Barney Google: Gambling, Horse Races & High-Toned Women! is an indescribably beautiful book. The latest from IDW's Yoe Books! imprint, it brings us up-close and personal with Billy DeBeck's immortal American plugger. Poor old Barney, the source of the hit tune Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes, is so immortal that when Stephen Colbert recently introduced on his show a "brick with googly eyes," you knew exactly what those eyes would look like. On the cover of this book, those eyes shine in the light.
Like so many other volumes in the Yoe Books! series, Barney Google doesn't merely collect a series of strips for reprint. A historian as well as a designer, Craig Yoe always has a finely-tuned purpose for his books. In this case, the book collects and reprints nearly 200 daily strips from 1922, aimed at fully displaying just why this big-footed "everyman" was so beloved by readers around the world. It's a huge treat to watch the strip gently morph from the gag-a-day variety into the very sweet ongoing story of a man and his horse, the long-suffering Spark Plug.
DeBeck's style is just unspeakably good. Every single panel is in motion. In his introduction, Yoe quotes from DeBeck's cartooning correspondence course:
When you draw the figure of a man, make him do something. Think carefully what you want to portray and plan out in your mind what the natural position of your figure would be while doing a certain thing and then exaggerate that action. The real humor comes in drawing a figure in action.
DeBeck mastered this principle in his comic art. The storylines and dialogue will crack you up, but the belly laughs live in the slapstick physical fortunes of Barney Google, a man stingy when broke, generous when flush, and head over heels in love with his horse. It's no mystery why Mrs. Google, Barney's "sweet woman," disappeared from the strip. This became a love story of a different kind when DeBeck translated the tropes of domestic comedy to the race track.
In addition to the strips, the book includes a "Billy DeBeck Scrapbook" of highly entertaining ephemera, from industry advertisements and sheet music, to photographs and unpublished drawings. Yoe himself provides an introduction that examines DeBeck's life and popularity. And Richard Thompson's introduction is pure genius, a big-foot style comic strip that explains the technique and influence of "big-foot style."
On the very full page of credits, copyrights, and Library of Congress catalog information, we find the following prominently highlighted:
Important Note: Cartoonists of the early 1900s often depicted races and ethnic groups in a way which we now recognize as demeaning and unacceptable. The strips herein are presented unaltered for historical purposes.
The size and clarity of every strip on every page is just smashing. But as a result, every single one of DeBeck's African-American characters, reproduced with such meticulous care, is a slap in the face and a punch in the gut. While Yoe has handled this with honesty and grace, his greatest achievement here is preserving our history for us in such uncommonly precise detail. We flinch as we read.
The titans of comics history – and we're talking about Olympian insiders like DeBeck, McCay, and Hergé – created an uncomfortable and ugly racist legacy, laced throughout their brilliant art, inseparable from the humor and beauty. It is past time for comics historians to face it directly. Thanks to the labors of Craig Yoe and IDW (and others like Sunday Press) the material is readily available. We're just waiting for non-apologists to contextualize it, and give meaning to the ugliness and beauty in equal measure.
Is this book a must-have? This particular volume really might represent the pinnacle-to-date of Yoe's beautifully-designed series of comics histories. It will certainly look stunning on your bookshelf. Even the spine is gorgeous, decorated with a selection of some of Barney Google's best poses.
But beyond its aesthetic value, reading this book makes one aware all over again of what comic art can be in the hands of a genius. DeBeck's talent is unbounded and explosive. The humor here is in his art, an art with complexity and depth that is all too rare. Whether you want inspiration or just pure entertainment, this is the book for you.