Robot 6

Talking ‘Barnaby': An interview with co-editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Nel

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Q: How did you settle upon the design and layout of this book? Why the landscape format versus a more traditional book shape/format?

ER: That’s a good question. The answer is very simple: when we began to formulate the series, I simply started xeroxing strips on our office photocopier at different sizes and playing around with all possible layout permutations I could think of. At the end of the day, the size of the book is simply the size that looked and felt best to me, in terms of the readability of the strips and the comfort of the trim size, and how many pages the template would add up to, per volume. This was something I learned to do years ago from Kim Thompson: just get down to it and get your hands dirty trying all possible options. I came up with the size and ran it by Phil and Dan Clowes and they both liked it. The design is essentially all Dan Clowes’s. Years before we had acquired the rights to Barnaby, Dan and I had dreamed of doing these books and always had an agreement that if I could get the rights, no one else could possibly design it other than him.

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Q: One of the things that interests me about Barnaby is that there’s never any question that Mr. O’Malley is real and that all the fantastical elements are real — adults are just oblivious to them. Compare that to, say, Calvin and Hobbes (an obvious descendent of Barnaby) where Watterson never reveals to the reader as to whether Hobbes is real or not. Or even Harold, where you’re not sure if it’s all happening in Harold’s imagination. Do you think Johnson is saying something about the adult/child relationship or perception of the world here?

PN: The permeable boundary between real and imagined fascinated Crockett Johnson — in Barnaby, in the seven Harold books, and in the two books about Ellen and her lion (whose relationship parallels that of Calvin and his tiger, Hobbes). The topic has fascinated many artists, but Johnson is closest to those — René Magritte and Saul Steinberg, for instance — who enjoy posing this as a philosophical question. Steinberg has characters who draw themselves into existence. Magritte’s Human Condition paintings (all of which are paintings of paintings) are deliberately vague about where the painting ends and the world begins. Harold’s world is fully real and the only reality he ever inhabits (there is no “outside the picture” for him), but it is also a continually invented, imagined place. In Barnaby, the “real world” is and is not separate from the “fairy world”: O’Malley and friends have an actual effect on the lives of “real” people, even though he remains unseen by most people (save for children and the occasional adult, such as eccentric banker Mr. Dormant or Mr. Baxter with a high fever).

So, if this theme is about the artist (who, of course, transforms ideas into an aesthetic reality), it is — as you suggest — also about the child’s relationship to the “real” world. In Johnson’s works, children and exceptional adults (like artists!) understand that fact and fantasy overlap, influencing one another. Barnaby, Jane, and their friends have not yet lost this wisdom. So, they can see and talk with O’Malley, mental giant Atlas, printer’s devil Shrdlu, Gus the ghost, and “Licensed Witchcraft Practitioner” Emmylou Schwartz. In learning to distrust fantasy, the adults of Barnaby have limited their understanding. They’re still susceptible to the fairy world, but it bewilders them. In contrast, adult realities bewilder the children of Barnaby, but fantasy does not.

This difference in understanding motivates a lot of the comedy of Barnaby, and gives the strip a reality that’s emotionally resonant for those of us who have not forgotten our childhoods. I suspect that’s why so many creative people love Barnaby. They are among that select group of adults who still remember what children take for granted: the imagination creates reality. It creates painting, literature, music, comic strips, and — helpful for Johnson’s satire in Barnaby — belief in such appealing fantasies as “American democracy” or “free market capitalism.”

ER: Phil addresses this far better than I could, but it’s interesting, Chris, because R.C. Harvey and Phil and I recently had an exchange on this very subject. Harvey had a theory that Johnson might have regretted grounding O’Malley in reality so unequivocally, to the point where some of the edits in the first two Barnaby hardcover collections from the 1940s may have been made in an effort to blur things on that front. I’m not convinced of it, but it’s certainly not impossible. But some of my favorite storylines, like the O’Malley for Congress saga, wouldn’t really work at all if O’Malley was purely a figment of Barnaby’s imagination.

