Barnaby May Be the Best Comic Strip You've Never Seen. Until Now.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Free Comic Book Day 2012 was terrific, and I made my customary run to Madison, Wis., to visit the comics shops there, checking out the FCBD offerings and comparing this event to those of years past. (I even began with the "in memoriam" drive-by of what had seemed to be a busy suburban comics shop north of the city - disappeared between one FCBD and the next three or four years ago.) The shops on my route (as I travel west to east) are: Westfield Comics, 7475 Mineral Point Road; Capital City Comics, 1910 Monroe Street; and Westfield Comics, 944 Williamson Street. And, frankly, it's a route I recommend, with each shop offering a different "feel." Each, too, this year was experiencing an even higher community participation, with shoppers young and old happily enjoying the annual celebration. I'll eventually revisit the event as I plow through the FCBD handouts (not to mention my purchases - because it's all about finding the treats in plain view in today's shops). But at the moment, I want to single out something you may have passed by. Just. In. Case.

Over the years, I hear many things, lots of behind-the-scenes news, gossip, comments, etc. Often, I'm asked to keep things quiet. "I know you'll be excited to hear this, Maggie, but don't tell anyone." So sometimes I actually push the information as much as possible out of my memory so I don't accidentally mention something that isn't to be common knowledge. And so it was that I exclaimed with surprise as well as delight to see the Free Comic Book Day release from Fantagraphics: a hint of the volumes to come that will provide the world at last with The Complete Barnaby. I'd been told about the project last year but it was with the request that I keep it quiet - and told that putting together the collections was complex and could take quite a while. But here it is! With the first volume due this summer!

Yet at each shop, as I waved the introductory booklet at people, I was met with friend after friend who hadn't heard of the strip. I hope that, by the end of FCBD, at least a few people have begun to anticipate the release of the first collection. Cushlamochree!

"Crockett Johnson" was the penname of the brilliant David Leisk (1906-1975). His ongoing legacy is (or was until now) the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, and he also illustrated a number of other children's books, four of them written by his wife, Ruth Krauss. Those tended to feature characters slightly younger than Barnaby, whom he introduced as a daily-newspaper character in 1942. The concept of the strip was simple: Barnaby is a little boy who wishes for a fairy godmother; what he gets is Mr. O'Malley, a winged, cigar-chomping character who is never seen by Barnaby's mother or father or other adult. Not that Mr. O'Malley is invisible; coincidence simply continues to complicate Barnaby's life, as adults think he has imagined the ever-increasing fantasy elements of his life.

There have been a few earlier attempts to bring the characters into wider circulation. There were two book collections (1943 and 1944, with at least some of the strips redrawn for the presentation), a Barnaby Quarterly magazine in the mid-1940s, and several mass-market paperbacks from Ballantine in the mid-1980s (with strips reproduced so small the text is occasionally hard to make out) that tend to be pricey, when you can find them. Are they fun for kids? Well, for years as I was growing up, I read and reread one of the copies of the Quarterly - and, even though I had no idea there was something called "hoarding" during World War II, I loved what I read. Part of which you'll find in the Fantagraphics sampling. Check it out. I can hardly wait for the completed Volume One.


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