Talking ‘Barnaby’: An interview with co-editors Eric Reynolds and Phil Nel
Q: Reading the second volume, I was surprised at how political some of the storylines got, especially the Dewey election one. I knew Johnson was an avowed leftist, but my previous experience with the strip didn’t prepare me for the frequent jabs he gets in towards Wall Street and classic conservatism/big business. To my eyes it seems like the most overtly leftist strip prior to Doonesbury. Is that accurate to say or is that just hyperbole?
ER: Well, it did run in PM. Phil can probably assess this better than me, I honestly have never been too conscious of the politics. That’s more for a scholar to assess. I think something like the election storyline is just such an effective piece of storytelling that the politics — even when bordering on the heavy-handed — become unnoticeable, as in the very best of Harold Gray’s work. Luckily, Johnson seems eminently more level-headed and never veered into the loopy didacticism that plagued cartoonists like Gray, Chester Gould or Al Capp later in their careers.
PN: I wouldn’t agree that Barnaby was “the most overtly leftist strip prior to Doonesbury,” no. I say this, in part, because such a claim would overlook Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1948-1973), which definitely leans left, and was still running when Doonesbury started. Also, while Johnson was firmly on the left, Barnaby’s politics tend to be more nuanced. Yes, there are flashes of (what, for Johnson, feels like) anger in his anti-Poll Tax strips. But, in 1944-1945, Barnaby’s — and Johnson’s — Popular Front politics were more mainstream than they would be later in the decade. Remember, too, that Dewey lost the 1944 election soundly, carrying only 12 states to Roosevelt’s 36. Johnson wasn’t the only one making fun of Dewey.
Q: I completely forgot about Pogo. I am shamefaced.
Barnaby is such an utterly unique and often odd strip, visually, with it’s razor thin line and everyone constantly viewed in profile. I mentioned its influence on Calvin and Hobbes, but are there any comics (or cartoonists) you can cite that were influenced directly by Crockett’s visual style?
PN: Chris Ware, Charles Schulz, Daniel Clowes, Bil Keane.
ER: One thing about the razor thin line . . . Before putting together this series, I’d never seen one of Johnson’s originals, let alone see even high res repros of any of the strips. With all due respect, the image quality of things like the Del Rey paperbacks of the 1980s and the Comics Revue run were less than optimal and the linework in each was reduced and/or degraded. But working on these books, I’ve been surprised to notice that there’s more line weight to Johnson’s work than he gets credit for. Compared to say, Joost Swarte or Chris Ware, some of Johnson’s originals look like Charles Burns inked them!
I don’t have much of a point to this except to say that I think our books are bringing out a more human side of Johnson’s line than has ever been seen before.
Q: In the end notes you mention how Johnson pursued a spin-off musical and cartoon with Barnaby. Just how popular was the strip anyway? I know it had a following among certain (for want of a better word) sophisticates, but I always thought it was regarded as a cult strip to some degree. Philip, you essay at the end seems to imply otherwise.
ER: I honestly don’t know. I always think it was a very NY-centric flavor-of-the-month amongst a certain set of intellectuals and taste-makers, but having read Phil’s biography of Barnaby, you realize that Johnson certainly harbored ambitions for exploiting Barnaby into other media. I could be wrong about this, but for all of his success, Johnson seemed oddly ineffective at leveraging that success. Phil, is that off base?
PN: Like Krazy Kat, Barnaby was never a popular success. At its height, Barnaby was syndicated in only 52 newspapers. A truly popular strip, such as Chic Young’s Blondie, was then appearing in over 800 papers. Also like Krazy Kat, Barnaby attracted influential and devoted readers. Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Louis Untermeyer, and many other culturally connected people read the strip.
