Gaar Williams: The Indiana Ink-Slinger

June 15, 1935 was a Saturday, a lovely summer day in downtown Chicago.  The skies were clear, with a high temperature of 75 degrees and only slight humidity.  It was also the day Gaar Williams passed away.  Williams and his wife Lena, along with a family friend, Blanche Stillson, were starting out on a trip to Indianapolis when Williams suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.   He was seated behind the wheel of his car at the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue, shortly after eight o’clock in the morning.  Williams was 54 years old. 

Gaar Williams had a couple of nicknames.  To the public the Indiana-born Williams was known as the Hoosier Cartoonist.  His studio brethren at the Chicago Tribune dubbed him the “James Whitcomb Riley of the newspaper cartoon”.  Riley, a fellow Hoosier, was among the most popular writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  During a time of great industrial and urban growth in the United States, Riley’s work recalled a nostalgic and perceived simpler time in America.  Williams’ cartoons mined that same vein, especially his Among the Folks in History panels, which documented the late Victorian era through a slightly innocent, humorous and rose-colored lens. 

When Gaar Williams passed away, a shocked and saddened public responded. 

From the Chicago Tribune:

“All who love the country and the simple, honest, natural folks he portrayed will stand with bowed heads and an aching heart at the bier of Gaar Williams.”  – Anna M. Schaedler

“The passing of Gaar Williams leaves my family with the feeling that a very dear personal friend is missing, although we knew him only through his cartoons in your paper.  I would like to suggest that you publish a book of his “Among the Folks in History.”  These drawings have been very amusing to anyone who was born in the ‘80s or ‘90s, and more than this they have a very distinct historical value as a record of the period.” – Ralph E. Tower

“It is with the deepest regret and sense of loss that we read of the passing away of that great cartoonist, Gaar Williams.  He did more to preserve the really wholesome and worthwhile qualities of American life than any editorial writer or eloquent speaker could possibly have done.  His quaint, lovable characters were so intensely human, and the manner in which all of those natural and true episodes in the average American’s life were brought out spoke volumes; one knew instinctively that their creator was not only an exceedingly clever artist, but a man of grand character, whimsical humor, extraordinary and sympathetic understanding, and one who sincerely loved his fellow men.” – Ethel T. Carlson

There were a couple of remembrances in the Palladium-Item, the newspaper from Williams’ hometown, Richmond, Indiana:

“The passing of Gaar Williams certainly is sad inasmuch as he was a ‘regular fellow’; something we should strive to attain.  He was human, kind, and considerate.  The country needs more of his kind…At his easel board, Mr. Williams board did wonders…” – Herschel E. Dafler

“I don’t know of anything that hit me in a tender spot more deeply than did the passing of Spin Williams.  Spin was one of the best fellows in the world.  He always had a good word for everybody.  We cannot afford to lose old friends of this kind.  I was a member of The News staff at the time that Spin was there as a cartoonist and I knew him well…Spin, recalling my lawyer days, made a picture with colored crayons on a large sheet of common brown wrapping paper that he filched from The News mailing room. He had me wearing a plug hat, standing at the foot of an outside stairway of an old rattle-trap frame building—a country town harness shop.  Evidently, he had me watching for a client to come along.  That picture was so natural that one could easily smell the familiar odor of the old-time harness shop.  Spin signed the drawing ‘Gaar Williams, Lightning Artist and Buggy Painter’.” – Ellis Searles

You can sense a strong theme in these letters: humanity, nostalgia, genuineness and humor.  Williams struck a chord with his readers on many different levels, unusual for a cartoonist without a truly recognizable character.  There were a number of cartoonists like Williams who had panel cartoons with rotating titles and/or themes.  Denys Wortman, with his Metropolitan Movies, covered life in a large city, with a whole host of citizens, but he always had Mopey Dick and the Duke, his two Depression-era Hooverville characters.  The wonderful H.T. Webster rotated six different panel titles Monday through Saturday, from bridge cartoons to husbands torturing their wives through their inane actions, but it is Casper Milquetoast, The Timid Soul, that Webster is most well remembered for.  Even Rube Goldberg, who had characters such as Mike & Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt, Lola Palooza and other characters, is remember mostly for his invention cartoons.  Williams had two reoccurring characters, Zipper the dog and Mort Green.  The characters were noted during Williams’ time, but they were sort of everydog and everyman characters.  That is to say, anything but memorable, and all but forgotten today.  It was Gaar Williams’ portrayal of life that his readers most responded to.

