Philip Nel is an English Professor at Kansas State University where he directs the Graduate Program in Children’s Literature. He is also an author whose books include Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (forthcoming in September 2012). Eric Reynolds is the Associate Publisher at Fantagraphics. Together, they’re editing a five volume collection of Crockett Johnson’s classic comic strip, Barnaby. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently spoke with Nel and Reynolds to learn more about this upcoming project.
Spoiler Alert! The interview reveals how the strip ends.
Westfield: For people who aren’t familiar with the strip, what can you tell us about Barnaby?
Philip Nel: A little boy named Barnaby wishes for a Fairy Godmother and he instead gets a Fairy Godfather, Mr. O’Malley. He uses a cigar for a magic wand and rarely gets his magic to work properly. O’Malley is sort of a con artist as much as he is a fairy godfather. The strip mixes fantasy with satire. It’s partly about the imaginary world that’s really not imaginary that O’Malley and his cohorts inhabit and who Barnaby and the other children see but the grownups don’t see. It’s also partly about the political world of the 1940s. Johnson is making a mock of politicians and ideas from the period.
Westfield: Who are some of the other characters in the strip?
Nel: There are Barnaby’s parents who worry about their child: they think that he’s spending a lot of time with his Fairy Godfather who they can’t see, although they do see evidence of him from time to time, they just don’t believe it as evidence of him. How did these cigar ashes get here? And what happened to the food that was in the freezer? They don’t put together that Mr. O’Malley has in fact been snacking. Again. There’s Jane, the next door neighbor. She’s a little girl who’s Barnaby’s age and is a pretty cool character in and of herself. She’s not at all a stereotypical little girl. She’s quite fearless and she’s smart — often smarter than O’Malley. Of the other imaginary people, there are many. Atlas is a mental giant. He’s the same size as O’Malley, which is the same size as Barnaby (child-sized), and he works out everything on a slide rule. When he sees O’Malley, he looks at him and then he remembers a formula that he has to remember O’Malley’s name. He works out the formula and then puts out his hand and says “O’Malley! Nice to see you.” Who else should we mention, Eric?
Eric Reynolds: Gus the Ghost. The leprechaun.
Nel: McSnoyd the invisible leprechaun speaks in a strong Brooklyn accent. He’s a pretty funny minor character, and foil for O’Malley. Gus the Ghost is a great secondary character because he’s kind of shy and a little afraid. He’s not all that great at haunting. He’s a little uncomfortable with his status of ghost, actually. He’s a ghost but he’s not really that scary and, in fact is quite often scared himself.
Westfield: We haven’t mentioned the creator yet. What can you tell us about Crockett Johnson?
Nel: Probably more than you want to know. My biography of him and his wife, Ruth Krauss, will be out in September. How much do you want to know?
Reynolds: Maybe start by contextualizing Crockett in the world of children’s lit.
Nel: Sure! People today know Crockett Johnson because of Harold and the Purple Crayon and its six sequels. They are some of the greatest children’s books ever written — the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility that you’ll find anywhere. The second reason people would know him is Barnaby. He was a man of diverse interests — many of which are reflected in the strip. And that’s one reason the Complete Barnaby Volume One and all subsequent volumes will have notes in them. There are not only references to contemporary politics but his many and varied interests. To give you an example, his career has three parts to it. The first part is comics, the second part is children’s books, and the third part is painter and amateur mathematician. For the last ten years of his life, that’s what he did. He painted geometric artwork that was based on other people’s theorems and then started to devise some of his own which he worked out visually on the canvas and then corresponded with mathematicians to help him work out the algebra. So when Atlas speaks in mathematic formulas in the revised strips (which appear in the Holt books), those are real mathematical formulae. You can actually solve them and they spell things. He was very interested in math. But he was interested in a lot of different things.
