Friday, May 06, 2011
Go Yoe @ Yoe Books

Barney Google: Gambling, Horse Races & High-Toned Women

Billy DeBeck, edited and designed by Craig Yoe, foreword by Richard Thompson. Yoe Books/IDW, $39.99 (248p) ISBN 978-1600106705

Craig Yoe does it again. His beautifully designed Barney Google presents nine months of Billy DeBeck’s daily strips from 1922, the memorable story sequence in which the racehorse Spark Plug was introduced. As one turns pages, Yoe’s brilliant skill as a designer, historian and visual editor becomes more and more evident, and it soon becomes apparent that he has planned this book like a race, taking the readers for a fast spin around the track. The front cover image, showing Barney atop Spark Plug, is from the cover of the rare Circulation magazine. With different coloring, this is the same drawing seen on the sheet music of the 1923 song hit “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)” by Billy Rose. The Spark Plug stories and the song catapulted DeBeck to fame.

“And they’re off!” The book opens to a huge full-color endpaper image of a reluctant Spark Plug on the day of a race, followed by pages showing the start of the race and a striking 1932 pencil original by DeBeck. The title page is curiously absent the book’s catchy subtitle (which means it will never appear in some listings and reviews). However, it displays another stunning color cartoon spread across two pages. The inventive syndicated strip cartoonist Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac, Richard’s Poor Almanac) contributes a hand-lettered foreword, “Barney Google and the Bigfoot Style” with cartoon illustrations “after DeBeck”.

“The race is on!” Following that extended display, the book finally gets underway at long last with Yoe’s essay, “Google This!”, tracking DeBeck’s rise to riches and analyzing the appeal of his character: “He became a squat runt, maybe because he suffered the blow delivered by the very world he schemed to beat. Barney started as a Mutt and ended as a Jeff… The new diminutive stature was certainly responsible for much of Barney’s appeal, a weird kind of appeal. Barney was rogue, sometimes a scoundrel, for sure a philanderer, and the ASPCA frowned upon horse kickers. But like lovable loser Homer Simpson or pilfering pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, we like and are rooting for Bad Boy Barney.”

“Spark Plug takes the lead!” DeBeck springs to life in Yoe’s profile of the cartoonist, contrasting night life fun with drawing board desperation: “In New York, DeBeck partied hard as he and his pals didn’t believe in Prohibition, and the cartoonist had trouble keeping up with deadlines. The story goes that his frustrated editor locked DeBeck up without his pants in a hotel room, so he couldn’t escape until he caught up with his work.”

“Hi Yoe, silver!” DeBeck died in 1942, and four years later, the National Cartoonists Society was organized. Yoe recounts how DeBeck’s widow, Mary (who remarried as Mary Bergman), stepped in and said she would provide the prize for an annual award if it were in the name of her late husband. The award was a silver cigarette case engraved with DeBeck’s characters. Thus, the Barney Award was launched, but the selection was by a committee of one. Milton Caniff recalled, “Mrs. DeBeck arbitrarily decided who would win. I’ve never talked with anyone who was consulted about it… She just made the choice and presented the award and that was that.” An interesting angle, but Yoe missed the punchline, the strange story of how the NCS pulled the ol' switcheroo to deny DeBeck lasting fame: On February 14, 1953, Mary Bergman was flying from Tampa to New Orleans in a National Airlines DC-6 when a thunderstorm sent the plane plummeting into the Gulf of Mexico, where it broke in half. Even as the last bodies, bubbles and debris surfaced from the ocean floor, the National Cartoonists Society had already submerged the Barney, replacing it with the Reuben (named for Rube Goldberg, the first NCS president). To freeze the NCS’ instantaneous revisionist history, the 1946-53 winners were all given Reuben statuettes and designated as Reuben winners rather than Barney winners.

“Heading for the homestretch!” After a rundown of films, animation, books and comic book reprints, Yoe offers “A Billy DeBeck Scrapbook”, a savory salmagundi of sheet music, advertisements, Cupples & Leon books and promotional images. Further insight into the cartoonist’s lifestyle is seen in the many photos of DeBeck drawing cartoons, playing golf and living it up with his celebrity pals. Racing into the homestretch, Spark Plug is shown galloping into glory in the final color endpaper spread.

“The winner’s circle!” Yoe has succeeded in recapturing the golden era when the leading syndicated cartoonists lived like kings. With comic strip champions Woody Gelman and Bill Blackbeard receding into the past, Yoe has picked up the torch, illuminating panels and pages. His fine flair for creative design has propelled him into the designer pantheon as the Milton Glaser of comics, and this book is such a scintillating, splendiferous delight that one closes it eager to dive headfirst into Yoe’s other IDW titles.

July 17, 1922

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That's pretty awful how they screwed the memory of DeBeck and family. Oh, well. The state of newspaper strips these days, who the heck cares about the award anymore?
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