Gaar Williams might not have had memorable characters, but in terms of good old-fashioned ink-slinging, there were few who were better.  Hell, there were few that were Williams’ equal.  In Jerry Robinson’s 1978 book, Skippy and Percy Crosby, Jules Feiffer wrote the introduction, beginning with: 

“Percy Crosby caught lightning in a bottle and learned how to draw with it.  His line radiated raw energy, the sheet pleasure of sketching figures in flight.  His pen tore across a page, an expanding wad of line, swallowing little boys inside it.”  Much of Feiffer’s description could be applied to Gaar Williams’ drawing.  Both cartoonists slung ink with seeming reckless abandon, somehow, some way managing to harness the energy of that greased lightning.  In Crosby’s case, the drawing was almost entirely about the figures, who existed largely in the foreground with sparse background elements that would not take away from their movement and expression.  Williams was exactly the opposite.  The setting was key to his work, anchoring the scene to a time and place.  Whether taking place in an over-the-top interior from the 1890s, or WWI editorial cartoon from his days at the Indianapolis News, Williams knew how to place his characters in the environment they belonged in.  All the while doing so while maintaining a gloriously active pen line.

Williams began cartooning for the Chicago Daily News in 1904, moving back to Indiana to be work at the Indianapolis News in 1908. Williams focused on editorial cartoons while in Indiana, before moving back to Chicago in 1921 to start his tenure at the Chicago Tribune. Williams’ work at the Indianapolis News was large and splashy, with pen work that was equally so.  Some of his pen lines seem an impossibility with a metal nib, and it’s possible that Williams employed an old-fashioned quill nib from time to time.  It’s also possible that Williams wielded such control with a thin brush that he could emulate the approach of a pen with it.  Williams’ cartooning sweet spot is from the period around WWI through the 1920s.  The activity of Williams’ line during this time, as well as his ability to create spaces, figures and objects, are truly incredible.  Much like Hank Ketcham’s approach in Dennis the Menace some four decades later, Williams could create the appearance of complicated spaces with relatively few means.  And like Ketcham, Williams was a master of that thick-to-thin line, one that could be so descriptive with a single stroke. While at the Indianapolis News, Williams’ editorial cartoons were splashed across the front page, above the fold, five or six times a week.

In the above Indianapolis News editorial cartoon from 1917, Williams flourishes that wonderful pen line of his as he describes the main character’s mass with fluid cross-contour lines. And dig these detail shots:

The background figure blocking the door is thrown off with such seeming ease. Her left arm and its scribbled cast shadow are glorious. Even the shadow from her braid has contrast and action.

And that main figure, a cross between cartoon and illustration, is lush, loose and weight-filled. The action as the figure tears out the extradition clause, combined with the near-gestural folds in the sleeve are simply beautiful. I’ve written about figural attitude in previous posts. The above cartoon has that in spades, as Williams is able to capture both figures at the apex of movement with seeming ease.

Two years later, the above cartoon appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis News . Published on March 5, 1919, the piece features Kaiser Wilhelm, AKA Count Hohenzollern, making an unwanted appearance during tax time for the American citizen. The caption reads, “Wouldn’t one like to see Count Hohenzollern try to borrow a few guilders from us right now!” This cartoon is staged differently than the first piece, with the foreground set off by dining room table filled with income tax stuff. The rest of the action takes place in the background. The small details, such as the place settings and those four wonderful little cigar butts, give a great deal of character to the piece. There’s also the framed portrait of a soldier, to add fuel to the fire of the caption.

