Cowpuncher cartoonist J.R. Williams, by Michael H. Price
Great cultures yield great artists, and I’m not talking necessarily about Ancient Rome or the Renaissance periods of either Italy or Harlem. The cowboy culture of the Southwestern Frontier has spawned its share of artistry, from poets and musicians to painters and, yes, cartoonists.
Conventional wisdom holds that Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), was the most gifted of the Western cartoonists. Russell’s illustrated correspondence, as preserved at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, helps to shore up this belief. But Russell’s leanings toward the presumably finer arts prevented him from pursuing cartooning as a career.
A near-contemporary of Russell’s, James R. Williams (1888-1957), took a different tack, becoming a working cartoonist who based a long-running daily newspaper feature upon his younger days as a ranchhand.
Williams’ name comes up every year around this time, when my Fort Worth-based business journal begins gearing up to cover this Cowtown’s wintertime cycle of the Cutting Horse Futurity, the Charles Goodnight Ranching Heritage Award ceremonies, and the Livestock Exposition & Rodeo. I get a chronic kick out of reminding the readership that the cartooning profession has yielded some fine borderlands artists who haven’t wound up enshrined in any highfalutin’ museums. (A pal in Montana, Stan Lynde, also comes to mind, with his extensive run of Western-themed comic-strip work including Rick O’Shay and Latigo, and a newer career as a frontier novelist.)
J.R. Williams is largely a forgotten figure today, although his comics feature, Out Our Way, served to motivate a next-generation cowboy cartoonist from Northwest Texas named Asa “Ace” Reid. And Reid’s Cow Pokes series of cartoons – authentically Western and clever as all get-out, though derivative and simplistic – remain well known over a decade after his death.
The gulf of artistry is vast between such an accomplished master as Charlie Russell and so glib and casual an imitator as Ace Reid. But it is not merely the distinction between fine art and commercial art that makes it so. For cartooning can become a higher art, if motivated by urges greater than rattling off an easy gag or beating the next deadline. Thus do any perceived barriers between Charlie Russell and J.R. Williams prove irrelevant. Williams’ mass-consumption newspaper cartoons come from a font of artistry and inspiration as deep and personal as anything that drove Russell.
Jim Williams’ Out Our Way is the great sustained masterwork of cowboy cartooning. The feature draws upon the writer-artist’s personal background as a muleskinner (and industrial machinist, and prizefighter, and family man) in ways that make the individual episodes – each self-contained panel suggesting a larger story – as resonant today as when new.
Williams started this career at 34. He was working as a lathe operator in Ohio when a packet of cartoons he had sent off to the Newspaper Enterprise Association Service syndicate clicked with the right editor. A month later, in March of 1922, Out Our Way appeared in half-a-dozen small-market newspapers.
“It was just this little knack I’d developed for drawing things,” Williams told The Saturday Evening Post in 1953. “Nobody outside the bunkhouse or the machine shop had ever seemed to want my style of small-town humor, but I was too stubborn to give up.” By the 1950s, Out Our Way had attracted a readership in the millions.
Williams’ range of experiences, coupled with a gentle sarcasm and a keen observational sense, made his work unique. He tapped into the commonplace happenings of everyday life – childhood in a small town, the earthy humor that lightens the rigors of ranch life and the factory floor – and became an entertaining chronicler of a day before the 20th Century had come of age.
He had no compunctions about humiliating his characters, subjecting his cowboys to bad horses and worse weather and his machinists to the industrial perils of a pre-OSHA age. But his affection for his players, and his understanding of their circumstances, is genuine: Williams knew these people because he had been one of them.
Williams became a timeless artist by refusing to cater to changing tastes and trends. His situations are, without exception, reliant on a past-life that is bracketed by the first 25 years of the last century. He was current when he started publishing – but already he looked upon cowboy life as a vanishing phenomenon – and his style never changed.
Williams’ single most lasting cartoon, from 1925, also proves him to have been a capable cowboy-poet as well as a cartoonist. The panel hasn’t a trace of humor. Here, a cowhand has just gunned down a coyote and stops to examine the carcass, only to find a number of the creature’s pups nearby. The caption muses:
Thief an’ genrul all-’round pest.
But I hate t’kill yuh, pardner,
’Cause yo’re part o’ our Old West.
You an’ me is sorta brothers
With our backs agin’ th’ wall,
In a’ act that’s nearly over
An’ th’ curt’in ’bout t’fall.
Born in Nova Scotia, Jim Williams grew up Michigan and Ohio. He quit school early to become an apprentice machinist. He spent six years drifting around Oklahoma and Texas, laboring as a chuck-line rider until he found a chance to work the cattle. From this background, Williams picked up on the distinctions between ranch life in the Real World and ranching as glamorized in popular literature, equipping himself to create popular literature of his own with a truer grasp.
In one early Out Our Way panel, a rancher introduces a citified novelist to three rugged cowhands, explaining: “He wants to work right with you boys so he can git the romantic atmosphere of cowpunchin’ into his book.” One of the hired-hands is preparing to bury two horse carcasses, another is whitewashing the bunkhouse, and the third is changing the engine in a T-Model Ford.
During the 1940s, well established as a prosperous cartoonist, Williams tried to reconnect with the Westerner’s life. He purchased a 40-acre spread north of Los Angeles but soon wised up to the speciousness of playing the role of a suburbanite rancher. No longer a hungry cowboy, he now found ranch life merely a pose. Williams resettled in Pasadena for the longer term.
Out Our Way, with its crucial cowhand characters looking ever more like throwbacks to a vanished age, finally faced a new generation of editors, pressing for modernization. Williams refused. His audience remained loyal. Williams’ death in 1957 gave the syndicate its cue to revamp the feature along modernized lines. Out Our Way soon lost its following, a casualty of such impatient tampering.
Which is just as well. No posthumous successor could have recaptured J.R. Williams’ ingrained knowledge of the Cowboy Way.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.