Barney Google: Vagabond Extraordinary—Popeyed Pioneer

Posted by on February 11th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

With his introduction of Barney Google to readers of Hearst’s Journal, Billy De Beck bolted from the domestic chain-gang of married-couples comic strips to which he had been confined, portraying the numerous (albeit identical) wall-papered purgatories of Aleck and Pauline, his last, and archetypal, middle-ages matrimonial martyrs. Indeed, however: even in this chunk of sedulous realism, De Beck had sneaked in eerie shimmers of fantasy: psychic possession; hypnosis; transference of identities by psychic means. Tremors of wonder, anticipating the physics-flouting miracle which was Spark Plug, the original Wonder Horse: an angelic-natured equine miracle whose true ancestral home was the Land of Oz.

De Beck’s comic epic starred (would continue starring, until the 1940s) Barney Google, classic American rover and vagabond: warranting a nod, and more, from Walt Whitman (Barney’s good buddy on the vagrants’ Olympus). His, was a humble, yet all-persistent, pragmatism. Even in the earliest years of his outrageous abandonment of his family (wife, Lizzy, infrequently viewed daughter, Gwenny) Barney partnered himself (for a full two weeks) with “The Talking Dog, Bazoo.” When Bazoo apparently exhausted his conversational resources, Varney heartlessly pitched the pooch from the handiest pier. No more reminders required of Aleck and Pauline, and their spook-beset little Dream House.

Throughout Barney Google’s vagabond saunter, the semblance to a sightseeing tour persists. How often does a trade of experience — even as with that classic wanderer, Annie Warbucks — occur? Barney’s imaginary doorstep turns up a baby boy: nicknamed, with seeming fatherly indulgence, “Puzzumz,” by his pro tem daddy. But no significant changes are wrought in the wanderer’s itinerary. What became of Puzzums — save that he lived — I can not recall. An early encounter introduced Barney to a civic purity league: the Hooded Secret and Mysterious Brotherhood of Billy Goats. The blatancy of the title, one supposes, has done half Barney’s job: unseating and dispersing these civic vigilantes. But no such farcical fracas ever came. Barney, apparently with minimal effort, converted the glo0wering outfit into a Good Old Boys’ Club, with the not so secret password: OKMNX. Sinclair Lewis? Nah. Buzz Windrip? Huh? The Brotherhood of Billy Goats quietly withdrew into the Google Memoirs.

The image wrought by Barney’s peregrinations is of a light-hearted, reasonably opportunistic wanderer in an ancient tradition. A consummation of his wanderings came in his introduction to Snuffy Smith, of the Ozark-type community, Hootin’ Holler. At that time, Snuffy’s was the reputation of a virtual outlaw; a dreaded and despised pariah buffeted against Ozark vengeance by Snuffy’s wife, Loweezy: bulky, gentle, yet, armored with forebearance against her husband’s well-nigh suicidal escapades. Barney became a boarder with the Smiths for a time. A heretofore concealed door in his soul had, it would seem, been opened:  a bearing toward the pastoral. Yet, the pastoral’s lawlessness, and, lurking, pacing — the lure of daily reality’s gates, let down (at very least, buckled).

The encounters and adventures of Barney Google in the Ozarks constitute, to my view, some of the most sheerly beautiful cartoon work performed by De Beck — or any of his contemporaries. The beauty lies in the latitude of realism, Billy De Becks’s unfailing forte: a patient, resilient (often harshly) laughing naturalistic reportage; yet, unfailingly tinted and ultimately sweetened, with a defiant, slambang laughter — such as Frank Norris, or James T. Farrell, would recognize and welcome. Or, perhaps, Vance Randolph — to whom, as I gather, De Beck owed no little of his Ozark life data.

De Beck’s predilection for sprawling backgrounds and spacious compositions afforded him, and his readers, the buoyant and slathering beauties of Ozark mountainscapes. Especially the views of the Feather Merchants: swarming, yet elusive, mountain elves. Cousins to Rip Van Winkle’s tempters, the Merchants’ hearty, funky initiation of Snuffy — aside a wild hog, and blurting: “I solemnly swow …” fairly reeks with the stuff of legend. De Beck continued the occasional use of extra-sized panels for close-up views of the Smiths and other personalities: as well as for “Hill Billy Baloonies”: a send-in-jokes competition.