He was born in 1906 in Manhattan and he grew up in Queens. After a year in college, his father passed away and he had to drop out to get a job and support the family. He worked in magazine design and I think that sense of design really influences him as a cartoonist. He has a very strong spatial sense of exactly where everything should go on the page. Whether it’s a children’s book or a comic, he uses the space extremely well. With the collapse of the stock market in 1929 he, as many artists did, drifted leftward and he contributed cartoons to the communist weekly, New Masses. He was also art editor of New Masses from 1936-1940. And that brings us up to the beginnings of Barnaby.
Westfield: What makes Barnaby a good strip to collect?
Reynolds: Barnaby was really a Holy Grail of a project for me personally for a number of years. How many years ago did I first feel you out about this, Phil?
Nel: You emailed me once. I don’t remember when that was. I said, “Yeah. That’d be great.” I don’t know what happened after that, but you emailed me again a few years later. I and George Nicholson, my agent, and the law firm that represents the estate of Ruth Krauss (since Crockett Johnson died first, everything was left to her) met with Eric and Fantagraphics to work out the details for the project. It’s the last, great uncollected comic strip.
Reynolds: Yeah, exactly. Unlike a lot of the great comic strips of all time, Barnaby was never in a ton of papers, so it was not the most commercially successful strip around. But it was definitely one of the most literate and beautifully drawn and funny and charming strips that I’m aware of. As we’ve entered this Golden Age of strip reprinting, Barnaby was really a no brainer. It was just a matter of acquiring the rights to do it and that took the better part of five years. To answer your question Roger, it’s simply because we love it and we think it’s one of the last comic strips left that hasn’t been properly collected. I don’t know the commercial potential of it. I’d like to think that Harold and the Purple Crayon will help register that kind of awareness in the consumer’s mind because Barnaby looks exactly like Harold. But really, we’re doing it because it’s a labor of love.
Nel: We’re hoping that bringing out the first volume of Barnaby at nearly the same time as the biography will also help each book call attention to the other one. As Eric says, it was never a popular hit at its height. It was syndicated in only 52 papers. By contrast, a strip like Chic Young’s Blondie was in about 850 papers at that time. Barnaby never had mass distribution. It was like Krazy Kat in that respect. It’s not a strip that reached the masses.
Reynolds: Unlike Krazy Kat, it didn’t run for forty years so it didn’t quite have that legacy.
Nel: There was only ten years of the strip because Johnson got tired of it and left.
Reynolds: Another interesting thing about what makes it a great reprint project is the fact that, unlike any other strip that I can think of, Barnaby has a finite ending. It actually has closure and an ending in a way that literally, I cannot think of another comic strip that does. That will be really interesting because I don’t think that ending’s ever been properly reprinted. All the other prior iterations of Barnaby books over the decades never got that far.
Nel: It’s a really beautiful, bittersweet ending to the strip too where Barnaby, if he’s going to turn six, has to give up his Fairy Godfather and all the pixies from his world. It’s quite moving.
The strip is very influential, but not widely read. It’s like what people say about the Velvet Underground: they sold very few records but everybody who bought a Velvet Underground record started a band.
Reynolds: If Peanuts was the Beatles, Barnaby was the Velvet Underground.
Nel: Yeah. Schulz read Barnaby. Bill Keane read it. Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware are all fans of it. Dorothy Parker was a big fan of it. Duke Ellington read it. It was a strip the culturally influential loved. So it’s important and influential, but it’s not something that many people have read because it’s not been unavailable or hard to find. Or “it’s a strip people who are not comics people haven’t read,” I should say.
Westfield: You mentioned Dan Clowes and he is working on the book with you, correct?
