Barney Google by Billy DeBeck
'Barney Google and Spark Plug' (15 August 1926).

Billy DeBeck was an American newspaper comic artist, most famous for his popular gag-a-day series 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' (1919-    ), the third longest-running uninterrupted comic series of all time, after Rudolph Dirks' 'Katzenjammer Kids' (1897-2006) and Frank King's 'Gasoline Alley' (1918-    ). Together with the latter it's the longest-running newspaper comic in continuous publication! Over the course of 100 years the series underwent many changes, both in title, format, setting and even main cast. Originally it was a gag-a-day comic about a henpecked husband with a fondness for sports gambling. When breakout character Spark Plug the horse (1922) debuted, the series became a serialized humorous adventure comic set around horse races. Barney and Sparky then travelled all over the world until finally settling down in the U.S. South, where another side character, Snuffy Smith (1934), changed the comic drastically. Not only was all action set in Virginia from now on: Snuffy and his relatives became the main characters, pushing Barney and Sparky out of the spotlight and turning everything into a daily gag comic again. 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' has been adapted into films, animated series, songs and an assortment of toys, mostly revolving around Spark Plug. Yet the comic strip also introduced a series of neologisms still used in the English language today, among them "heebie-jeebies", "horsefeathers" and "google". DeBeck was also the creator of the topper comic 'Bunky' (1926-1948), about a hyper intelligent baby who thwarts the diabolical plans of villain Fagin.

Early life and career
William Morgan DeBeck was born in 1890 in Chicago, as the son of a newspaper salesman for the Swift Company. His mother was a school teacher. DeBeck aspired to become a painter and was inspired by the Flemish primitives. Between 1908 and 1910 he studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, while selling cartoons to the Chicago Daily News to make a living. After two years he eventually dropped out and became cartoonist for the weekly newspaper Show World. In the realisation this offered a better living than painting DeBeck started imitating popular cartoonists he liked. Among his graphic influences were Clare Briggs, John T. McCutcheon and Charles Dana Gibson. DeBeck even forged drawings by Gibson, which he sold as originals. The young cartoonist drifted from one newspaper to the other. During the early 1910s the Ohio paper Youngstown Telegram, the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, Life and Judge all published cartoons by his hand. In May 1915 he and a man named Carter tried launching a newspaper syndicate with a cartooning course through mail correspondence, but this project failed.

'Married Life' (The Pittsburgh Press, 17 April 1919).

Early comics
After returning to Chicago, DeBeck drew a comic strip, 'Finn an' Haddie', for the George Matthew Adams Newspaper Service, which wasn't a success. On 9 December 1915 DeBeck joined The Chicago Herald, where he created the comic strip 'Married Life' (1915-1919). It starred a couple, Aleck and Pauline, who constantly argue with one another. The series did well enough for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst of rival publication The Chicago Examiner to try and buy DeBeck out. When the cartoonist refused, Hearst took a more drastic measure and simply bought the entire paper to merge it with his own. Through Hearst's own animation studio, International Film Service, 'Married Life' was adapted into a series of animated shorts, from 1917 on. Like many of Hearst's other newspaper comics adapted into animated shorts, the 'Married Life' cartoons weren't a success. During this era DeBeck launched several other newspaper comics, 'Ollie Moses and Mara, Inc.', 'Tom Rover' and 'Haphazard Helen', which didn't catch on. He was more popular as the paper's sports cartoonist, creating several funny drawings about popular sporting events. Sometimes he went to the games themselves to draw sketches. The young artist was, for instance, in the crowd when Jack Dempsey beat Jess Willard in the 1919 heavyweight boxing championship. DeBeck was later photographed in conversation with the boxing legend. When 'Barney Google' took up most of DeBeck's career from 1919 on, Doc Winner succeeded him as the paper's sports cartoonist.

Debut episode of 'Barney Google' (17 June 1919).

Barney Google
In the very same sports section, DeBeck created the comic strip which would make him famous, albeit under the title 'Take Barney Google, For Instance'. Debuting on 17 June 1919, it originally revolved around a tall, thin, bug-eyed man, Barney, and his bossy wife Lizzie. Their dysfunctional relationship was basically a hangover from DeBeck's previous comic 'Married Life', with Barney being a copy of Aleck. Barney often sneaks out to see sports games and gamble money on them. His wife usually beats him up for it, especially when he loses or oogles pretty girls. Barney was eventually remodelled into a much smaller man so he would provide a funnier contrast with the much larger and bossier Lizzie. In the early episodes he also had a daughter, Gwenny, but she vanished from the series within a few weeks. By 1922 Lizzie went the same way. At the instigation of W.R. Hearst, DeBeck wrote an attractive love interest in the series, a girl whom Barney always referred to as his "sweet mama". At first the strategy seemed to backfire. Many readers were outraged that Barney hung out with a girl nicknamed "sweet mama" and wondered - if she really was a "mother" - where her husband and child were? Some had an alarming suspicion that she was probably unmarried too! A few newspapers dropped the comic, some readers left on their own terms, but in the end the scandal did generate higher sales. Interestingly enough, the fact that Barney was an obvious cheater, not just in games but also to his wife, was far less controversial. Even more interesting: DeBeck himself married three times in life. Two times, in succession, to the same partner. But if Barney was a swindler, he at least was no worse than all the other cruel and dishonest people he met. Readers saw him as a cunning crook, making it through life. And even those who morally objected saw the sympathetic loser frequently get a deserved punishment for all his misdeeds.

