German, and then decided to create the swami’s name by adding “yes” in two additional languages. Very clever!


Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, 27 Oct. 1945

Sigahstaw (27 Oct.). Purely imaginary tribe. It is, however, an anagram for A Sightsaw (which itself is the past tense of Sightsee). Perhaps a reference to Indian reservations as tourist sites?

This note, however, definitely misses the mark. As Paolo Polesello wrote in an email to my co-editor, Eric Reynolds,

In my opinion, “Sigahstaw” should be the pronunciation of “Cigar Store”, so that a “Sigahstaw Indian” is actually a “Cigar Store Indian”, like the ones in wood staying in front of cigar stores (well, I have seen them only in comics, I do not live in US). In fact, in the same strip, Howard the Sigahstaw Indian has cigars in his hands, like a cigar store Indian (see second and third panel)!

Mr. Polesello is quite right. As Eric noted, “This is one of those moments where you just tap palm to forehead and think, ‘Of course! How could I not see that?!?’ Ha!” Exactly. Can’t believe I missed that! And yet I did.


Should we get to do a second printing of Barnaby Volume Two, we’ll fix the notes. Meanwhile, I will just repeat that Johnson was cleverer than I am. I’ll strive to do better on the notes for Barnaby Volume Three: 1946-1947 (due out in 2015). Finally, thanks to those who are buying the book, and even (gasp!) reading my extensive notes!

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Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume Two (1944-1945) is here!

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 will be shipping soon!  I know this because my copies arrived in today’s mail. (I co-edited this book with Eric Reynolds)

Box, with Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945

It looks great! (You can get Barnaby Volume Two from Fantagraphics or at your local comics retailer. Ask for it by name!)

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (front endpapers)

As we did in Barnaby Volume One and will do in the remaining three volumes, we’ve reprinted a different original strip for the front and back endpapers.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (title page)

I say “we” as if I designed it. I didn’t. Daniel Clowes designed the book — he’s designing the whole five-volume series. One of the things I really enjoy about working with Fantagraphics, is that their production team (Tony Ong and Paul Baresh, for the Barnaby books), Eric, and Dan all keep me in the loop. So, I get to see the interiors as they take shape, hunt for additional images to keep the layout interesting, and so forth.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Foreword by Jules Feiffer)

Jules Feiffer wrote the foreword to Volume Two. And Chris Ware wrote the foreword to Volume One. How cool is that?  Each book also features a scholarly introduction: Jeet Heer (for Volume One), R.C. Harvey (for Volume Two).

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (four strips)

Johnson hits new creative peaks during 1944-1945. It’s one of the strip’s most inventive periods. If you enjoyed Volume One, you’re in for a treat in Volume Two.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Afterword by Philip Nel)

I wrote an Afterword and Notes for each volume.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (Notes by Philip Nel)

Do you need to read the notes? No. Barnaby is a topical strip, but the art, narrative, and fantasy sustain it. You can read it without knowing all of the allusions. However, I’m the sort of reader who, when reading Fantagraphics’ Krazy & Ignatz series, always checked the “Ignatz Debaffler Page” at the back of the book. I wrote the notes for people like me — people who like endnotes. If you don’t like endnotes, then skip ‘em!

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volume Two: 1944-1945 (back cover)

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, Volumes 1 and 2 (spines)In addition to the photo of Johnson and blurbs from Art Spiegelman and Greil Marcus, the back cover also offers a glance ahead to Volume 3, in which we’ll reprint a few color Sunday Barnabys. We only have a contract for the black-and-white dailies, but we thought readers might like to glimpse just a few of the color Sundays. In Volume 4, we’ll also have a few Sundays — they ran from 1946 to 1948.  The three concluding Sunday strips offer a different way of ending Barnaby.  So… stay tuned!

More about Barnaby Volume 2, courtesy of Fantagraphics:

You can learn more about Crockett Johnson or Barnaby via

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

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Fantagraphics and Kickstarter Capitalism

Fantagraphics' logoThis past week, Fantagraphics launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund its Spring 2014 season. The sudden death, in June, of co-founder Kim Thompson had an economic impact on the independent publisher: 13 books he was to translate or edit had to be postponed or delayed, creating a drain on the company’s cash flow. The great news is that, only five days later, the Kickstarter has raised over $130,000 from 2,000 different backers.

