Sunday, June 17, 2007

OUT OUR WAY SAMPLER 20s, 30s & 40s


(both books published by Algrove Press, available from Lee Valley Tools)

One of the greatest things that my parents have indented into my oft-thick beanie o'er the years was none other'n a fine appreciation of the past, the past that they grew up in which I must admit was a world that was still relevant to me (in the perfect, non hippie sense) when I was crawling into the double digits oh so many years ago. 'n yeah, I know to some the tales folks tell about their growing-up days are filled with what some might call smug condemnation (and a jealousy of) a rather easy upbringing on your behalf (and true, I had to put up with the tale o' woe about how hard it was when my folks were kids just like they hadda listen to tales of even greater distress!), but for me listening to my elders tell me about how much fun they could get out of the barest essentials of entertainment available during those days of low pay and even lower thrill factors really made my ears prick up. After all, my father made listening to JACK ARMSTRONG on the radio a lot more vital to my own kid sense of excitement than the stuff that was being created especially for me at the time (like SCOOBY DOO and honestly, if somebody told me back when it was first onna air that this cartoon would have made it to the realms of animation immortality I woulda called 'em a load of hooey!), and of course these tales of a dirt-poor past, coupled with incessant reruns of LITTLE RASCALS and World War II-era Warner Brothers cartoons, only made my interests in past pop cultural glories all the stronger. 'n sheesh, but I gotta pat myself onna back for once and offer self-congrats for being able to pick up on the greatness and glory of the pre-hippydippy world back when all of the boys in school were chanting the latest antiwar slogan heard on some teevee drama the previous night and all the gals were glomming fashion tips from the pics of Gloria Steinem taken from the covers of TIME and NEWSWEEK!

Of course comic strips figured heavily into the makeup of alla those over-forty types who in many ways seemed totally frozen in time and in a place where the troubles and tribulations of the outside world were nothing but nightly news fodder about as distant as the goings on in Biafra and Laos. And of course you could bet that many of my older relatives (as well as my own parents) remembered the Golden Age of Comic Strips with a sentimental fondness to the point where you woulda thought they knew Dagwood and Dick Tracy personally which would figure since back then these little things really meant more given the lack of stimuli that was out there. And for years after the fact I remember people talking about OUT OUR WAY and OUR BOARDING HOUSE with great fondness...even my mother (certainly not a comic strip maniac by any stretch of the imagination) would recall OUR BOARDING HOUSE with relish while my father would continually refer to me as "the Worry Wart," the messy mixed up kid often found in the OUT OUR WAY comic panels which graced the comic pages (and, by the early-sixties, the want ads where all eventually-axed comics seem to end up) well into the era when I would be reading about and studying the style evolutions of my favorite comic artists the same way I would later on track trends in the history of this manic form we used to call punk rock.

Of course the real sad thing about it all is that most of my relatives who used to spin tales about their own comic strip upbringings in the 20s and 30s are either gone or in nursing homes, and another hard thing to cram down the gullet is that other'n for scouring old newspapers kept for historical purposes or microfilms it's pretty hard coming across examples of these comics in the here and now. Let's face it, a Major Hoople anthology is not going to sell as many copies as a DILBERT coffee table collection (but thankfully, you'll probably never come across one in a Goodwill book bin), but at least Algrove Publishing outta Canada had the smarts to (and in the HERE AND NOW) publish collections of both the OUT OUR WAY and OUR BOARDING HOUSE panels and what's even stranger about 'em is that they're available online, and via a tool supplier t'boot! Well, stranger things have happened, but I sure gotta be grateful that once again these panels are readily available so's I can drift back to those flat-onna-belly days of youth and sprawl myself over the living room floor reading these shoulda-been-infamous comics even if only in my ethereal, spirit form.

I discovered the existence of these books thanks to the Stripper's Guide blog which you can link up at the left, and if you wanna read their own review of these books (with important info I will leave outta my own schpiel for the sake of brevity) just press here. I gotta commend the guy who does this 'un for digging into the obscurities of the past especially since the comic page of today is so tiresome and self-conscious of itself that if it were a mere "shell" of its former glory thirtysome years back it's nothing but page filler today but anyways, I'm sure glad SOMEBODY out there is digging up these obscurities even though I'll betcha the guy gets about as many "hits" as Don Imus gets mash notes from Al Sharpton!

Back to the subject at hand...I gotta say that I really went ga-ga o'er the OUT OUR WAY comics ever since I could remember, especially its Sunday variation "The Willets" featuring characters who more or less appeared in the "Why Mothers Get Gray" panels. Of course by that time creator J. R. Williams had been long gone from the scene but the unique style aptly copied by such assistants as Neg Cochran coupled with the quaint homespun style really appealed to my eyes and seemed much more closer to my suburban brat upbringing than the gimmicky flower power mulch of the day. My infatuation with this panel ultimately led me to the library where not only a number of of classic OUT OUR WAY collections available for take out, but a variety of comic strip histories helped fill me in as to exactly where this panel was coming from and (even more) come to realize just how slowly its special brand of rural Amerigan homespunness was slipping away from our lives only to be replaced by a new form of coarseness that could only come from the hippie generation despite all its talk of love and happiness.