Introduction of Sparky on 17 July 1922.

Barney Google and Spark Plug
From 21 March 1920 on 'Barney Google' received a Sunday page. Like most of Hearst's other newspaper comics the series was syndicated through King Features. Yet it didn't truely catch on until 17 July 1922, when a new main cast member made his entrance. During the episode in question Barney happens to stand in front of a window near the Pastime Jockey Club, where a fight erupts. Suddenly a man is knocked out of the building and crashes on top of him. As thanks for breaking his fall he gives Barney a goofy-looking racehorse: Spark Plug (often nicknamed "Sparky"). Barney uses the animal to enter an upcoming horse race. DeBeck asked his newspaper editors to play up the event, making readers curious whether Sparky would run in the race and if he would win? The marketing strategy worked and soon many people bought a paper just to read the outcome of Sparky's race? Originally DeBeck planned to move to a different storyline, but by then the adorable blanket-covered horse had already conquered readers' hearts. Barney and Sparky remained an unseparable duo, united in their will to compete and win every possible race. Soon the comic strip was retitled 'Barney Google and Sparky Plug' too, marking the series' next phase.

'Barney Google' (9 April 1925).

Up until 1922 'Barney Google' had been a gag-a-day comic, but now narratives were told in episodic format. Day in, day out readers followed the adventures of Barney and Sparky with enthusiastic wonder. Two new characters were introduced as well, namely Sunshine the African-American jockey and his ostrich, Rudy. Typical for the times Sunshine was a stereotypically drawn black person, speaking in ebonics. Yet he played an important role as Sparky's permanent rider. Since Barney was about just as small as a racehorse jockey it's all the more remarkable that DeBeck didn't make him Sparky's jockey. Then, yet again, Barney and Sparky didn't always get along. Sometimes Sparky won and made Barney rich. But he usually squandered or lost his money soon afterwards, forcing him to drag his steed into the next competition. Other times Barney had his champion horse cheat, got caught and then blamed it on poor Sparky. The horse also followed his natural instincts at times and bit, ate or kicked people or things he shouldn't have. Sometimes Sparky felt exploited, neglected or underappreciated and refused to obey his master. Barney would then rant about this "useless horse", but in the end they always made up again.

Barney Google runs for President, 17 April 1932.

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith
Between 1927 and 1934 Barney and Sparky left the racing circuit and became globetrotters. Sparky once crossed the English Channel by swimming, while Barney joined a secret society (the Brotherhood of Billy Goats) and ran for President of the U.S. twice. Although he failed to get elected he did end up as dictator of Santiago in 1934. On 14 June 1934 Barney travelled to North Carolina because he had inherited an estate in the mountains. This seemed to be just another travel location, but in reality DeBeck had planned this excursion for months and intended to keep his cast there. During the 1930s the U.S. South fascinated Americans to stunning degrees. News reports often focused on the dirt poor farmers in the region, suffering under the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Blues and country music received more airplay and many radio shows and comedy films targeted hillbilly stereotypes for easy laughter. The trend was noticeable in newspaper comics too: only a few months before Barney Google went South, Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner' made its debut. It seems that DeBeck wanted to surf along on this trend, but he nevertheless did far more research than most other comedians. He and his assistant Fred Lasswell travelled to the U.S. states Virginia and Kentucky, sketching landscapes and studying local folklore and dialect. Lasswell was a native from Missouri and could therefore add even more authentic dimensions. This made 'Barney Google' less of an one-sided regional joke and appreciated even by people who actually lived in the South. The surest sign that DeBeck and Lasswell did their homework was that country musician Roy Acuff once defended 'Barney Google' for not perpetuating stereotypes about the region.

'Barney Google' (1938).