Reynolds: That’s correct. Much the same way that Seth defined the visual approach to The Complete Peanuts, Dan’s going to be doing that for Barnaby. Dan’s actually the person that I think turned me on to Barnaby. I can’t completely remember if he told me about it first before I’d actually read it or I just happened to read one and asked him about it, but he’s the one who sparked my interest. I was in Amsterdam in the mid-‘90s and I was in this big bookstore called the American Book Company that’s a store that has a huge collection of English language books. I was looking through their humor section and I found the Pocket Books paperback edition of Barnaby that was published in 1946. I bought that because I wasn’t really familiar with it. I loved it. I mentioned it to Clowes and he was like, “Oh my god, yeah. He’s the greatest.” Then I started actively collecting all of these old hardcovers and paperbacks. I became a real fanatic. I started clipping pages out of Comics Revue magazine that Rick Norwood has been publishing for 20 years. I would get the magazine and just cut out the Barnaby pages.
Nel: Rick Norwood published the ‘60s retreads of the Barnaby’s. Dan Clowes contacted me early on, too. I started a web page devoted to Crockett Johnson in 1998 for several reasons, one of which is because I wanted to learn how to put together a web page because I thought that would be useful. And two, no one else had done anything for Crockett Johnson on the web and I thought “Jeez. Someone should do that.” So I set up this web site and Dan Clowes was one of the first people to contact me. I didn’t know who he was. This was before Ghost World had been published as a single volume. He had been cartooning, but I wasn’t familiar with his work. I just thought, “Oh, this is a nice fellow who shares an interest.” I would put images of stuff up on the page and he sent me a color photocopy of one of the Barnaby quarterlies which I then scanned and put up on the page because I didn’t have it. He was very nice. Then a few years later I started to read his work and I put it together and I realized “Holy cow! I’ve been talking with Dan Clowes.”
Reynolds: There really was nothing else on the web at that time. I remember being knee-deep in this Barnaby fascination. I bought the first Holt hardcover from the ‘40s but it didn’t have a dust jacket. Dan made me a color Xerox of his dust jacket so I could put one on my book. There was a real passion to collect this stuff. I remember at a certain point Dan telling me, “There’s this guy named Phil Nel and he did this web site that’s the only thing on the internet about Crockett Johnson. You’ve got to check it out.” I’ve had that web site bookmarked on my browser for the past 10 years.
Nel: And that web site begat the biography of Johnson and Krauss and this project too.
Reynolds: When I knew we wanted to acquire Barnaby, at that point I already knew that Phil was working on his bio and it was a complete no brainer to ask him to help edit the series.
Nel: It’s been great working with you and I’m really happy with how things have turned out so far. I think it’s going to be a real credit to the Fantagraphics reprint series which are such beautiful books. It’s wonderful that Barnaby’s going to take its place along with Peanuts and Pogo and Krazy Kat. I can’t think of a better home for it.
Chris Ware is another person who I met through the web site because he’s also a huge Crockett Johnson fan. He first emailed me seven years ago or so and would send stuff for the web site. At one point he emailed and said, “I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to ask, but I’d love to be involved with the biography in some way. I thought I might design the jacket and case wrap for it.” I, of course, thought “Oh my goodness. Yes, please!” Chris is so humble and self-effacing about his incredible talents that that was the way he put it. I’m obviously paraphrasing what he wrote. So he did the cover to the biography because he loves Crockett Johnson and he did the introduction to the first volume of Barnaby as well .
Westfield: You’ve mentioned the relaunch in the ‘60s and some of the strips were redrawn for the collections. Does this go back to the original, this is what appeared in the newspaper, strips?
Nel: Yes. And that has been the huge challenge of this: finding all those strips. These are the original newspaper strips as they originally appeared. He redrew them for the Holt volumes and the ones in the ‘60s were redrawn and updated. Eric can talk about this at great length but it’s been a huge challenge getting the strips.
Reynolds: It’s been a lot harder than we expected.
Nel: That about sums it up. [laughter]
Reynolds: Fantagraphics has done so many of these books and it’s interesting how some strips just prove to be a lot more difficult than others. I won’t bore you with details, but this one’s proved to be a lot more difficult that we anticipated, I think by virtue of the fact that it did only appear in a small number of papers. There just aren’t as many existing tear sheets as there are for other strips.
