The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

Karlsson on the Roof by Astrid Lindgren

In 1942, Crockett Johnson created the cartoon Barnaby, in which we see Mr O’Malley through the eyes of a boy who wishes for a fairy Godmother, but instead is presented with a short, fat, flying, conceited and not altogether competent fairy Godfather.


The cartoon was a big hit within the Left intelligentia in the US. Dorothy Parker adored it, Duke Ellington was chuffed to be part of one of the strips. He even wrote a letter to the editor of PM to say so. The Roosevelts were avid followers. It was syndicated – not a big syndication by US standards, but nonetheless to newspapers which had a combined readership of 5.5M or so. It was a cartoon strip for adults that kids read. Johnson was a cartoonist’s cartoonist, original – perhaps radical – in his technical vision of the strip and highly influential on those who came after him in the US.


The influence of this cartoon was, however, by no means limited to that country. When the editor of The Daily Mail in the UK saw it, he wanted one like it. This led to the creation of Flook, an indispensable part of the cartoon scene in the UK for over forty years. However much Flook may have been inspired by Mr O’Malley, however, and despite its subversive role as a cartoon for adults read by children, Flook is different enough in looks and character that one needs to have the inspiration pointed out.

Barnaby 3

Not so in the case of Karlsson. Here Astrid Lindgren has taken the figure of Mr O’Malley in a way that one could say is nothing short of brazen. It has prompted me to write to an expert on Johnson, curious to know what he had to say about Lindgren’s take, a word I use advisedly. Mr O’Malley even has the stock phrases that are so important to the nature of Karlsson. Different ones, of course – Cushlamochree – an exclamation of surprise meaning ‘pulse of my heart’.

Barnaby 2

Same physical qualities, though they fly by different methods, and same character. That is not to say, however, there is no difference in output. Barnaby is an intellectual cartoon with a sophisticated take on the politics of the period, (which is not to say that it was always political). Perhaps that is why Barnaby has been the influential publication whilst Karlsson has been the popular one. Lindgren has taken the intellectual content out of Barnaby and created something that is straightforwardly for children.

Barnaby 1

There has been speculation in our household recently as to why Karlsson doesn’t have the popularity in Anglo-Saxon countries that he has in the Scandinavian-Germanic-Russian areas. My reaction to Karlsson when I read one of the books in English recently is to find him quite repugnant and yet Mr O’Malley is not. I do wonder if this has something to do with cultural differences as to what Anglo-Saxons will find amusing compared with Scandinavians (etc), as well as to the appeal of intellectual content.

Chuck Rothman comments on his blog that

To Barnaby Mr. O’Malley is a wonder, but the reader noticed quite soon that he hilariously overstates his talents, usually creating more problems than he solves in the rare cases when his magic actually works. O’Malley is a charming braggart and blowhard, who’s all too willing to help Barnaby out — to disastrous results — when he isn’t spending his days at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes & Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society.

Like Karlsson, Barnaby went through all sorts of attempted permutations, but unlike Karlsson, Barnaby’s failed. They included a musical/play and a couple of proposed TV series. The 1959 TV pilot included Ronald Reagan, a very young Ron Howard as Barnaby and the great Mel Blanc as the voice of the Leprechaun. Bert Lahr played Mr O’Malley. Despite the pilot being a bit of a hit, the show itself was never made.

The fact is that Barnaby was for a small, discriminating audience.

In October, Henry Holt published Johnson’s Barnaby. It sold its first printing of 10,000 copies in its first week, and would sell 40,000 before the end of the year. The reviews were ecstatic. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Rose Benèt called Barnaby “a classic of humor” and declared Mr. O’Malley “a character to live with the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, Ferdinand, and all great creatures of fantasy.” Ruth McKenney, whose My Sister Eileen had become an Oscar-nominated film earlier that year, delighted in “that evil intentioned, vain, pompous, wonderful little man with the wings.” As she put it, “I suppose Mr. O’Malley has fewer morals than any other character in literature which is, of course, what makes him so fascinating.” Dorothy Parker began her “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson” by confessing that she could not write a review because, despite her efforts, “it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Lauding the book as “the best American creative writing of this year” and O’Malley as “the most brilliantly conceived character in many a year,” novelist and Book-of-the-Month Club publicity director Edwin Seaver nominated Barnaby for a Pulitzer.

I found Karlsson on the Roof an enjoyable way to pass an hour as an adult and have no idea of how I would have found it as a child. Perhaps hilarious, I really can’t say. But I am very happy that through Karlsson that I have discovered Mr O’Malley and its author, Crockett Johnson, about whom I will write more in another post.