Fugitives from Nature: During WWII, Barney and Snuffy, in the Army and Navy notwithstanding their post-combat ages, acquired, each, a non-human companion: Barney, a slangily articulate, macaw-type bird, Hawky Tawky. Snuffy, a perennial “Yard Bird,” dug and delved, in the often acerb, but comradely company of an Army mule: Honey Pot. Fit rowdy, yet loyal, companions for the Artists’ Valhalla: where their creator, very soon, would be awaiting them.

One recalls the vagrant days of Barney’s sporting enterprises, and picaresque gallivantings from town to town, adventure to adventure. His likeness to The Honorable Eric Van Horne — a philandering politico, embroiled Barney with his double’s conniving relatives; Homeric Van Horne and Helenic Ban Horne. The ill-met pair picked up the “double” motif, in their outward similarity to Lord and Lady Plushbottom, steadfast presences in the episodes of Barney’s most renowned would-be competitor, Moon Mullins.

But the frisky unrest of Billy De Beck’s style did not prove hospitable, in those early decades of the century, to ingenious plot architecture. The veerings of his inventions often supplanted suspense with the narrative veerings of a Henry Fielding  or Tobias Smollett: a little more erotic, and Barney might have been a humorous gallivanter. But balcony scenes, innocuous or otherwise, found no place in Billy De Beck’s celebration of middle-aged buoyancy and enterprise.

Spark Plug — the wonder horse — and Rudy, ostrich extraordinary, functioned as familiar spirits in Barney Google’s vagarious life. Both embodied Barney’s stalwart earthiness : both, also, Barney’s profligate randomness, his wildness. Both were gifts of appreciation for acts of rescue, intentional and otherwise. Spark Plug came from a millionaire, whose hurtling passage from a barroom brawl was inadvertently cushioned by Google. Rudy, some years later, was the regard of an ostrich farmer, whose child Barney rescued from a burning building. The entire event was conveyed in a brilliantly executed perspective: Barney’s perspective of the street, far below the ledge of his upper-story dwelling.

An omnivorous spirit; Rudy was more the self-serving rover than Sparky. His eyes—very like Barney’s—held a questionable combination; roguish avarice—for absolutely anything edible (by Rudy’s standard) an ingénue’s innocence. And he supplied diverse touches of starworthy virtuosity (stellar example: a Sunday page dealing with Barney’s pursuit of Rudy’s discipline in mind, disclosed a google-eyed, gaping-beaked horde of ostriches, crowding a single panel: a priceless visual metaphor, of a gaping, street disaster audience).

The entente between feverishly busy, questing humanity, and serenely instinctive, roaming nature, received a grand theatrical context, when Barney first encountered the Smiths and their clamorous, somehow steadfastly cheerful, rustic Eden. Eventually, as the strip entered the ’20s, Snuffy accompanied Barney back to Big City civilization and briskly rippled the currents of High Life; pursuing — and being pursued by — a svelte, blonde, high society belle. But when she attempted biffing him bug off, Snuffy responded. No tears, no pleas — but a smack on the jaw to win applause from Ralph Kramfden. The Beauty’s hair gushed upward like a blonde waterspout — as Snuffy launched his coup de grace; “Yer a purty face — wif nowt behind it.” The payoff phrase was promptly seized upon by De Beck’s vox populil; another pine board in a master edifice of personally evolved folklore plaiting a novelist’s narrative ingenuity and vigor with a farceur’s rough-riding audacity/ingenuity: Billy De Beck’s 40-odd triumph of grassroots art.

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One Response to “Barney Google: Vagabond Extraordinary—Popeyed Pioneer”

  1. vollsticks says:

    Great little piece Mr. Phelps. I recently purchased the great IDW volume–first of a planned series!–of Barney Google–DeBeck finally afforded the lavish treatment he (and Barney!) deserve. I’m not particularly mad on the classic American newspaper strips but after The Comics Journal printed a load of Barney Google’s a year or so ago I was hooked. I dunno, it just speaks to me more than Peanuts or even Krazy Kat…it’s only rivaled in my affections by Gasoline Alley. I think it’s DeBeck’s rather frenetic cartooning, that gorgeous line looking just the “finished” side of sketchy (if that makes any sense!?) that appeals to me more than anything…it seems to me that Barney Google is one of the last classic strips to get serious critical (re) appraisal–there’s nth amount of reviews and articles on Herriman, King, Schulz etc. but Billy DeBeck is somewhat under-represented, it seems to me. At least your piece has done something to redress the balance Mr. Phelps–and for that I applaud you!