This final editorial cartoon from the Indianapolis News is undated, but undoubtedly dates from February 1921. A bit of a backstory first. Before Charles Dawes was Calvin Coolidge’s Vice-President from 1925 to 1929, he was tapped by General John J. Pershing to be the chief of supply procurement for the American forces in Europe during WWI. After the war, a House of Representatives committee to investigate war expenditures called Dawes to testify. Republicans were hoping to find information to help tarnish the reputation of the outgoing President, Woodrow Wilson. Dawes, a busy and plain-spoken man, had resented being called by the committee. On the morning that he was due to testify, he walked around the Capitol waiting for the committee to assemble, growing angrier and angrier. It took only a spark to set him off. In the course of the interrogation, Representative Oscar Bland, an Indiana Republican, pressed Dawes on how much the American army had paid for French horses. “Hell’n Maria!” Dawes exclaimed, jumping up from his seat and striding to the mahogany table where the committee sat. “I will tell you this, that we would have paid horse prices for sheep, if they could have hauled artillery!” Peppering his remarks with profanity, Dawes lectured the committee on the urgency of getting supplies to soldiers who were being shot at. He recounted how he had cut through the red tape and “had to connive with the smuggling of horses over there,” but he got the horses to drag the cannon to the front. Turning the fire on “pinhead” politicians, Dawes roared: “Your committee can not put a fly speck on the American Army. . . . I am against that peanut politics. This was not a Republican war, nor was it a Democratic war. It was an American war.”

The context for the cartoon matters. Williams depicts the Congressional committee lazily riding the boat of Red Tape, while Dawes speeds through the same tape in record time. As with the other two editorial cartoons, Williams’ pen work is both solid and loose. The foreground boat and figures all have a wonderfully solidity to them, as Williams works in a cross-contour fashion around the figures and forms. To add some looseness to the foreground, he pens in the water’s surface and boat’s reflection in ink-slinging fashion. As with the previous cartoon, the small details, such as having the congressman’s hand just glide along the water, add wonderful little touches.

Williams’ final cartoon for the Indianapolis News appears to have been published in the November 19, 1921 issue. I have not been able to find additional cartoons after that date. There was no fanfare or announcement. Williams’ work was simply gone after that date. It makes some sense that Williams would have a couple of weeks off before his next gig in the Windy City.

Indianapolis News, November 19, 1921. Williams’ final work for the newspaper

Before Williams joined the Chicago Tribune, his work had already appeared in the paper on page eight, the editorial page. The Trib mostly featured British cartoons from Punch and the Passing Show on that page, and they occasionally featured Williams’ work from the Indianapolis News. It wasn’t until December 2, 1921 that Williams officially became a Chicago Tribune cartoonist.

Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1921

Once Williams moved back to Chicago, he would still pen the rare editorial cartoon, but those duties were left largely to John McCutcheon, known as the “Dean of American Cartoonists”, whose editorial cartoons ran above the fold on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Like Williams, McCutcheon hailed from Indiana, giving the Trib a one-two punch of Hoosier cartoonists.

Williams now shifted his focus to panel cartoons in the vein of Clare Briggs and H.T. Webster. These cartoons allowed Williams to cover a lot more territory than in the editorial cartoons, and he used his fertile imagination and brilliant drawing to do just that, drawing ten different titles:

  • A Strain on the Family Tie
  • Among the Folks in History
  • How to Keep From Growing Old
  • Just Plain Folks
  • Our Secret Ambition
  • Something Ought to Be Done About This
  • Static
  • When Words Fail Yuh
  • Wotta Life! Wotta Life!
  • Zipper

Williams would also create cartoons that were not a part of the above stable of features. These would have their own stand-alone titles, such as these two excellent examples from the first week of January in 1923:

On its face, “Gee, A Whole Load of Coal!” is not a knee-slappingly funny cartoon panel, depicting three kids, one of whom has been unsuccessful at scrounging coal that day. But lord, that pen work! From the pile of junk in the foreground that creates a downward diagonal space leading towards the viewer, to that incredible background, seemingly thrown off from the magic pen of Gaar Williams, the piece just sings. Both of these grounds sandwich the three main figures, which Williams has largely brushed in, in order to create some contrast. It didn’t matter whether Williams wielded a brush or pen. The line has the same liveliness, creating constant movement throughout the drawing.