Barney Google settled down in a fictional city named Hootin' Holler, where - on 17 November 1934 - he met his distant cousin Snuffy. Snuffy is a moustached hillbilly whose hat and gun are larger than himself. At first he nearly shoots Barney down, but eventually they become friends. Snuffy is a grouchy old-timer who loves guzzling down moonshine whiskey, stealing chickens and shooting at everything that moves. While an obvious stereotype his feisty character did amuse readers and after a while the comic strip changed its name a third and final time to 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith'. Snuffy eventually upstaged both Barney and Sparky, who became less prominent as the decades rolled on. By 1954 Barney basically vanished from the series, having only rare guest appearances since. To the confusion of many later readers, the comic strip kept mentioning the two of them in the title for recognition value. As Snuffy Smith became the new focus readers met his eccentric friends and relatives, among them Snuffy's wife Lowizie (later renamed Loweezey), their baby child Tater and their nephew Jughead (or as Snuffy calls him: "Jughaid"). Other recurring cast members are his neighbours Elviney and Lukey, general store owner Silas and sheriff Tait, who'll always try to punish Snuffy for his crimes. But most of them were only introduced after DeBeck's death in 1942, when Lasswell continued and modernized the series.

The success of 'Barney Google' made DeBeck rich and famous. He was good friends with cartoonists Wally Bishop ('Muggs and Skeeter'), Rube Goldberg, Fontaine Fox and Frank Willard, but also hung out with baseball legend Babe Ruth, journalist Lowell Thomas and Hollywood actors Harold Lloyd and Walter Huston. He moved to New York City and in 1928 to St. Petersburg, Florida. Like so many U.S. newspaper comics, 'Barney Google & Snuffy Smith' was translated all over the globe: German ('Ma und Pa in USA'), French ('La Famille Glougloub'), Swedish ('Tjalle Tvärvigg'), Finnish ('Kalle Kehveli') and Norwegian ('Snøfte Smith'). Particularly in Norway it has always been tremendously popular.

A true testament to 'Barney Google' as a cultural phenomenon at the time was the fact that a 18 September 1938 Sunday page was placed alongside other objects in a time capsule buried under the ground during the 1939 World's Fair. It's intended to be only dug up a century later to give future people an idea of the cultural artefacts of that period.

'Barney Google' (27 November 1937).

Comic books
In the first issue of David McKay's Ace Comics (1937) 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' appeared in comic book form. Dell Comics launched 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' as a separate comic book series in the 1940s, but it only lasted three issues. During the 1950s Toby Press tried to do the same, managing to make it to four issues. Western Publishing's Gold Key line brought out one issue with original stories in the 1960s (with scripts by Paul Newman and art by Fred Fredericks and Ray Osrin), while Charlton Comics – with six issues – had the longest run in the 1970s.

Media adaptations
In the 1920s 'Barney Google' was such a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. that at least three different musical shows based on the comic strip toured the country. Particular Spark Plug was subject of an endless stream of merchandising products, including balloons, toys, games... Between 1928 and 1929 twelve live-action comedy films were made, followed by two more in the 1940s: 'Private Snuffy Smith' (1942) and 'Hillbilly Blitzkrieg' (1942). Like most popular comics 'Barney Google' was also adapted into animated shorts, produced by Charles Mintz Screen Studio, best known for the 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit' cartoons and the failed animated adaptation of George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'. Famous Studio made one animated 'Barney Google' cartoon in 1946, followed by a 1962 TV cartoon series, as part of their 'Beetle Bailey & Friends' TV show.

'Bughouse Fables'.

Bughouse Fables
Outside 'Barney Google' DeBeck also ghosted on Jack Farr's 'Embarrassing Moments' (1925-1927), but he created some other long-running newspaper comics of his own too. In 1921 DeBeck started the one-panel gag cartoon 'Bughouse Fables' (1921-1926), which he signed "Barney Google". This would later become a topper to 'Barney Google', but DeBeck soon passed it on to his assistant Paul Fung who continued it until 16 May 1926. 'Bughouse Fables' centered on highly bizarre (or "bughouse") scenarios, where people reacted in strange and perplexing ways to straightforward remarks and questions. For instance, a man would be informed that his coat was stolen, but would answer that the thief would better keep it, because "if he takes it off now, he's liable to catch cold." A woman sells something to door-to-door salesman, but he pays her much more than it's actually worth. A father gives his children paint and a bucket and motivates them to "go and have fun with it." Generally speaking,  'Bughouse Fables' showed a perfect world where everybody was honest and sympathetic to each other. Yet, at the same time it all had clear sarcastic undertones.

Parlor Bedroom and Sink, by Billy DeBeck 1927
'Parlor, Bedroom and Sink' (1927).

