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1918: Gluyas Williams


This week I'm thinking about seven cartoons Gluyas Williams published in newsstand magazines in 1918, one century ago. If you're not familiar with the name Gluyas Williams, you may well nevertheless be familiar with his work: if you've read anything by Robert Benchley, if you've flipped through old copies of The New Yorker, if you've followed me for any length of time on social media, the exquisite line work and careful, even fussy attention to body language however cartoonily simplified, will be familiar.

Life, January 31 1918

In 1918, Williams had been trying to break through as a professional cartoonist and caricaturist for seven years (his first cartoon was accepted by Life in 1911, the year he graduated from Harvard), but he had yet to land a regular gig at any of the big magazines. Like his fellow minimalist, elegant-lined cartoonist (and future art director) Rea Irvin, he landed the occasional cartoon in the two major satirical weeklies Life and Judge, but unlike the more densely textural cartoonists of the day was not contracted to either of them as exclusive.

Life, February 7 1918

Since magazine cartooning of the period was nearly always topical, the vast majority of the material he landed in magazines in 1918 directly or indirectly concerned the Great War, which the United States had only joined the previous year, and would wrap up in November. (Are you prepared for the centenary this coming Veteran's Day?) This includes, naturally, several potshots at Germans, both in leadership and as a nationality, which were neither more mean-spirited nor more kindly than the average run of jingoistic US cartooning that year.

Collier's, April 13 1918

For real mean-spiritedness, the incidental blackface caricature below (also entirely typical of jingoistic US cartooning that year and every year) is much more uncomfortable today than any goofy Teutonic exaggeration could be. It's also the only cartoon Williams landed in 1918 in Judge, which was easily the most racist of the satirical New York magazines, if only because it was the only one to regularly depict Black people at all. Williams, too, would refrain from depicting Black people often, if at all, in his post-1920 work.

Judge, April 13 1918

In part this is because once Robert Benchley became an editor at Life in 1920 (following his famous walkout in solidarity with Dorothy Parker from Vanity Fair), Williams, who had collaborated with Bob at the Harvard Lampoon when they were undergraduates, finally had a regular gig in those pages. Life was far too respectable to ever depict Black people, and when Benchley was poached by Harold Ross for the superlatively liberal New Yorker, Williams naturally followed suit.

Life, September 12 1918

Someone familiar with Williams' mature style — exemplified in such New Yorker series from the 1930s and 1940s as Industrial Crises or The Inner Man — will immediately peg his 1918 output as early, even amateurish stuff. (The Judge cartoon in particular looks like it may have been sitting unsold for years before publication.) But, especially in the six cartoons here which show sequence, Williams' mastery of posture, of body language, and of shape is still impressive even so early in his career.

Life, September 19 1918

He is even, difficult as this is to achieve in a static medium, a master of timing. I have reproduced the cartoons here in the order they were published through the year, and even between the first (January 7th) and last (September 21st)  a greater confidence in what Scott McCloud would call "moment-to-moment transitions," a sense of staging and framing that might have been influenced by cinema (or indeed might have influenced cinema — those final two panels are Chuck Jones-worthy) point the directions in which Williams would take his minutely-observed style in the Life cartoons of the early 1920s, often sequential and highly embroidered.

Collier's, September 21 1918

This can only be a sampling. A full history of Williams' career would be far beyond a newsletter's scope; and anyway his mature work is thoroughly canonical for aficionados of magazine cartooning. But I love ferreting into the inauspicious beginnings of cartooning luminaries; even if I seldom pick up a nib these days, it's a subtle encouragement that refinement and growth is possible, in any field.