The less great news is that, here and there, some people are wondering aloud why the greatest comics publisher out there should need to turn to Kickstarter. Hasn’t publishing the Complete Peanuts, or getting a distribution deal with Norton made Fantagraphics sufficiently flush?  How is the company being managed that it should need to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

While it’s wise to ask about management (there are better and worse ways for a publisher to manage risk), I worry that these questions reinforce the false assumption that capitalism rewards every well-managed company and punishes the poorly managed ones. Good management definitely improves a publisher’s odds for success, but all business ventures (and especially ones, like Fantagraphics, that lack a parent corporation) are susceptible to the whims of the marketplace: you have flush years, and lean ones, and you hope that the flush years will allow you to weather the lean ones.

Markets reward the popular, not the virtuous (unless it happens also to be popular). A business can carefully manage its finances and aggressively promote a book, yet still find itself with a product that doesn’t sell. Just as commercial success does not confer moral worth, nor does commercial failure denote moral shortcomings.

I must disclose here that I am a Fantagraphics editor — co-editor, really. Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds and I are co-editing the five-volume series of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby.  So, I can’t claim impartiality.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): front cover

But I can claim experience. I’m author or co-editor of eight books, and have worked with both academic and commercial publishers. I have also written nearly as many failed book proposals as I have successful ones. Hard work and careful planning sometimes yield rewards, and sometimes does not. Because I am an academic, I (fortunately!) do no have to make a living off of the books I write or edit. But publishers like Fantagraphics do have to turn a profit.

And they are a great publisher to work with. Their attention to design is phenomenal. To echo book design of the 1940s, Dan Clowes hand-drew the eight boxes on the back cover of Barnaby Volume One. Today, design software would make these boxes look perfect; in the ’40s (when Johnson was writing Barnaby), hand-ruled lines made them look just slightly imperfect. Details like this, or setting the text in Futura (the typeface Johnson used for Barnaby), give the book its Crockett-Johnson-in-the-1940s aesthetic.  And that’s just one example of the kind of attention Fantagraphics lavishes on its projects.  They make beautiful books because they care deeply about making beautiful books, and they have nearly 40 years of experience doing it.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): back cover

If any publisher deserves to be rewarded with commercial success, it’s Fantagraphics. However, since capitalism is an economic system and not a moral one, there’s Kickstarter. While it’s not the solution to all of publishing’s challenges, Kickstarter does allow a publisher’s supporters to make moral decisions with their capital. Those who have funds to donate can vote their conscience, sustaining the health of a publisher committed to the art of comics.

Unless we as a society decide (for example) that public funding for the arts should be a priority, Kickstarter is one way we can help support worthy artistic ventures. Crowdsourcing is not a necessary evil. It’s a necessary good.

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Happy 107th Birthday, Crockett Johnson!

Crockett Johnson was born 107 years ago today, in New York City. If you are (or will be) in New York, here are three ways you can celebrate.

1. In the shameless self-promotion department, you can hear me tomorrow (October 21st) at 8 pm Ben Katchor’s New York Comics and Picture-story symposium, at the Parsons School (2 West 13th Street), in the Bark Room (off the lobby). Free and open to the public.
Crockett Johnson's Barnaby: The Greatest Comic Strip You've Never Read
I’m up at 8 pm, but the symposium starts at 7. So, if you’re heading over there, you might come for Aaron Beebe‘s talk (at 7). Why not? Two events, both free, same evening!

2. Visit “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” an absorbing exhibit curated by Leonard Marcus. It’s at the New York Public Library, through March 23, 2014.  It’s also free.  And, yes, Harold makes an appearance.

Harold and the Purple Crayon, at "The ABC of It"
Here’s the caption:

"The Work of Play" at "The ABC of It"

There’s a great deal more there, besides, including art by William Blake, John Tenniel, Marcia Brown, Ludwig Bemelmans, Edward Lear; first (or at least early) editions of The Cat in the HatHarriet the SpyThe Brownies Book; the ARC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; children’s books from the early-twentieth century Russian avant-garde; and far more than I can possibly catalogue in this sentence.  Well worth a visit!

