The Ominous Octopus

Thursday, May 1, 2014



I was reading the new Fantagraphics edition of Crockett Johnson's classic comic strip BARNABY, and I saw a few things mentioned in the strip that weren't explained in the glossary in the back of the book. I wrote them down, and then I wrote down a few more things that I had to look up. Here is what I ended up with:

September 3 - "Slugs" - round pieces of metal used to cheat when playing slot machines. "Straight deck" - not crooked, another gambling reference. - "Los Angeles police badge" - possibly a reference to police corruption in Los Angeles: Los Angeles also has an association with phoniness, because of Hollywood.  - "Landon button" - campaign button for Alf Landon, who was the Republican presidential candidate in 1936, and lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

October 14 - "Steinmetz" - socialist, mathematician, and electrical engineer. Author Crockett Johnson was also a socialist.

October 20 - "Gas rationing" - gas and some other things were rationed during the second World War, due to concerns that there might be shortages.

November 3 - "Duffy's Tavern" - Radio program starring Ed Gardner as a bartender at a fictional tavern that was supposed to belong to one Duffy, who was never there.

May 12 - "Red Stamps" - red stamps were used to ration meat and butter.

May 14 - "Oakleys" - free passes. Derived from Annie Oakley, allegedly because of the resemblance to cards that she shot in her sharpshooting act.

November 28 - "Red Onion Gang" - this is another archaic reference. The Red Onion Gang hung around the waterfront in Brooklyn in the early 1900's.

June 28 - "A coach and four" - a coach with four horses. Something that royalty would have.

July 15 - "Callahan's Valhalla" - this can be interpreted as "Irish Heaven". The Irish were frequently depicted as lowlifes at the time. The picture we see shows an old-fashioned bartender with a handlebar mustache. A slot machine and a pinball machine may be seen in the background. Slot machines were illegal in most places, but that didn't always stop them. There was a fad for pinball machines during this period.

August 28 - "A troupe of those movie starlets" - this may be a reference to Carole Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair, who were entertaining the troops overseas at the time. Their exploits were the basis of the book and movie FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP.

September 10 - "Sulfa" references and "Indian Herb Tonic" - Sulfa drugs were the first antimicrobial drugs and were still fairly new at this time. The implication is that modern medicine wasn't as good as the medicine show variety, which was at least partly alchohol. Mr. O'Malley does have some similarities to W. C. Fields.

September 14 - "A card" - ration card for non-essential workers, who were not entitled to as much gas.

September 22 - November 4 - "Mintleaf" - Mintleaf represents the crooked rich who are running everything. On October 8 we see a campaign poster which is cropped so as to emphasize a diamond stickpin which indicates his wealth. ( This view of the poster is repeated on Oct. 28 and 30th. ) On Oct. 9th we posters showing him wearing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's glasses*, and he is shown wearing them after that.  On Oct. 15, he has a cane like Roosevelt. Oct. 15 and 16 involve radio broadcasts, something FDR was well known for making at the time. Although Mintleaf is rich, he doesn't fare very well against Mr. O'Malley, who is poor. On Oct. 25, Mintleaf literally goes to the dogs. On November 3, O'Malley is elected, although of course he doesn't serve, having better things to do.

September 27 - Passport photographer - pictures on drivers licenses and the like are supposed to always be bad.

October 5 - Non-essential occupation - During the second World War, occupations were classified as either "essential" or not. Essential workers had certain benefits that non-essential workers did not have.

October 16 - "Reporter at large" - a column in the NEW YORKER. The implication being that the reporter is one who goes out and works in the field rather than being chained to an office.

October 22 - "Brown points" for postage stamps - these are trading stamps which were supposed to be redeemable for household items. They were not usuable as postage stamps.

December 6 - January white sale - white sales are sales of items such as sheets and pillowcases. The implication here is that the ghost gets his sheets there.

*Mintleaf resembles "Mr. Bribery" in Chester Gould's DICK TRACY, another Roosevelt bad guy.

Brownie Points ( Brown point stamps ):

Duffy's Tavern:

Crockett Johnson homepage:

Alf Landon ( Landon button ):

Annie Oakley:



Red Onion Gang:



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