Below is a detail shot of the background of the above cartoon. Williams changes direction of his mark making effortlessly, presenting just enough information to depict clapboard siding, shadows, smoke stacks, space, etc. You can almost hear those Dr. Dentons flapping in the breeze.

Two days later, on Saturday, January 6, 1923, Williams’ masterful panel titled simply “The Optimist” appeared. The driver of a vehicle has a massive accident, ending at the door of the undertaker, hence the optimistic view. I’m not sure a car wreck has been drawn as beautifully as the one rendered here. The main forms, the car and driver, are smack-dab in the center of the drawing, but the piece is far from static due to Williams’ incredible pen and brush work. I mean, a whole hell of a lot of ink was slung in order to give the impression of every piece of destroyed automobile. And it all feels right. Because of the weight of the car, the signage on the window may take a few seconds to sink in, but when it does, you wind up with a very funny sight gag.

As mentioned previously, Among the Folks in History was Williams’ most beloved panel cartoon. One reason for that is pretty simple: nostalgia sells. In the 1920s, most of the adult readers of Williams’ work would have been kids in the 1890s, during the late Victorian era, the period covered by the cartoon panel. While not always the case, most folks tend to look at their own childhood history through rose-colored glasses, remembering simpler, more perceived innocent times. It is also worth remembering that Williams started the panel just a couple of years after the first World War, so the public may have been more than ready for the healing balm of nostalgia. No one captured that nostalgic vibe in the funnies better than Williams with Among the Folks in History. It did not hurt that Williams pulled out all the ink-slinging stops in this feature, delineating the often over-the-top environments of the period.

Check out this Among the Folks in History panel from March 4, 1923. The men are all gathered around the smoke shop, looking at a picture in a novelty pocket knife. One of the men asks if the picture is of Pauline Hall, a popular stage actress and singer during the late Victorian era. Williams jams together nine figures (ten, if you count the wooden Indian), managing to keep them separate enough to see each man and child. I wrote earlier about the figural attitude in Williams’ work. You can see this more clearly in the detail below:

There are two wonderful figural attitudes taking place in this snippet. The boy’s father is leaning back against the door jamb, one foot planted and the other relaxed and tilted upward, resting on the heel. His hands are in his pockets and even the brushwork conveys a relaxed nature, with the folds of the pants falling lazily into place. The boy is completely different. Looking up at his father, his back is bent back, beautifully carved by those five deep shadows showing both the curvature of the back and its bend. His figure is not as relaxed. The brushwork and posture all relate a more alert attitude.

As an interesting aside, this panel is signed on the back by Frank King, the creator of Gasoline Alley:

Did Williams gift this piece to King? Did King claim it for himself? Who knows? The cartoonists certainly worked side-by-side at the Tribune building for many years, so beside banter, artwork might have passed between them.

Williams sometimes used the most simple of observations, like when the fizz from a soda would back up your nose, to create a tapestry of the period, in this case an old fashioned soda shop. The pen work in this Among the Folks in History panel is a bit more rushed than other panels, but we would start to see a change in Williams’ work towards the end of the 1920s. This panel, from May 24, 1928, conveys the attitudes of the figures well, but some of the pen work, even in the hands of a maestro, are a bit more slap-dash. It might also be that Williams knew the panel would be reproduced at a much smaller size, so keeping more space between the lines would help keep the reduced image more readable.

Among the Folks in History, April 2, 1929. Not all memories were seen through rose-colored glasses in Williams’ work. Note the relaxed figure in the first panel, offset by the clearly agitated figure in the second panel. There is even a difference in the spaces, from the comfortable homey space in the first panel, to the empty space of the second one. A lovely juxtaposition of two eras.

A final example of Williams’ Among the Folks in History, from May 30, 1929. This panel memorializes the World Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago from May through October, 1893. The event was meant to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. As mentioned above, there is a sparer approach to Williams’ work by the end of the decade. This isn’t to say that he is no longer dealing ink, but the approach is cleaner, with a bit less vibrancy to the pen work. Even with the changes in Williams’ approach, the masterful use of the pen and brush is still apparent.

