Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley. Artist: Crockett Johnson.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Field Enterprises Syndicate
First Appeared: 1942
Creator: Crockett Johnson
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Like Krazy Kat before it and King Aroo after, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby was better received by intellectual critics than by the general public. Although it did …

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… manage to hold its own for ten years in the popular arena, it was never able to translate rave reviews from critics like Dorothy Parker, who said the fact that children love Barnaby "has appreciably raised my estimation of children", into a readership commensurate with that level of praise.

Johnson's art style was perhaps the most minimalist that had ever appeared in American newspaper strips, with the possible exception of O. Soglow's The Little King (although a few subsequent entries, for example, Dilbert, surpass both). There was no perspective, no shift in point of view, no shading, and extremely little variation in line weight. But rather than make the strip appear simplistic — nothing could do that to so sophisticated a storyline — this approach had the effect of focusing attention on the characters and their complex, often zany interactions.

Barnaby Baxter was a 5-year-old boy who wished one night for a fairy godmother, and got Jackeen J. O'Malley instead. Mr. O'Malley, no taller than Barnaby himself, was rather a declassé fairy, who used his cigar as a magic wand. Barnaby was never able to convince his parents of O'Malley's existence — and the fact that O'Malley was a little rusty at that magic stuff didn't help a bit.

Other magical characters quickly joined the cast. Gus was a ghost writer from a haunted house in Barnaby's neighborhood. Gorgon was a dog who could talk, but only when adults weren't looking (like Buster Brown's dog, Tige). Launcelot McSnoyd was an invisible leprechaun with a Brooklyn accent. And then there was O'Malley's social club, the Elves, Gnomes and Little Men's Chowder & Marching Society. The Chowder-and-Marchers never appeared on stage, but O'Malley's stories about their meetings were sometimes capable of scandalizing the innocent Barnaby.

In 1945, Johnson turned the writing of the strip over to Ted Ferro and the art to Jack Morely. Although he still kept a watchful eye on Barnaby, participating regularly in story conferences, he concentrated more on his burgeoning career creating books for children — some of which, including seven volumes about Harold and his Magic Crayon, are still reprinted from time to time.

Barnaby was reprinted in hardcover books, adapted into a stage play and a radio series, and even appeared as an early television special. But its newspaper circulation was never more than marginal — at its height, it was carried by only 64 papers — and eventually, a decision was made that the plug had to be pulled on it. Johnson returned to write one last storyline.

Barnaby's 6th birthday approached, and his father — ever vigilant for a way to convince Barnaby to give up his "fantasy" about Mr. O'Malley — informed him that fairy godfathers were not allowed to manifest themselves to big boys. O'Malley looked it up in his fairy godfathers' handbook, and found this was correct. He tried to talk the boy out of turning six, but to no avail. He and Gus attended Barnaby's birthday party, then, on Feb. 2, 1952, flew out of the big boy's life. And there the strip ended.

A brief attempt was made to revive it during the 1960s, with Johnson reworking old storylines and Warren Sattler illustrating them. But the magic was gone.


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Text ©2000-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Field Enterprises.