3) Take a walking tour of Crockett Johnson’s childhood homes, courtesy of last year’s blog post.  He was born at 444 East 58th Street, but — after a few years there — grew up in Queens, starting at a house adjacent to (what is now) the Corona Branch of the Queens Public Library.

And, to conclude, here’s a photo (also previously posted) of Crockett Johnson laughing.  Enjoy!

Crockett Johnson Laughs, 1967. Courtesy of Nina Stagakis.

Photo credit: Nina Stagakis.

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Barnaby at Comic-Con

Comic-Con 2013Attention! Fellow and future members of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns, and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society! If you’ll be at Comic-Con this week, stop by Fantagraphics, at Booth 1718 (see map below).  Eric Reynolds (who co-edited Barnaby Volume One with me) and I will be there at these times.

  • Thursday, July 18: 10-11:30 am.
  • Saturday, July 20: 9-10 am.
  • Sunday, July 21: 2-4 pm.

We’d be glad to sign your copy of the book. Or not. It’s up to you, really.  Or we could just chat.  What? Stopping by to chat about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and Mr. O’Malley isn’t enough for you?  Well, you could also purchase one of Chris Ware’s limited-edition posters for my Eisner-nominated book, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  The actual full, wrap-around cover is below: click to enlarge. Seriously: click it. It’s beautiful.  Mr. Ware’s specially designed poster version (measuring 20″ x 39″) removes the blurbs (replacing them with two more Johnson paintings), and removes all other text save for the title (on the front cover) and my name (on the front cover).

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

I’m bringing a limited supply.  Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Fantagraphics will also have a few copies of the biography (published by UP Mississippi), which I’d be glad to inscribe.  In case blurbs would be persuasive, here are some very nice things that very kind people have said about it:

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Mr. Nel’s engrossing, beautifully-researched dual-biography of these two mid-century masters and their enviable symbiosis will restore the cynic’s faith in love and marriage and elicit gasps of shock from devotees of the genre at the sheer decency of their lives.

— Daniel Clowes

wonderful new dual biography…. This book is a great read…. Highly recommended!

— James Sturm, Center for Cartoon Studies

Nel has a gift for stitching together his exhaustive research into a brisk, highly readable narrative

— Jack Feerick, Kirkus

And Fantagraphics will have LOTS of copies of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (2013), edited by Philip Nel (me) and Eric Reynolds, designed by Daniel Clowes, with a foreword by Chris Ware, and essays by Jeet Heer, Dorothy Parker, and Philip Nel (me, again).

Barnaby, Volume 1

If you don’t know Johnson’s masterpiece, now’s the time to get acquainted.  Don’t believe me?  Then listen to these people instead:

I never thought I’d see this day, but the book you hold is, well… the last great comic strip. Yes, there are dozens of other strips worth rereading, but none are this Great; this is great like Beethoven, or Steinbeck, or Picasso. This is so great it lives in its own timeless bubble of oddness and truth.

— Chris Ware

I think, and I am trying to talk calmy, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American arts and letters in lord knows how many years. I know that they are the most important additions to my heart. . . . I think Mr. Johnson must love people. I know darned well I must love Mr. Johnson.

— Dorothy Parker

Still not convinced?  Then come by the Fantagraphics booth (1718!).  Eric and I will convince you.  Here is a map — I’ve drawn a red box around booth 1718.

Comic-Con 2013: Where's Fantagraphics?

For more on Crockett Johnson and Barnaby, see:

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Barnaby, Small Scandinavian Investors, and Dapper Dan: Can you help identify these allusions? UPDATE: Mysteries Solved!

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (1942-1952) was both fantasy and topical satire. As noted on an earlier post, each of Fantagraphics’ 5-volume Barnaby series will have notes to explain the topical comments and any other references that may elude the average reader.

I’ve now finished the notes and Afterword for Barnaby Vol. 2: 1944-1945 (2014).

Almost.

There are two allusions that elude me.  Perhaps you can help?  Here are my questions along with the two relevant strips, which I’ve scanned from the Del Rey paperbacks (we’re using better versions of these strips in the volume itself — don’t worry).

