Cush­lam­ochree, Barn­aby is back

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture - By Michael Taube

BARN­ABY: VOL­UME TWO (1944-1945) By Crock­ett John­son Edited by

CPhilip Nel and Eric Reynolds ush­lam­ochree, Barn­aby is back.

In 1942, car­toon­ist and il­lus­tra­tor Crock­ett John­son caught the Amer­i­can pub­lic by storm with his bril­liant comic strip “Barn­aby.” Fiveyear-old Barn­aby Bax­ter and his fairy god­fa­ther, Mr. O’Mal­ley, had amaz­ing jour­neys through the world (and dark un­der­belly) of pol­i­tics, high fi­nance and cur­rent events. They crossed the line be­tween re­al­ity and imag­i­na­tion as of­ten as we crossed the street, leav­ing read­ers spell­bound and crav­ing more.

Barn­aby’s long-awaited sec­ond vol­ume has just been pub­lished by Fan­ta­graph­ics Books. (I re­viewed Vol­ume 1 for The Wash­ing­ton Times last July.) Edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds, it in­cludes a fore­word by long­time syn­di­cated car­toon­ist Jules Feif­fer and a chap­ter penned by comics his­to­rian R.C. Har­vey. There’s a glos­sary to help read­ers un­der­stand the his­tor­i­cal con­text of cer­tain strips. The cover, fea­tur­ing a clas­sic Barn­aby pose with a part-an­gelic and part-mis­chievous look on his face, couldn’t be more per­fect.

As World War II neared its end, Barn­aby’s mag­i­cal world con­tin­ued to grow and de­velop.

“Dur­ing the height of the war years,” Mr. Feif­fer writes, “Barn­aby and O’Mal­ley emerged as the town criers of what was to be­come, within a decade, the new nor­mal­ity of the Cold War years: in­sta­bil­ity, dis­en­chant­ment with au­thor­ity, a sub­ter­ranean sense of chaos.” John­son had the “pol­i­tics of a young Marx­ist” and orig­i­nally worked for the “com­mu­nist-con­trolled New Masses” pub­li­ca­tion. When the car­toon­ist’s po­lit­i­cal lean­ings shifted, he sought out “PM, the most left­ist/lib­eral (non-com­mu­nist) news­pa­per of its time,” as a suit­able home for Barn­aby.

Yet, as Mr. Nel points out, this par­tic­u­lar vol­ume rep­re­sents “the fi­nal mo­ment in John­son’s comics ca­reer that the Pop­u­lar Front val­ues he shared (anti-fas­cism, pro­la­bor, anti-racism, pro-civil lib­er­ties) were also in the as­cen­dant as Amer­i­can val­ues.” In the post­war pe­riod, “John­son re­mained on the left, but the United States drifted right­ward ... For now, though, his po­lit­i­cal views were still largely in the main­stream.”

Con­sider John­son’s sto­ry­line about the “Av­er­age Voter.” Barn­aby won­ders if his fa­ther fits this de­scrip­tion, but is told it’s “merely a fig­ure of speech. A myth. A sym­bol ... He’s imag­i­nary. Just like that ‘Fairy God­fa­ther’ of yours.” When O’Mal­ley hears this, the search takes on a whole new life: “So how can the Av­er­age Voter be just like me? It’s ab­surd ... Un­less ... er ... Cush­lam­ochree! I’m the Av­er­age Voter!”

In Barn­aby’s world, the real and the imag­i­nary can be re­mark­ably sim­i­lar. Why couldn’t Jac­k­een J. O’Mal­ley, a mag­i­cal pixie who isn’t sup­posed to ex­ist, be the Av­er­age Voter who sup­pos­edly doesn’t ex­ist? As an aside, this the­ory could’ve been more plau­si­ble had O’Mal­ley both­ered to reg­is­ter to vote.

Mean­while, Mr. Har­vey writes, “In bal­anc­ing O’Mal­ley’s as­pi­ra­tions against Barn­aby’s mild (but per­sis­tent) skep­ti­cism, John­son found the dy­namic of his strip.”

O’Mal­ley’s brief ten­ure as a busi­ness ty­coon per­fectly il­lus­trates this point. Start­ing with the Ack Ack Ce­real Com­pany, O’Mal­ley pur­chases some fac­to­ries — in­clud­ing the one that em­ploys Barn­aby’s fa­ther. In spite of Barn­aby’s con­cerns, he presses on, ad­mit­ting “at times I nour­ish mis­giv­ings about the en­tire ven­ture.” Se­nior peo­ple ar­rive at O’Mal­ley En­ter­prises with­out know­ing how they got hired — or who did it. Stock shares and com­pany prof­its kept mul­ti­ply­ing. Gus the Ghost and his spooky friend, Ja­cob Marley (an homage to Charles Dick­ens’s “A Christ­mas Carol”), even­tu­ally tell O’Mal­ley, “... you own the eco­nomic sys­tem!”

This is what some peo­ple used to think — and still think — about big busi­ness in their dark­est moments. O’Mal­ley En­ter­prises be­came a fi­nan­cial em­pire with no money, prod­ucts or busi­ness plan to speak of. While O’Mal­ley wouldn’t have been clas­si­fied as a 19th-cen­tury rob­ber baron, it’s a cap­i­tal­ist model many Amer­i­cans feared and de­plored.

Alas, all good (or sort-of-good) things must end. For O’Mal­ley, this oc­curred when peo­ple dis­cov­ered he paid cash to pur­chase a new pair of trousers “in­stead of charg­ing it to his ac­count.” Con­fi­dence in his com­pany wanes. The fi­nan­cial books have also dis­ap­peared: Gus and Marley took them, ow­ing to a nag­ging $1.27 short­fall. When the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion came a-knock­ing, the doors of O’Mal­ley En­ter­prises (what­ever it ex­actly was) are per­ma­nently shut.

That’s a small sam­pling of what’s in store for read­ers in “Barn­aby: Vol­ume Two.”

In con­clu­sion, Max Lerner’s Oct. 7, 1943 PM ar­ti­cle made this unique as­sess­ment: “As adults, we can get Barn­aby’s irony. But the chil­dren are wiser and more for­tu­nate. They take the story straight.” If there’s a bet­ter rea­son to ex­plain why we still ad­mire, ap­pre­ci­ate and en­joy this great comic strip, I haven’t seen it. Michael Taube is a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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