Nel: I don’t think people are aware of the work that Fantagraphics goes to for all these reprints. It can be an enormous amount of detective work, contacting collectors and special collections to hunt all these down. It’s not like there’s some central archive where everything’s located.
Reynolds: You could compromise and get inferior scans but we obviously don’t want to do that.
Nel: That’s what makes the Fantagraphics books so beautiful. There’s a lot of care and attention paid to getting good quality scans and trying to clean them up so they look as pristine as possible.
Westfield: Will this series include the strips that Johnson didn’t write or draw?
Nel: He didn’t draw them after a certain point, although he did return to draw the final sequence. It’s a little complicated because when I say he didn’t draw them, he didn’t. But he did leave extremely detailed sketches for the person who was doing the drawing. So it wasn’t like he said, “Here. You do the art and I’ll do the text or I’ll consult on what the text is going to be.” He was actually very involved with that. That’s why I say it’s complicated.
What happens in 1946 is that Jack Morley becomes the artist and Ted Ferro becomes the writer, but Johnson continues on as a story consultant. Morley continues to do the art almost to the end but Ferro doesn’t stay on. In September 1947, Johnson comes back to do the script. He is no longer willing to cede that amount of creative control. So there’s never a period where he’s not involved, but in 1946 and part way into 1947 he’s less involved; he’s a consultant. You can see to a greater or lesser degree his involvement reflected in the strip itself. I’ve seen his original sketches for the later strips where he lays out exactly how he wanted the pages to look and where the text was going to go, so that Jack Morley knows precisely where to put it.
Reynolds: Maybe more to the point, and Phil could probably articulate some of the differences a little more clearly than I could, despite Ferro and Morely being involved, I think it’s remarkably consistent throughout that whole period. I think I have a pretty good eye when it comes to the details in cartooning and I’d be hard pressed to determine just by the eye where Johnson stopped drawing and Morley picked up.
Nel: Morely does it really well. Warren Sattler, who did it in the 60s — his strips are a little more obviously not Crockett Johnson. But Morley’s art really looks like Johnson’s art. He does a good job.
Westfield: And those strips are all in the collection?
Nel: Yeah. The whole original run from ‘42 to ‘52. For the ‘46 and ‘47 stuff, what you’re getting is Crockett Johnson, Jack Morley, and Ted Ferro. And then from late-47 on, you’re getting Crockett Johnson and Jack Morley. It was credited at that point to Jack Morley and CJ, although CJ was actually a lot more involved than the credits suggest. I think at the end it was just credited to Johnson because he did draw the final sequence as well as write it.
Westfield: You mentioned that there are going to be notes in the book. Are there going to be other special features as well?
Reynolds: Yeah, definitely.
Nel: In addition to an afterword and notes from me, the first volume has an essay from Chris Ware, it has an essay from Jeet Heer. It also has lots of other stuff; photographs, early art from Crockett Johnson, promotional material from Barnaby. It has a Dorothy Parker review of the first Barnaby book. All sorts of cool stuff.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Reynolds: This really is one of my life long dreams since I’ve been involved with publishing comics. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s literally been number one on my wish list of things to do for over a decade. True story: Several years ago, I begged Gary Groth to try and obtain the rights for us. He loves the strip, too, so it wasn’t hard to convince him. He tried valiantly, but struck out. When I became Associate Publisher a few years ago and was given a bit more leeway in pursuing projects, one of the first things I boldly declared to Gary and Kim Thompson was that we were going to publish Barnaby. Thanks mostly to Phil, here we are. With Phil, and Dan and Chris and Jeet, I feel like we’re really set up to do it right.
Nel: I think so too. Fantagraphics is doing a fantastic job. If I had any final thoughts it would be this: if you are interested in comics and art and satire, you’ve got to read these. These are an indispensable part of any comics person’s collection. And any library’s collection of comics, too. I think it’s a part of our comics history and our cultural history that more people need to know.