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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Barnaby’

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BARNABY: VOLUME 1 (1942-1943)
By Crockett Johnson
Fantagraphics Books, $35, 336 pages

Many people are aware of the influential roles that comic strips have played in society and popular culture. Yet it’s also interesting to consider how many catchphrases that are part of our lexicon originally came from the funny pages.

Here are some examples. Frederick Opper’s Alphonse and Gaston gave us “After you, my dear Alphonse!” Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff included lines such as “For the love of Mike!” and the still-popular “Oowah!” Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith introduced this phrase, “Time’s a’wastin!” Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie made people say “Leapin’ lizards!” for decades. The title of Milt Gross’ comic strip, Banana Oil, became a popular non sequitur, and Count Screwloose introduced the catchphrase, “Izzy, keep an eye on me!” Meanwhile, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts always will be identified with “Good grief!” and “You blockhead!”

Then there is “Cushlamochree!” That comes from the old Irish phrase cuisle mo chroi, or the “beat of my heart.”

While some readers of The Washington Times won’t immediately recognize this particular phrase, it will bring back fond memories to those of a certain age. It comes from Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, one of the finest and most thought-provoking comic strips ever created. The exciting adventures of a young boy, Barnaby Baxter, and his fairy godfather, Mr. Jackeen J. O’Malley (who regularly uttered “Cushlamochree!”) captivated audiences from 1942 to 1952, and again from 1960 to 1962. Many prominent cartoonists, including Schulz, Bil Keane (Family Circus) and Art Spiegelman (Maus), counted themselves as part of Barnaby’s lofty fan base.

A whole new generation now will have the opportunity to become acquainted with Johnson’s influential creation. Fantagraphics Books has released “Barnaby: Volume 1,” part of a multivolume project to reprint the strip’s entire run. As expected, this book meets Fantagraphics’s usual high standards for bringing the pen-and-ink classic comics back to life. A bright yellow cover with a World War II-inspired design, combined with informative essays and a glossary of the historic events covered in the strips, makes this book a real treasure for readers of all ages.

To be sure, Johnson’s popular children’s book series with Harold and his magical purple crayon remains a favorite with youngsters. Yet without Barnaby, who is more than a decade older, there likely wouldn’t have been a Harold. While the two pen-and-ink cousins share a few traits such as inquisitiveness, it was Barnaby who truly pushed the envelope with the natural boundaries of the world we live in. As comics historian Jeet Heer notes, the “major theme of Barnaby is the interaction between reality and imagination. Because they never see Mr. O’Malley themselves, Barnaby’s parents fear that he has a ‘wild imagination’ and even seek psychological counseling.” At the same time, “we know that Mr. O’Malley is real because not only does Barnaby see him, but so do a few other select souls, including other kids like Jean but also the odd drunk, eccentric or criminal.”

This hilarious blurring of reality reached its zenith when Mr. O’Malley ran for Congress. His photo appeared in the paper — which everyone could see, including Barnaby’s parents. Mr. O’Malley spoke on the phone with Honest John “Boss” Snagg, a throwback to the corrupt Boss Tweed who controlled the Democratic Party machine. He already had made a backroom deal with a longtime rival, Mintleaf, although he gladly accepted Mr. O’Malley’s $50,000 contribution for his private coffers. While originally envisioned as a “political nonentity,” the “mystery candidate” inexplicably “captured voters’ imaginations” with his “Silent Campaign.” After many plot twists, including Mr. O’Malley’s phony money (fairy godfathers don’t have bank accounts, after all) and Barnaby showing up at the all-candidates meeting, he ends up winning the congressional seat. It gets only more zany from that point.

Barnaby’s steady flow of anti-establishment positions about politics, finances and daily life greatly appealed to left-wing audiences such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and jazz legend Duke Ellington. In the Afterword, Kansas State University professor Philip Nel mentioned that Johnson worked at the communist weekly New Masses “because he believed in its message,” and later the “pro-Roosevelt, anti-Fascist and “anti-Poll Tax” Popular Front newspaper PM.

Yet there has always been a subtle charm about Barnaby, Mr. O’Malley, and supporting characters such as Gus the Ghost and Gorgon the dog, that completely transcends political lines. Liberals may love Barnaby, but there is no reason why conservatives and libertarians can’t admire the beauty, simplicity, wittiness and intelligence of this groundbreaking strip, too.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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