Among the Folks in History may have been the public’s favorite panel cartoon of Gaar Williams’, but my personal favorite feature was his panel, Our Secret Ambitions. The premise of the panel was similar to James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, but came two decades earlier than the story Thurber penned for The New Yorker in 1939. One of the interesting things about Our Secret Ambitions was the lack of a backstory in most of the installments. The viewer/reader was simply thrown into the situation, allowing the imagination to fill in what came before the depicted scene. This panel, published on April 25, 1927, is an excellent example:

Man, that drawing! From the brushed in areas of the dark water, to the loosey-goosey pen work of the treasure-laden cellar, Williams hits on all cylinders. And isn’t it every boy’s dream to find a buried treasure with X marking the spot? For those curious, the blue watercolor indicates where Ben Day shading would be applied, putting those areas in shadow like so:

The February 17, 1928 installment of the feature was also quite wonderful:

The viewer has no idea what the parade is for, but who amongst us hasn’t had the fantasy of being the hero at some point or another. Horace has accomplished something wonderful and is well deserving of the adoration of the crowds! The diagonal composition in this piece works wonderfully, leading the scene from our viewpoint to the background, with dozens and dozens of figures surrounding the action.

Finally, “To Know the Lady Lion Tamer” appeared on May 14, 1928:

I love everything about this panel, but nothing more than the pissed off expression of the lion on the left, as our hero gabs at the lion tamer. There are small details that make this piece wonderful, such as the hat flying off the surprised guy in the background, as well as the two boys chatting and pointing at the front of the crowd. There is a lot going on here, but by using a brush on the main figures, Williams is able to keep everything from looking too busy.

Three more published cartoons to peruse:

A Strain on the Family Tie was one of Williams’ rotating titles. This one, from September 26, 1933, is from later in Williams’ tenure, but the pen and brush work is pretty fantastic. The composition, action, contrasts, etc., all help to bring the viewers’ eyes around and around. You can see where he scratched through some dark areas in order to help show the speed of the roller coaster.

This installment of How to Keep From Growing Old was published on November 14, 1928 and features some absolutely fantastic pen work.

Williams used very little brush in this panel, allowing the pen to dance throughout the picture plane, bring life and verve to the scene. The cross-contour mark-making on the tree is wonderful, maintaining a light gestural touch throughout. The figures too have that figural attitude I’ve mentioned before. Just check out that workman to the left of the tree:

Williams clearly had a good time penning this cartoon, slinging some of the finest ink you’ll see in the funnies.

My last published example is my favorite Gaar Williams cartoon in my collection. Wotta Life! Wotta Life! was the title of one of Williams’ panels and they picture exactly what you might expect. How the hell did I get myself into this situation? In this case, the poor bird has found himself in a smoky speakeasy, unable to fly away. What can I say about the pen work in this one that I haven’t already mentioned?

Ah, that pen work is glorious. And those figures. Everyone is looking at the dancing couple, but they are all striking a slightly different pose. It is a perfect remnant from the flapper era, delineated by the hand of a master. March 24, 1926.

After Gaar Williams’ passing in 1935, a commemorative book was published, reprinting his Among the Folks in History cartoons. But this wasn’t just any book. The reprint book was created to appear like a Victorian era photo album, covered with red velvet and adorned with a working metal clasp. This was done for a man who was beloved by many, including his colleagues at the Chicago Tribune. John McCutcheon, Williams’ Hoosier comrade-in-arms, wrote the forward to the book. At the height of the Great Depression, McCutcheon wrote in part:

How few in all the world can boast of the millions of smiles that he has brought to drab and oftentimes disheartened lives. His cartoons have been like a beam of sunshine brightening each day for millions of hurried readers. To the affection of those who knew him only through his work must be added the genuinely deep affection of the friends who knew him in his daily life. His passing brought an ache in the hearts of them all, as though something had gone out of their lives that could never be restored.

What a record to have left behind! What a noble use to have made of his years of life! What a justification for living!

What a record indeed. McCutcheon wrote of Williams’ memory being forever enshrined. Sadly, that has not been the case, but hopefully that beam of sunshine can bring a bit of light back to Gaar Williams and his work.

Gaar Williams Self-Caricature, circa 1919. With thanks to my pal Bruce Haley
Gaar Williams

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.


Leave a Reply