How a Fictional Flying Character with a Mechanical Propeller Captured a Country's Imagination
“A child, alone with his book, creates for himself, somewhere in the secret recesses of the soul, his own pictures which surpass all else. Such pictures are necessary for humanity.” — Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren
When American artist, cartoonist, and children’s book illustrator David Johnson Leisk (1906 - 1975) — who went by Crockett Johnson in his professional life — was thinking about creating a comic strip about a young boy named Barnaby Baxter, he wanted to provide him with an imaginary friend. And even though imaginary friends can come in many shapes and sizes, they don’t — usually — come in the form of a short and winged middle-aged man in an overcoat and a half-smoked Havana cigar that serves as a magic wand. But that’s what Johnson went with.
Beginning in the spring of 1942, the comic strip would serve as humorous inspiration for the next decade. The quirky character — with a passing resemblance to comedian, juggler, actor, and writer W.C. Fields (1880 - 1946) — gained loyal fans, with Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) being among the most prolific, writing: "I think, and I am trying to talk calmly, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American arts and letters in Lord knows how many years.” The statement wasn’t a review, it was “a valentine” she elaborated.
“Barnaby has just gone to bed, visions of wish-fulfilling fairy godmothers dancing in his head thanks to the bedtime story his mother has just read to him,” writes R.C. Harvey in The Comics Journal. “Suddenly, through his bedroom window flies a diminutive round man with a bulbous nose and pink wings, who makes a crash landing at the foot of the boy's bed.” His name was Jackeen J. O’Malley and he was not so much a fairy, but a member of the fraternity organization called the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men's Chowder & Marching Society.
He was a strange choice for a child’s companion. Aside from his physical peculiarities, Mr. O'Malley's unbridled conceit and self-centeredness was matched only by his complete and total inability to properly accommodate the simplest requests made by his young associate. You’d probably think that a character so wildly inappropriate for children would not inspire another children’s author across the world, and surely not a series of books, and most certainly not a wildly popular cartoon that would become a pop cultural phenomenon, but you’d be wrong.
Swedish author and screenwriter Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren (1907 – 2002) is best known for a number of her popular children's book series, including Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Lönneberga, the Six Bullerby Children (or Children of Noisy Village), and Karlsson-on-the-Roof, The latter of which is allegedly inspired by the delightfully devious Jackeen J. O’Malley. Much like O’Malley, Karlsson is short, portly, and fairly arrogant, but instead of a set of pink wings he has a nifty propeller that is activated with a push of a button located on his stomach.
“Up on the roof of an altogether normal house on an altogether normal street in Stockholm, lives a Mister, whose name is Karlsson. He is a handsome, exceedingly wise, all-round hero in the prime of his life, who lives in a tiny little cottage hidden behind the big chimney,” reads the summary to the first book in the series, which kicked off in 1955. “One beautiful day, through the window of Smidge’s room, in flies Karlsson” and the two embark on a series of adventures. But Karlsson was not Lindgren’s first version of the character.
Before she wrote Karlsson-on-the-Roof (1955), followed by Karlsson Flies Again (1962), and Karlsson-on-the-Roof is Sneaking Around Again (1968), she published In the Land of Twilight (1949). In it, Mr. Lilyvale — a small, friendly and accommodating, flying but propeller-less, old man — who was the imaginary friend of Lingren’s daughter Karin — also visited his young friend in her room and could not be seen by anyone except her, as he flew away as soon as someone tried to enter. Taking inspiration from Karin and Johson, Lingren imagined a hero of her own.
Unlike Mr. Lilyvale, however, Karlsson is self-serving, self-indulgent, and self-aggrandizing; in his own opinion, he is a charming and clever, perfectly plump man with a taste for sweets, who is the very best at e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Despite this, he befriends a seven-year-old boy named Svante Svantesson who, as the youngest member of his family, is often referred to as “Lillebror,” which translates to “Little Brother.” Karlsson often gets the boy into trouble and disappears just before Lillebror's family arrives leaving him to deal with the consequences of Karlsson’s actions.
Still, the charismatic Karlsson inserts a lot of fun and excitement into Lillebror's somewhat monotonous life. Though the boy’s family is at first convinced that the flying hooligan described by Lillebror is a convenient scapegoat, they eventually come to realize that he is an actual person and, furthermore, that they actually really like his presence. Though that sentiment does not fully extend to Miss Bock, the family’s strict and hysterical housekeeper who has an emotional breakdown while dealing with the incorrigible Karlsson.
The humorous stories have been adapted for both the big and the small screen multiple times. Based on the first two books in the series, two hugely popular Russian-made featurettes were created in 1968 (the year the last book of the series was published) and 1970 respectively. Then, in 1974, a live-action version called The Greatest Karlsson in the World based on the first book of the series premiered in Sweden. And finally, in 2002, a full-length animated film primarily based on the third book was released in Norway, which was followed by an animated TV series.
But even though Karlsson is a hugely popular character, no other country in the world has accepted him into its mainstream culture to the degree that Russia has. The artistically translated books along with the cartoon adaptations of the series called Junior and Karlson — directed by Boris Stepantsev (1929 - 1983) — became a childhood staple for all of the people born there, at the time and ever since. It’s not that surprising, then, that in 1978, Asteroid 3204 Lindgren that was discovered by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Chernykh (1931 - 2004) was named in her honor.
In an interesting twist of fate, though Astrid Lingren is considered one of Sweden’s most popular and beloved writers, she is regarded as “the people’s author” in a country that was not her own. But, that’s not to say that the incredible author was not celebrated by her own people. She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for "her unique authorship dedicated to the rights of children and respect for their individuality,” in 1994, and a collection of her original manuscripts in Stockholm’s Royal Library was placed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in 2005.
At first glance, the connection between a comic strip about a flying man produced by a New York City-born artist and a series of books about a similar character by an author in Stockholm may appear rather insignificant, but it is. Turns out, Johnson’s roots go back to the Shetlands — rocky, mostly treeless islands halfway between Scotland and Norway — the birthplace of J. M. Barrie (1860 - 1937), the creator of Peter Pan, the world’s most recognizable symbol of youth and escapism, who undoubtedly inspired both Johnson and Lindgren, and beyond.
But, that’s another story.