Eric, you’re quite right that Johnson was unable to realize his ambitions for Barnaby. There were two different radio pilots (1945, 1948), neither of which found a sponsor; a stage play that flopped (1946); two television pilots (1959, 1966) that went nowhere (even though the one starring Ron Howard as Barnaby and Bert Lahr as O’Malley received great reviews). I think that one reason these never took off is that it’s hard to adapt Barnaby for other media. It works well on the page, but in translating it for dramatic performance, something is lost. Of course, something is always lost in a dramatic adaptation, but in the case of Barnaby that missing element often turns out to be a key ingredient. Perhaps Barnaby (the comic strip) is a soufflé — tamper with the recipe, and it’s going to collapse in on itself.
Q: What effect did you think the choice of typeface had on the strip? How does it alter the way we absorb and read it versus a strip with a handwritten font?
PN: Like Johnson’s style, Paul Renner’s Futura (the typeface of Barnaby) is spare, modernist, yet warm. It excises needless detail, but gently, carefully. Its geometric proportions are open and inviting.
Both Futura and Johnson’s clear-line aesthetic make Barnaby’s design — make Johnson’s meticulous work — seem invisible. Handwriting makes us aware of the artist. Comparably, a looser style (like, say, Richard Thomspon’s or Dr. Seuss’s) makes the hand of the creator feel more present in the finished work. In contrast, Barnaby’s type and art are so precise that we seem to be looking at a perfect diagram of reality. It feels less mediated, and this quality (I think) allows us to absorb it more fully.
ER: What’s odd about the use of the font is just how harmoniously it works with the strip. I am, in general, dead set against the use of mechanical fonts in comics. It tends to suck the life out of a page and work at odds with the organic quality of the cartooning. Yet Barnaby is the quintessential exception to the rule.
Q: Johnson abandoned the strip for awhile to concentrate on children’s books. Are you going to be collecting the material done by Jack Morley?
PN: Though I’ve also read that allegation somewhere, Johnson in fact didn’t abandon the strip for children’s books. He did illustrate two children’s books in the 1940s while he was doing Barnaby: Constance Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943) and Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1945). But he didn’t get back to children’s books until the early 1950s.
Here’s what he actually did. Though he stayed on as a story consultant (sometimes more actively involved, and sometimes less so), Johnson had Ted Ferro doing the scripts and Jack Morley doing the art. This arrangement lasted from January 1946 to September 1947, at which point Johnson resumed writing the strips, and Morley continued doing the art. I’ve seen (and we will print some) draft material for these Morley-Johnson strips: Johnson is also providing the layout, doing character designs for new characters. So, Morley is the artist from 1946 until the final weeks of the strip, but Johnson remains involved in the art, too.
And yes, the Morley-Ferro-Johnson strips will also be printed. They’ll comprise most of Volume Three (1946-1947). In the afterword to this book, I’ll go into further detail about the collaboration, and just what Johnson was up to during this period.
ER: The most remarkable thing about the Ferro/Morley period is just how little the strip misses a beat. Those guys were unbelievably effective at mimicking Johnson’s voice and style.
Q: Is this truly the last great strip to be collected? What strip would you guys like to see re-introduced to readers, either via Fantagraphics or another publisher?
PN: The other great strips have all been collected or started getting collected before Barnaby: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Pogo, Peanuts, Cul de Sac, Gasoline Alley, Calvin & Hobbes, Doonesbury, Moomin, For Better or For Worse, and… well, I could write a much longer list. As many have observed, we live in the Golden Age of comics reprints! Yet, for decades, fans of Barnaby have had to get the two 1940s collections (all of which were redrawn strips) or seek out the scare 1985-1986 Del Rey books (for the originals). So, though I realize I’m partial to them, these new Barnaby books really are making available the last great uncollected strip.
At this point, more than bringing out any one individual strip, what I want is an anthology of comic strips that I could teach. I want to teach a class on the comic strip, and — when I do so — I’ll find it prohibitively expensive to assign full book-length collections of all individual strips I’d want students to read. It might also be prohibitively expensive to edit such a collection, but it should at least be possible to do a reasonably priced compendium of all important Public Domain (pre-1923) strips.
ER: That’s not a bad idea. I have a few things I’d like to see, but I don’t want to tip my hat. Barnaby truly was the last great strip to be collected, for me, though.