This cartoon panel by J. R. Williams was printed, mostly in the Western and rural newspapers served by the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndication service, under the title Out Our Way on January (or possibly June) 30th, 1927.
In the spring of 1990, when I was twelve years old, as my family prepared to move from Arizona to Guatemala, I found myself with access to the church photocopier. I had the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and a few other volumes checked out from the library, and I set about choosing a single instance of each of my favorites of the many ancient comic strips that I had come to know after many hours spent poring over the volumes of reprints. I would photocopy the page from the book, then clip out the strip I wanted and paste it onto a fresh sheet of paper so that I could jam as many of the strips together as possible. I ended up with I think seven or so pages — front and back — of comics which I kept in a sheaf with me throughout the years in Guatemala, and which I would regularly pull out and read through, even as the years passed and new interests asserted themselves. I think those pages are still resting, yellowed and flaking, in a box in my parents’ storage room.
Anyway, this was one of the few single-panel cartoons I chose, and it was certainly the strip I pored over the most often, partly because it rewarded repeated examination in a way that a simple joke or action sequence couldn’t — once you’ve got the joke, once you’ve had the thrill, there’s nothing left but form, but meditative nostalgia is forever — and partly because of what it came to represent to my youthful conception of the world.
The finely-observed details of Williams’ drawing, preserved even through the muddy medium of photocopy — the way the leftmost boy twists his torso uncomfortably* but unselfconsciously, his hand thrust into his suspenders, the foreshortened sleeping dog, the grass dappled by sun and shade, even the shallow bank turfed inches above the water — became potent symbols for me of a kind of normative childhood that I had never experienced. Born in Arizona, grown in Phoenix and Guatemala, I understood sleepy Midwestern summers through the lens of mythopoeia, like (though totally unlike) the faux-medieval worlds conjured by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to which I was similarly addicted, and I understood (though I wouldn’t put it this way for many years) the Fall of Man to include the twentieth century, the rise of fundamentalist evangelicalism, and the population of the Sun Belt — which is to say, the whole of the world I knew. I’ve grown to know many more worlds since, but this panel has always occupied a corner of my mind, a symbol of some kind of perfection. Cartooning perfection, I’ll call it now.
Williams drew this in the mid-1920s, but was referencing his own boyhood in the 1890s and early 1900s, so my posting it today is about four layers of nostalgia deep, which is far too many to expect even the most sympathetic reader to tolerate. Thanks for putting up with this post.
*Foreshadowing the far less naturalistic contortions many so-called artists would put their adult female characters through in order to include both chest and rump in a single shot some seventy years later. Fuck superhero comics.