Cowboy cartoonistJune 21, 2011

Once in a while someone comes along who seems to make us feel warm and comfortable. Norman Rockwell was one and Amelia Earhart was another. And you’d have to add J. R. Williams’ name to the list. He was a rare and vanished breed of artist who drew single-panel cartoons, most of which had a melancholy air and the stark, grim, face of home-cooked authenticity. His work was syndicated in 700 newspapers in the 1930s, and he must have come from the same gene pool as Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

His amiable wit was no random act of chance because he illustrated what he had been: an impish boy, a factory worker, a family man and a calloused ranch hand that had seen everything. Williams drew from his experiences, and impending havoc on his page was his norm. Many of his cartoon captions later became his book titles: Out Our Way, The Bull of the Woods, Why Mothers get Gray and Born Thirty Years Too Soon – about twenty books in all, but I’m guessing.

If you grew up to be the sort of person your mother warned you about then you will relish J. R. Williams. His intellectual abstractions will make you appreciate your mother’s wisdom, especially if you see yourself in some of his renderings, most of which display a slight propensity for overstatement. He had a knack for expressing humankind in all of its rawness, and usually at the expense of those who took themselves a little too seriously. Some of his horses look dead but are too tired to lie down.

His usual fare is served with no cultural apologies offered, but with a promiscuous disregard for easterners and others who wore coats and ties. If you love the underdog there is nothing in J. R. Williams cartoons to dishearten you as many of his characters and commonplace happenings are soaked in salvation, so to speak.

I always thought that if you lived within your means you lacked imagination. But not so with “Blossom,” “Stiffy,” “Curly,” “Cotton” and the bespeckled “Wes,” who are some of the Williams revolving characters. They lived within their resources, not because they lacked creativity, but because they didn’t know any better, and besides, there were no other options for their genre in their times.

There is a profusion of illustrated stories in Williams’ work for those who bend toward nostalgia, and as Oscar Wilde said, “Twilight is not without loneliness.” The following poem is on page one of Out Our Way, which was reprinted sixteen times that I know of.

“They are ridin’ past th’ sky line, Curly Cotton an’ th’ rest,
I’ve seen ‘em turnin’ westward, th’ commonest an’ best.
Th’ humanist of humans ever seen in any land,
With ther souls an’ moral natures an’ ther faces full o’ sand.
I’ve seen th’ windmill fallin’ near th’ round up of th’ past
An’ I’ve heard th’ dying hoof beats of a day thet could not last.
For th’ ranch house in th’ hollow an’ th’ dirt tank on th’ plain,
Are crowded in a corner by th’ cotton an’th’ grain.
In th’ glimmer on th’ grainfields of a summer day I see
Phantom pictures of th’ prairie an’ th’ things thet uster be.
So I’ve set ‘em down on paper as they came thru memory’s haze,
Just a touch o’ recollection of th’ silent vanished days.”

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