On 16 May 1926 DeBeck created a new topper, 'Parlor, Bedroom and Sink', which starred a young couple, Bunker Sr. and Bibsy, getting married. Once again their relationship wasn't a happy one, as the father couldn't take the responsibilities of being a family man. On 13 November 1927 Bisby presented her husband with a little surprise: his first-born son: Bunky! Bunky soon surprised everybody by being a boy genius. The big-nosed baby with the huge bonnet was able to think, speak and philosophize like an intelligent adult. Before his mum and dad realized what happened Bunky declared himself the real head of the family. He took care of business and protected his "dear mother, dear mother" against anyone who posed a threat to her. This was a good thing, since Bunker Sr. had already been written out of the series. In July 1930 the series received a major antagonist, the utterly evil Fagan (later renamed "Fagin", in a nod to the pickpocket gang leader in Charles Dickens' 'Oliver Twist'). Fagan would constantly hatch some diabolical schemes, but little Bunky always caught him in the act or managed to save the day, which led to his familiar catchphrase: "Fagin, youse is a viper!". By 1932 the comic strip changed its title to 'Parlor, Bedroom & Sink Starring Bunky', which was still quite a mouthful and therefore got retitled again in 1935 to the plain and simple 'Bunky'. 'Bunky' was accompanied by a single panel 'Knie-Hi-Knoodles', which portrayed funny remarks by kids, sent in by readers. After DeBeck died in 1942 his assistants Joe Musial and Fred Lasswell continued 'Bunky' right until 18 July 1948. A remarkable celebrity fan of 'Bunky' was Robert E. Howard, author of 'Conan the Barbarian'. Robert Crumb created a similar character in the early 1970s named 'Big Baby', which was basically Bunky put in a modern-day context, mixing elements from Alice the Goon and Swee'pea from E.C. Segar's 'Popeye'.

DeBeck's earliest known assistant was Frank Willard in the 1919-1920 period. He was followed by Paul Fung, who helped him in the 1920s and eventually took over the topper 'Bughouse Fables' from 1926 on. In 1933 DeBeck hired Fred Lasswell as an assistant, who was only 17 years old at the time. He originally started out as a letterer. Between 1942-1943, when Lasswell was drafted in the U.S. Marines, Joe Musial took over for him. Both men continued the series in alternation, until - from 1946 on - Lasswell continued 'Barney Google' full-time until 2001. In the mid-1940s Doc Winner also ghosted 'Barney Google & Snuffy Smith' from time to time. 

Final years and death
In 1925 DeBeck suffered fom neurocirculatory asthenia, a psychosomatic anxiety disorder which left him hospitalized for a few weeks. He recovered, but by the 1940s he was diagnosed with cancer, from which he passed away in 1942. His widow, Mary Bergman, donated all of his art supplies to the Ringling School of Art, a year later.

'Barney Google' (1940).

Legacy and influence
During its heydays 'Barney Google' was one of the most popular comics of the 1920s and 1930s. Singer Billy Rose had a hit song with 'Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes' (1923). The comic strip also had a signficant impact on the English language. 'Peanuts' creator Charles M. Schulz loved the comic so much as a child that people nicknamed him "Sparky", which his personal circle of friends nicknamed him even in adulthood. Certain catch phrases originated from 'Barney Google', like "What did the doodle-bug say?" and "time's a-wasting." Other expressions like "balls of fire", "bughouse fables", "goo-goo eyes", "heebie jeebies", "horsefeathers", "hotsy-tosty", "jughead", "osky wow wow", "shiftless skonk", "sweet mama", "tetched in the head" and "yardbid" were either coined or popularized by the comic strip. They remain in use to this day, even though most people have no idea of their origin. The word "googol", introduced by Edward Kasner to coin the largest possible number was also derived from the comic strip. In 1998 the word was used by Larry Page and Sergey Brin for their Internet search engine Google.

In 1946 DeBeck's widow, Mary Bergman, established the annual comics prize the Billy DeBeck Award in her husband's honour. On 14 February 1953 Bergman died in a plane crash, whereupon the awards were renamed in the Reuben Awards, in reference to Rube Goldberg, which is still its current name. In 1995 'Barney Google' was one of several classic U.S. newspaper comics to be honored with a series of commemorative stamps.

Billy DeBeck is one of those rare comic pioneers whose comic strip managed to survive for a full century by now! Even though it barely has anything to do with its original set-up. Fred Lasswell continued 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' from 1942 until his own death in 2001 for a staggering 59 years on end. Since then John R. Rose has continued the series right up until this very day, helping it celebrate its centennial. DeBeck was an influence on Floyd Gottfredson, Russ Johnson, Max A. OttoAl Capp, Geoffrey Foladori, Hank KetchamJack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Bobby London, F'murr and John Kricfalusi. Orson Welles was a fan of DeBeck's 'Barney Google'. 

Books about Billy DeBeck
For those interested in the history of 'Barney Google' and his creator, Brian Walker's book 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith: 75 Years of an American Legend' (Kitchen Sink Press, 1994) is highly recommended.

Series and books by Billy DeBeck you can order today:


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