Barney Google and Spark Plug: their relationship. Artist: Billy DeBeck.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1919
Creator: Billy DeBeck
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The name "Barney Google" is familiar to anyone who ever watched a TV retrospective of comic strips — he's the guy with the "goo-goo-googly eyes" in the 1923 Billy Rose song they always play in …

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… such retrospectives. Many newspapers use his name in the title of one of their comic strips. And in 1995, he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in its "Comic Strip Classics" series of commemorative stamps.

But how many people actually remember seeing Barney Google in a comic strip?

Barney made his debut on June 17, 1919, in a King Features strip with the ungainly title Take Barney Google, F'rinstance. The cartoonist, Billy DeBeck, is said to have been working in newspaper comics only until he could accumulate the wherewithal to pursue his "true calling", a career in fine arts. If so, he must at some point have decided his true calling was in comic strips, because Barney Google, as the strip was quickly renamed, earned him enough money to do whatever he wanted.

Like Mutt & Jeff, Barney Google started out as a sports strip. Barney (who was about half as tall as the other characters) enjoyed horse races, prize fights and similar contests, and was nagged by "a wife three times his size" (as the song goes) for it. The strip enjoyed modest success during its first couple of years — and then came Spark Plug.

On July 17, 1922, Barney happened to be standing on the sidewalk in front of the Pastime Jockey Club, when an argument inside got physical and a man came sailing out the window, knocking Barney to the sidewalk. Convinced this relatively soft landing had saved his life, the grateful victim made Barney a gift of a horse named Spark Plug — and that's when DeBeck's strip took off running.

Sparky's first race became one of comics' first national media events, eagerly anticipated by millions of newspaper readers. So great was the public's enthusiasm that DeBeck, who had been planning to retire the plug after that one storyline, made him a permanent part of the cast. Spark Plug was such a star during the 1920s that children who enjoyed the comics were liable to get "Sparky" for a nickname — for example, Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz, who grew up to create Peanuts.

Another character, introduced in 1934, had an even greater impact on the strip. What with one thing and another, Barney found himself in the North Carolina mountain country that year. There, he became caught up in the affairs of the equally diminutive Snuffy Smith. Hillbillies were popular in American entertainment right then (as Al Capp was proving with his new strip, Li'l Abner), and Snuffy became more and more prominent a character. Within a few years, his name was added to the title. In the mid-1950s, Barney and Snuffy parted, and the strip stayed with Snuffy.

There was an animated version of Barney Google in the 1930s, produced by the Charles Mintz Screen Gems Studio — the one that had earlier failed to capture any of the wit or charm of Krazy Kat. They made only four Google cartoons, two of which were released in 1935 and two in '36. Barney also guest-starred in Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, the second of two comedy shorts where Snuffy starred, with Cliff Nazarro (voice of Egghead) as Barney.

Barney Google & Snuffy Smith also had a sporadic career in comic books, starting with the first issue of Ace Comics in 1937. They appeared in comics of their own, too — three issues from Dell in the 1940s, four from Toby Press in the '50s, one from Gold Key in the '60s, and six from Charlton in the '70s.

Billy DeBeck died of cancer in 1942, only 52 years of age. Fred Lasswell, who had been his assistant in the '30s, took over the strip. In DeBeck's memory, The National Cartoonists' Society named its highest honor "The Billy DeBeck Award". Later, the name was changed to The Reuben Award — which, by the way, Fred Lasswell won in 1963 for his work on the strip DeBeck had created.

Lasswell continued to write and draw the strip until his death in 2001, for over 900 newspapers in 21 countries. Its official name is still Barney Google & Snuffy Smith, but Barney Google is only an infrequent visitor.


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Text ©2000-03 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features Syndicate.