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 28 Feb 1945

1. For instance, that Scandinavian Pixey, who— (28 Feb. 1945). This seems to be a reference to a specific (possibly diminutive) investor of Scandinavian descent, but I haven’t he foggiest idea as to whom it might be. As you can see in the strip above, Mr. Baxter says “Investment bankers don’t consider Pixies good risks, as a rule—.” He then adds, “Oh, they HAVE made a few exceptions…” and makes this comment.  So, clearly, at least some of Johnson’s readers would have caught this reference.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 27 Apr 1945

2. Dapper Dan’s Outlet Emporium (27 April 1945).  If this is a reference to a specific business, I haven’t been able to find it.  When I was a kid, there was a Dapper Dan toy: a bald-headed man’s face, behind plastic. Using a magnet, you could move the little metal shavings (also encased in the plastic), and give him some hair, a moustache, beard.  But this can’t be it.  In the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), there’s Dapper Dan pomade, but this is a fictional brand, evidently used only in the film.  I need something that may have been around in 1945.

And, yes, of course, I’ll give credit where it’s due. (I realize that getting one’s name in the Acknowledgments is a rather small “prize” for your help, but,… well, I will to the Acknowledgments the names of those who help identify these two — unless you tell me you don’t want to be identified, that is.)  Thanks in advance for any thoughts you may have.

The first Barnaby volume is in press, and will be out in May or June. You can order it from Fantagraphics.

Barnaby, Volume 1

UPDATE, 4:15 pm.  Within less than an hour, both mysteries appear to be solved.  Via Facebook, Mark Newgarden suggests Ivar Kreuger, “the Match King,” as the “Scandinavian” allusion.  This makes sense.  It’s the kind of allusion Johnson would make.  He’s already had O’Malley proudly identify himself as mentor to Charles Ponzi.

Brian Herrera suggests “Dapper Dan” Hogan, a legendary Irish mobster.  The mobster was known for his style, and indeed appears to be the origin of the nickname “Dapper Dan.” Johnson loved detective fiction & true crime stories. This is the sort of allusion he would make. So, combine the historical allusion with an Outlet Emporium and you get a not-too-reputable source of fashionable menswear, exactly the sort of place where a captain of industry (as O’Malley is, at this point in the narrative) would not be expected to shop — hence, the joke.

Mark also points out that the name “Dapper Dan” precedes Daniel Hogan.  It had been attached to products prior to that time.  And there’s even an Eddie Cantor song, says Brian.  So, all of this is grist for my mill — and the note!

THANKS, MARK AND BRIAN!

 

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Shrdlu, Minsky, Burke & Hare

When you look at Chris Ware’s post-Newtown New Yorker cover, the looks on the parents’ faces call to mind the previous month’s massacre in Connecticut. But 10 years from now, readers (I hope) will see just a scene of children entering a school as their parents watch intently. In creating the notes for Volume 2 of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, I’m facing this challenge as I work to help contemporary readers follow the political satire.

Johnson’s comic strip was a fantasy, and you can enjoy it without knowing the contemporary scene of 1944 to 1945.  But I’m one of those people who wants to know. In reading Fantagraphics’ beautiful Krazy Kat series, I was always a little disappointed when one of Herriman’s obscurities lacked an explanation in the book’s “Ignatz Debaffler Page.”  So, for Fantagraphics’ equally beautiful Barnaby series (the first volume of which should be available in March), I’m catering to the reader ­— like me — who wants to turn to the back of the book, and find an explanatory note.

In addition to being topical, Barnaby was also wide-ranging in its allusions. Johnson’s characters offer wry commentary on American politics in the 1940s, but also reflect his interests in mathematics, mystery novels, and popular culture. There are many referents that might be obscure even to his readers in 1944 and 1945.  On 28 September 1945, the lettering on a con-artist swami’s door reads “SWAMI ESYAYOUISIJA.”  I spent some time staring at this before realizing that the swami’s surname is “YES” in four languages: Pig Latin (ESYAY), French (OUI), Spanish (SÍ), and German (JA).

