Our Fairy Godfather

Crockett Johnson's brilliant Barnaby is back in print.


There isn't a model in all of political science that could have predicted the process by which J.J. O'Malley was elected to Congress. The saga began with an extremely garbled press account of O'Malley foiling a robbery, transforming the poker-playing, cigar-chomping layabout into a folk hero. His ambitions sparked, O'Malley made a large donation to the local political machine, hoping it would propel him into office. The party boss intended to double-cross him and elect his opponent, but his plan backfired when he didn't notice O'Malley had paid him in Confederate dollars. When the machine used the cash to bribe a bunch of voters, they responded angrily to the funny money by revolting against their instructions and electing the wrong man.

I'm skipping a few steps along the way, including the part where a radio station airs a political speech delivered by a dog. The point is, the story ends with the voters sending a man to Congress without realizing he's a two-foot fairy with pink wings.

J.J. O'Malley was the co-star of Crockett Johnson's Barnaby, a comic strip of the 1940s and '50s that is now being reprinted in a series of books from Fantagraphics. (Two volumes have been published so far, covering the years 1942 to 1945.) The title character is a 5-year-old boy who wishes one night for a fairy godmother. Instead he gets a fairy godfather: Mr. O'Malley, a W.C. Fields-esque con man of a sprite who alternates between bragging about his alleged powers and finding excuses not to use them. (He does commit actual magic from time to time, often without realizing it, but he prefers to focus on a card trick that he can never quite pull off properly.)

The adults in Barnaby's life insist that O'Malley is merely Barnaby's imaginary friend, setting up a dynamic that is likely to remind the modern reader of Calvin and Hobbes. But unlike Hobbes the tiger, whose relationship to reality is ambiguous, there's no chance that O'Malley is just pretend. He is constantly intervening in Barnaby's world, and in the process he wreaks havoc not just in small-scale environments such as a summer camp but in the vaster worlds of politics and high finance. It helps that the grown-ups, unwilling to believe in fairies, keep imagining that O'Malley is something else—a heroic citizen who should be elected to Congress, say, or a business genius whose investments should be emulated.

Barnaby thus belongs to a tradition of strips, from Pogo to Bloom County, that mix kid-friendly fantasy with adult satire. The cartoons in these two volumes are filled with the daily texture of early-'40s America—air raid wardens, victory gardens, ration books—and its characters make frequent references to politics and popular culture. But Johnson almost always takes aim at larger social trends, allowing his satire to outlive its direct inspirations. When O'Malley opens a congressional investigation of Santa Claus, for example, Johnson is spoofing Rep. Martin Dies (D-Texas) and his attempts to ferret out subversives. The strokes are broad enough, though, that a reader who has never heard of Dies can still enjoy the arc as a shot at witch hunts of all kinds.

Johnson is also willing to let his fondness for sheer absurdity overwhelm the political point he's making. In another sequence, O'Malley and some millionaire ghosts meet to make plans for the 1944 elections. The ghosts are reactionaries, a point Johnson illustrates by giving one of them a watch that runs backward; as the meeting progresses, we are periodically informed, for example, that it is now 1938 and the campaign can promise peace in our time. This is not the world's most sophisticated joke, and Johnson himself eventually turns it in a different direction, putting the time-reversal story to a less political but much funnier use: When the watch reaches October 1929, the meeting breaks up. "Who cares about the election now?" a ghost exclaims. "Stocks are up 50 billion points!"

As the backward-watch gag suggests, Johnson's sympathies were with the left. He began his career drawing editorial cartoons for the radical magazine New Masses, and Barnaby debuted in PM, a fiercely liberal paper. His colleagues at PM included Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, and like Seuss he would go on to great success in children's literature: illustrating his wife Ruth Krauss' book The Carrot Seed, mentoring Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame, and writing many books of his own. The most famous of these is Harold and the Purple Crayon, a wonderfully strange story in which a boy who looks an awful lot like Barnaby wanders through a series of landscapes that he draws himself. (Harold and its sequels may be the most solipsistic books ever written. One of them ends with Harold drawing his own mother and asking her to read him a story.)

Put another way, Johnson went from producing editorial cartoons that directly engaged the material world to creating a comic that mixed that world with fantasy elements, so that events that sound like they spilled out of a boy's imagination are in fact real. From there he went to writing and illustrating books where the boy's imagination is all that's real. At the end of his life he was painting abstract pictures with no human beings in them at all. There is a progression of sorts here, though I'm not sure what it says about Johnson's view of the world.

That worldview, at any rate, gave us one of the 20th century's most entertaining comic-strip characters, J.J. O'Malley. He might not be the fairy godmother a boy wants, but he's the egotistical lowlife of a fairy godfather we all deserve.