For more on the Barnaby Astrid Lindgren connection go to Astrid Lindgren had a role model in the US.

Oh. And there is a talking dog in Barnaby. Cushlamochree!

It is slightly interesting to speculate on the future of Karlsson. Unfortunately he is a politically incorrect character in an age of extreme political correctness. Back in the Cold War days it is possible that it was hard for Karlsson to break into the US (and perhaps other English-speaking countries) because he was so big in the USSR. Right now, however, Karlsson is at threat from both countries for oddly similar reasons, subverting the status quo. The Russians have him on a black list due to the notion that the cartoon is anti-family. In the US he is raising objections for reasons as obscure as the possible impact upon baby-sitter child relations, but I guess too for the obvious one that children aren’t allowed to have weird adult friends. I read somewhere recently that the latest editions of Karlsson have him as a young adult rather than a mature one. This is really too bad.

Peanuts Treasury by Charles M Schultz

The notion that Charlie Brown is an existentialist is discussed by Radke:

Another key aspect comes from this monstrous freedom that abandonment allows, and this aspect is despair. In a nutshell, we are created by our actions. We are responsible for our actions. Therefore, we are responsible for our creation. What we are is the sum total of what we have done, nothing more and nothing less. But why should this cause despair? To answer this, Sartre examines the characteristics of cowardice and bravery. When Sartre describes the position that opposes his own, we can see how it may be comforting to not be responsible for one’s creation:

If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your life whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content; you will be heroes all your life, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism 1957)

It is this very possibility that causes despair. Why does Charlie Brown tear himself into knots over the little red-haired girl? The very possibility that he could go over and talk to her is far more distressing than its impossibility would be; he must take ownership of his failure. When she is the victim of a bully in the school yard, Charlie Brown’s despair threatens to leap right off the comic page. He isn’t suffering because he can’t help her, but because he could help her, but won’t: “Why can’t I rush over there and save her? Because I’d get slaughtered, that’s why…” When Linus helps her out instead, thereby illustrating his freedom of action, Charlie Brown only becomes more melancholic.

In order to combat despair, Charlie Brown succumbs to bad faith, which is to say, he denies his freedom: “I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to talk to her! Everybody would probably laugh … she’d probably be insulted too …” It is only by falsely denying his freedom that Charlie Brown can overcome his despair. But by hiding behind bad faith, he does himself no favours. Another lunch hour is spent alone on a bench with a peanut butter sandwich.

It’s only proper that Charlie Brown’s dog shows us the other side of existentialism. Shulz said of Sartre

I read about him in the New York Times, where he said it was very difficult to be a human being, and the only way to fight against it is to lead an active life – that’s very true.

Is not this Snoopy? Snoopy

the WW1 ace

the writer

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night
by Snoopy
Part I
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out!
A door slammed. The maid screamed.
Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!
While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.

Part II

A light snow was falling, and the little girl with the tattered shawl had not sold a violet all day.

At that very moment, a young intern at City Hospital was making an important discovery. The mysterious patient in Room 213 had finally awakened. She moaned softly.

Could it be that she was the sister of the boy in Kansas who loved the girl with the tattered shawl who was thedaughter of the maid who had escaped from the pirates?

The intern frowned.

“Stampede!” the foreman shouted, and forty thousand head of cattle thundered down on the tiny camp. The two men rolled on the ground grappling beneath the murderous hooves. A left and a right. A left. Another left and right. An uppercut to the jaw. The fight was over. And so the ranch was saved.

The young intern sat by himself in one corner of the coffee shop. he had learned about medicine, but more importantly, he had learned something about life.


the property investor


the gourmand

the astronaut

Why would we want to hunt rabbits, he wonders when Frieda tries to make him. Later he is seen joyously dancing with them. In 1961 he said: ‘Some of us are born dogs, and some of us are born rabbits. When the chips are down, I’ll have to admit that my sympathy lies with the rabbits.’ An optimistic existentialist if ever there was one. Charlie Brown is like Jonas in The Conqueror except that his same failures make us sympathetic. Snoopy reminds us that an existential life can still be a joyous one. And whereas Charlie Brown is a cowardly coward, Snoopy is a brave one – and is that not, after all, what a hero is?

I’ve never stopped adoring Snoopy since I was little. It may be that I wrote yesterday I wanted to be Julie Andrews when I grew up, but not like I wanted to be Snoopy, even if that meant I no longer had a chance to catch the eye of Christopher Plummer.

You’re my hero, Snoopy.