ShrdluEarlier that same month, Barnaby introduces a printer’s devil named “Shrdlu.”  He’s a friend of Barnaby’s fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. Why Shrdlu? A linotype machine arranged the letters in order of how frequently they were used. In English, that order is ETAOIN SHRDLU. On the machine, the first column (reading downward) was ETAOIN, and the second was SHRDLU. Thus, as the OED explains, “ETAOIN SHRDLU” are “The letters set by running a finger down the first two vertical banks of keys on the left of the keyboard of a Linotype machine, used as a temporary marking slug but sometimes printed by mistake; any badly blundered sequence of type.” So, Shrdlu is the ideal name for a newspaper employee who, as he explains on 4 September, is “responsible for all omissions, typographical errors, pied lines, switched captions and misspelled names.”

etaoin shrdlu from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.

On 28 March 1944, O’Malley says he’s a devotee of Minsky’s brand of humor. Who? He’s referring to the comics employed by the Minsky Brothers, who were more famous for their risqué burlesque shows. Johnson’s also making an in-joke: one Minsky comedian, Jimmy Savo, provided some inspiration for the character of Mr. O’Malley.

O'Malley phones Burke & HareNear the beginning of his career as a Wall Street financier, Barnaby’s fairy godfather decides to phone a brokerage firm. So, he checks the phone book, and says “This firm’s name has a familiar ring to it. ‘Burke & Hare.’” The name may be familiar, but it’s not the kind of familiarity one associates with a reputable firm. It recalls the infamous Burke and Hare Murders of 1828. Over the course of 10 months in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1792-?) murdered 16 people, and sold the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox, who needed cadavers for his anatomy lectures.

Even though you don’t require these notes to enjoy the strip, a thorough editor (that’s me!) provides them… for the few readers who (like me!) want to know.

Barnaby Volume 2: 1944-1945 should be out in early 2014, and Barnaby Volume 1: 1942-1943 is due in March. I expect to receive an advance copy in the next week or two.

Note: All Barnaby images are from the Del Rey paperbacks (1985-1986). For the Fantagraphics books, expect higher-quality images and paper.

Barnaby, Volume 1

Coming in March, from Fantagraphics: Barnaby Volume 1: 1942-1943, co-edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds. Design by Daniel Clowes. Introduction by Chris Ware. Essays by Jeet Heer and Dorothy Parker. Biographical Afterword and Notes by Philip Nel. You can pre-order it now.

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Barnaby, Vol. 1

Barnaby, Volume 1

The book went to press earlier this month, and will be out in the spring.  I can’t wait for you to see it.  Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume 1 is truly a thing of beauty.

If you read any books published by Fantagraphics, this last sentence will not surprise you.  But in case you are not (yet) a Fantagraphics devotee, let me give you a little behind-the-scenes look at why this book looks so great.  (If you can’t wait to see a few glimpses, please scoot on over to Fantagraphics’ post on Barnaby Volume 1: it includes images and Daniel Clowes‘ rough sketch for the cover.)

Fantagraphics is perfectionistic in all the right ways.  At each phase of the process, Eric Reynolds — who is co-editing the Barnaby books with me — contacted me with specific questions.  Most recently, at page-proofs phase, we talked about the layout of my essay, as well as those by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer.  Dan Clowes put the epigraph for the first section of my essay in a Barnaby-style speech bubble.  I thought: that looks cool. Might we try the same treatment for the other epigraphs? We did, and liked the result.  Eric, Dan, and Fantagraphics designer Tony Ong also experimented with how to lay out my notes.  We proofread everything many times, had conversations about grammar and word choice.  Eric worked hard on getting the spacing just right on the back cover’s panels (visible, if too small to read clearly, on Fantagraphics’ post — and below).  If these details sound boring to you, they really shouldn’t.  This sort of keen attention to detail makes for a beautiful book.