Q: Minor confession: I found the Harold books to be almost unbearably sad as a child, because Harold had to invent the entire world around him; he was utterly alone except for whatever he willed into being (which never interacted with him).

PN: Chris Ware did, too. As he writes in his foreword to Barnaby Volume One, “the metaphysical implications of this hugely isolating ending [to Harold and the Purple Crayon] still upset me.” I see his point: Harold is trapped within the existential uncertainty of the blank page. There is no world except that which he invents! What a precarious, lonely existence. Yet Harold doesn’t experience it that way. He’s following the line of his imagination, pursuing it wherever it may lead him. Though there is peril (nearly drowning, falling from a cliff), the Harold books tend to emphasize power and possibility, rather than danger.

ER: Huh.

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Q: Another theme in Barnaby seems to be the ideal world of fantasy that runs up against mundanity. O’Malley is a magical pixie, but he’s lazy and incompetent. Gus the Ghost is meek and cowardly and easily pushed around. Davey Jones hates to get wet. And so forth. Is Johnson saying something about either the real or imagined world here or is it just a simple way to evoke humor?

ER: It’s a study in contrasts mostly for comedic effect, but I think much of the charm in Barnaby, which I think you have to remember was a product of WWII, is definitely its escapism, albeit a different form of escapism as we’re used to in comics, like what Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were doing in Captain America at the same time (they barely seem to occupy the same planet).  As he does in Harold, Johnson has a way of grounding fantasy in the real world, but it’s fantasy for skeptics, and it’s absolutely effective. Johnson was an amateur mathemetician, and that yin/yang quality to him is undeniably part of what makes him such an effective artist (in the same way that he uses a font effectively despite it flying in the face of everything I know about what makes a comic work).

PN: I think it’s a bit of both. The contrast is funny, as Eric notes, but it’s also a wry observation on the predicaments that life presents us. O’Malley is a fairy godfather who’s rather inept at magic, Gridley is a fire pixie who is ever in need of a match, and so on. Johnson is bemused by life’s little ironies.

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Great interview!

My aunt gave me an old hardcover collection of Barnaby when i was just a wee tot, and I’ve loved it ever since. So happy Fantagraphics is doing the definitive reprint project on this strip!

Ballantine Books did a six volume mass-market sized reprint set during the 1980s, and the books later went for obscene amounts of money on the eBay/Amazon aftermarket. I’m always sorry I didn’t buy multiple copies of each for that reason, but being able to read later years of the strip for the first time then was the main delight.

In the first volume of Barnaby Chris Ware openly says that he thinks Barnaby is black. Come on. There’s two kinds of blackface, and the more recent examples where “cultural crusaders” (always white liberals) see black in everything is the more damaging and condescending of the two.

Barnaby is the greatest. Kudos to Nel for the footnotes, too — I wish every other reprint had them.

re: the last great strip, there are still some gaps in the reprint projects to date, like a complete Krazy Kat dailies. (Must be hard to find good copies of the originals; surely the market would otherwise support that collection).

One thing I’ve been thinking — there must be great strips from outside the US/UK that remain undiscovered by English-speakers

“In the first volume of Barnaby Chris Ware openly says that he thinks Barnaby is black.” Actually Chris Ware does not say that at all. Improve your reading skills! (For the record, Ware wrote that as a child he thought Harold (a completely separate character from Barnaby) was black. And he explains why — making an interesting point about reading. I’m not sure why we should assume that any racially ambiguous character is by default white.

Thanks for helping Mr. Tudor with his reading skills, Jeet. Ware isn’t wrong about Harold. If you look at the paste-ups for Harold and the Purple Crayon, Johnson has marked Harold’s face to be colored “10% BROWN.” Ware’s keen eye note the subtle difference in color between the white page and Harold’s face.

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