Barnaby, Volume 1: cover

Fantagraphics works with the best people.  Daniel Clowes! Chris Ware! Jeet Heer!  Dan designed the book to look as if it were designed by Crockett Johnson in the 1940s.  When you look at (for example) the back cover, it does not look as if it was designed using contemporary software.  The lines look hand-ruled because (I believe) they were hand-ruled.  For the typeface, Dan used Futura because that’s the distinctive typeface of Barnaby — and, incidentally, of Ruth Krauss‘s The Carrot Seed, which Johnson illustrated & designed.  Chris wrote a beautiful, insightful introductory piece on Johnson and Barnaby.  I’m tempted to quote it here, but I think I’ll leave it as a surprise.  I will say, though, that there are few comics creators who can speak as lucidly as Chris can about how comics work.  I’ll also say that Chris’s piece will make you look at Harold (of purple crayon fame) in a new way.  And… that’s all I’ll say.  Comics scholar Jeet Heer’s introduction features the best description of Mr. O’Malley (Barnaby’s fairy godfather) that I’ve ever read: “half-pixie and half-grifter, an otherwordly being most at home in low-life dives and gambling dens, raider of other people’s fridges and cigar boxes, an inept wizard whose magic only works intermittently and often with unintended consequences, a self-mythologizer whose account of his own past glories is an improbable farrago of tall tales, a rhetorician quick to smooth over any difficulty with rococo eloquence and irrelevant digressions.”

Fantagraphics — specifically, Eric Reynolds — communicated with me clearly and regularly.  He was always clear, polite, and had the best interests of the project at heart.  A great guy to work with.  I’m delighted that we’ll be working together on volumes 2 through 5!  (We’re collecting the full ten-year run of Barnaby, 1942-1952, with two years in each volume.)

Finally, we could not have done this without the help of collectors who loaned us their newspapers or scanned strips — the Smithsonian, Harvard University, and Charles Cohen, in particular.  So.  Thanks to them!  Note to the curious: a complete collection of old newspaper strips are not just lying around in an archive.  You have to go looking for them.  It’s an enormous amount of work, and is one of the reasons Volume 1 took so long.  The other is Fantagraphics’ admirable perfectionism.

So.  This spring.  Barnaby Volume 1.  Get it!

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Barnaby on stage, version 2.

Mr. O'MalleyAfter a failed stage adaptation and one failed radio version, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby headed for the stage a second time.  Adapted for children’s theatre by Robert and Lilian Masters, this Barnaby made its debut in Terre Haute, Indiana, in May 1948.  Looking ahead to the publication (in February 2013, I am told) of The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1: 1942-1943, here is the story of that play, featuring a few images from the script (published by Samuel French, 1950) and a program from a production at the Wall Central School in the 1950s.

Also directed by Robert and Lillian Masters, this Barnaby’s main narrative focused on Barnaby’s father running for mayor against the corrupt Boss Snagg.  Subplots included O’Malley appointing himself Mr. Baxter’s campaign manager, a birthday party for Barnaby, and Snagg’s attempt to kidnap Barnaby to blackmail his father into ending his campaign.  It borrows some dialogue from Johnson’s comic, and focuses on characters rather than special effects or scenery — a wise move, given that the earlier stage adaptation got bogged down with special effects that didn’t work.  All action takes place in the Baxters’ living room, and Mr. O’Malley’s flying is described but not shown.  Though primarily a comedy, the show at times veers towards melodrama: Snagg is not just a crooked politician; he’s a criminal who at one point threatens the Baxters with a gun.  Usually, though, it maintains a light tone. A review in the Terre Haute Tribune predicted this two-act adaptation “bids fair to be a favorite with Children’s Theatre producers all over the country.”

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950sCourtesy of Mark Newgarden, here’s a program from the Wall Central P.T.A.’s production, presumably presented at the Wall Central Elementary School, in New Jersey.  (The program offers no info. about the state in which the school is located, but there is a Wall Central School in NJ, and mark bought the program in NJ.)  The cover image seems to be a sort of “stock” image.  Presumably, a guy reading from an unabridged dictionary conveyed “drama” to the person assembling the program.  Or maybe this was all they had on hand.

Below, the inside of the program, where we can see the cast of this show.  Anyone from New Jersey recognize any names?  Any sense of a year?  Mark Newgarden thinks that it’s from the 1950s, and that sounds about right to me.

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950s

Perhaps wary of working on another adaptation of his comic (he felt he was insufficiently consulted on the earlier stage version), Johnson left this one entirely to Robert and Lillian Masters.  He sold them the rights for $1.00, plus the promise of fifty per cent of any profit they might make from sales or performances of the play.  All too aware of the complications of trying to shape a stage Barnaby, Johnson otherwise remained uninvolved.

Thanks to Daniel Clowes, here are some… unusual drawings of the Barnaby characters, included in Robert and Lillian Masters’ script.  And no, these are not by Crockett Johnson.  The script does not identify the artist.

sketches of Crockett Johnson's McSnoyd (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Mr. O'Malley (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Gorgon (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

The stark difference between this artist’s style and Johnson’s highlights the clean beauty of Johnson’s.  Or, at least, when I look at these, I am struck by how “un-Johnson” they are.

Incidentally, I have in the past week seen some of Dan Clowes’ layout and design for The Complete Barnaby Volume 1.   I can’t share it with you on the blog (yet!), but trust me: this is going to be a beautiful book.

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Clear Lines and Comics Luminaries: A Report from SPX

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to spend over a dozen years on a book, and then be able to talk about it with smart, talented people whose work I admire.  Saturday’s panel at the Small Press Expo — featuring Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, and myself — was exactly that.  Titled “Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School,” the panel aimed (among other things) to spread the word about Fantagraphics’ Complete Barnaby: Eric and I are co-editing, Dan is designing, Chris wrote an intro for Volume 1.  Since that book isn’t out yet (currently expecting a February ’13 pub date), it also enabled me to draw upon my dozen years of research for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (which is just out, and features a cover by Chris).

For 50 minutes, we had an illuminating conversation about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and how comics work.  Few people understand comics as well as Mark, Dan, and Chris do.  If you’ve ever heard Chris Ware speak or read an interview with him, you’ll know that he is one of a very few comics creators who can articulate, clearly & with precision, how particular comics work — and do this all without notes, speaking in what sound like perfectly punctuated paragraphs.  He was just as sharp, the following day, on the Building Stories conversation between him and Dave Ball.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s also fascinating to me that three quite different cartoonists are drawn to Barnaby. With the exception of Ice Haven (my favorite Clowes book, incidentally), Daniel Clowes’ works have the fewest visual similarities to Johnson’s style. Chris Ware’s precise line recalls Johnson’s, though he favors more detailed pages than Johnson does. Mark Newgarden’s line is thicker and looser than Johnson’s, though his aesthetic is closer to Johnson’s succinct minimalism.  What all four share in common is a sharpness, a precision that gives their work a vital presence on the page.  All four understand the visual grammar of cartoons; they are fluent in the language of images.

Commercially, SPX was a success, also. Fantagraphics kindly sold copies of my biography (we sold all of them), and set up signings for me at their booth — the first of which found me sitting next to Dan.  Chris very generously signed the prints of his cover, for my Johnson-Krauss bio., and I sold about a dozen of those, too.

Daniel Clowes and Philip Nel signing books at the Fantagraphics booth. Photo by Alvin Buenaventura.

But, for me, what made it special was getting to hang out with so many great artists, writers, editors, & scholars. I never thought I’d find myself at dinner with Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, and Françoise Mouly. When I told Mike Deforge (an up-and-coming comics creator who was also at that dinner) that I felt like I’d been invited to the grown-ups’ table and wondered how the heck I got there, he admitted that he felt the same way.  So, a hearty thanks to Alvin Buenaventura for inviting us! (On that note, check out Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin & with an essay by Chris.)

There are many other highlights — hanging out with Mark N. & Megan Montague Cash, getting to show them original Barnaby strips at the Smithsonian, meeting fellow Crockett Johnson fans, other comics scholars, seeing Warren Bernard’s astonishing personal collection of comics (at his house), discovering a group of comics artists engaged in an ongoing alphabet project, and so much more.  And the Barnaby panel was a career highlight.

Thanks again to Dan, Mark, Chris, and Eric for making it happen.  Thanks to Bill Kartalopoulos for including us in his great program.  And thanks to everyone I met for a fantastic SPX.

Photos by Paul Karasik (top two) and Alvin Buenaventura (lower one). Thanks, fellas!  Enjoyed seeing you, too!

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