And as I could've gathered from the various biographies at hand, OUT OUR WAY's seemingly tres he-man creator led a pretty varied life even before he created his main claim to fame back in 1921. Before that, Nova Scotia born Williams had already found himself in a number of careers having not only been in the cavalry but working as a cowboy and in an Alliance Ohio machine shop. All of these experiences (before the age of thirty) contributed to the makeup of the comings and goings of his panel which, although pretty much forgotten by the modern-day Mr. Joe Blow at hand, was etched well enough into the minds of many a comic strip anal-retentive to the point where OUT OUR WAY truly is considered one of the all time classic Amerigan comics.

Other volumes in the Algrove series focus on Williams' cavalry, machine shop and cowboy cartoons but the OUT OUR WAY collection of early strips' got the best of the everyday suburban/rural based comics featuring a variety of themes like the previously-mentioned "Why Mothers Get Gray" as well as the Worry Wart ones, and for me these domestic OUT OUR WAYs are the best given that they reflect an idealized, soft touch view of the past whether it be growing up or going to work that seems to have been washed away be the advent of a whole lotta sociopolitical hooey lo these many years. It's not hard to see how such a comic could endear itself to so many given its downright many ways OUT OUR WAY seems more or less like a truly non-whitewashed happy memory of a fun upbringing than a totally rose-colored and overbearing nostalgia trip oft seen in way too many of these retro mags aimed at the old folks, and Williams' portrayal of the characters at hand show people who, although in roles of dominance over workers, children etc., still had a sensitive and nurturing side to 'em. NOT the washed-out sensitivity of the seventies male or anything along the lines of a Phil Donahue, but something quite different. The Bull of the Woods might have been the foreman, but he seemed just as befuddled as some of his underlings. And mothers probably did get gray, but you never saw 'em whalloping their kids or belittleing them to the point of tears just to "keep them in line." And the older brother who always got after Worry Wart for being a slob or ineptly dressing the baby seemed about as confounded as Worry Wart himself was.

It's no wonder that none other than PEANUTS creator Charles Schulz saw a lot in OUT OUR WAY and it indeed was an influence, expecially in the Worry Wart episodes (not only in the way it was kids-only oriented, but Worry Wart sure comes off as a 1920s template for Pig Pen!). And although you could say it was Schulz and PEANUTS which helped ease many of these early-twentieth century strips into utter obscurity, the same homespun everyday living feeling that one could find in Schulz's work certainly owes plenty to Williams and his more'n apt portrayal of this less-hectic lifestyle of ours that seemed to be here one day and then kinda vanished once the destructive generation started calling all the shots.

Only a buffoon'd think that there wasn't that much of a difference twixt OUT OUR WAY and OUR BOARDING HOUSE and believe-you-me, the similarities were there to the point where these two were pretty much mentioned inna same breath for more times than I would dare count. Look at it this way...both were panels featuring balloon dialog within a perfect square each with a punchline comment/title stuck at the bottom, both were also distributed by the NEA syndicate which was one of the smaller distributors in comicdom yet one of the more adventurous with regards to their high quality having offered some of the best strips on the boards between the twenties and sixties, and the two of 'em entered life about the same time in the early-twenties only to be knocked off sometime in the eighties long after you'd've thought comics like these woulda been terminated! And both OUT OUR WAY and OUR BOARDING HOUSE had brilliant creators, the latter being none other'n Gene Ahern, a fellow who I'd say ranks as one of the better comic dilineators of the twentieth century alongsides such greats as George Herriman, Bill Holman, Chester Gould and way too many both known and obscure who seem more or less like part of some long-forgotten club for all anyone seems to care these days.

But hey, I've come to expect that the better stuff in life gets the bum's rush while the lukewarm gets praised to the hilt...that's why Madonna and Chuck Eddy are famous while Von Lmo and I ain't, and true I also wrote hefty reams about OUR BOARDING HOUSE and Gene Ahern in the latest ish of my own fanzine and you can read more about it there, but at that time I didn't have this collection of vintage panels from the year of 1927 and boy is it a wowzer! Sure wish I had a copy of this 'un age ten so's I coulda read it in the privacy of my own bedroom 'stead of cleaning up Sam's dog poop, but I have it now even though I don't need any excuses to get outta doing some of the less tasty things in life.

Unlike OUT OUR WAY, OUR BOARDING HOUSE had a strong sense o' continuity featuring lead character Amos Hoople and his boarders (not forgetting wife Martha who my mother remembers with total fondness...oddly enough she feels really sympatico with Maggie in the BRINGING UP FATHER comic so you know where her sympathies lie!) in extended sagas, and that coupled with the way creator Ahern breathed life into the likes of Hoople (classic lovable braggart/blowhard in the W. C. Fields vein) who woulda doubted that this panel wouldn't've been a big hit with the early-twentieth century unwashed hoardes anyway? 'n these early sagas continue to hold the attention of at least this comic page maniac with sagas of Hoople taking a jaunt to New York City to try peddling his idea of encapsulated dinners throwing away all of his dough at night clubs (complete with some nice modern art jabs that were par for the 1920s course) and a bizarre attempt to pin a tug of war medallion on Charles Lindburgh. There's an interesting, almost art-deco-y look to some of Ahern's work (especially when applied to flapper-types) in these comics that neither he nor any of the artists who continued on OUR BOARDING HOUSE after Ahern skeedaddled for the greener (money) pastures of King Features and self-imitation ROOM AND BOARD could recapture, and what makes 'em all shine the more are the great groaning gags (usually fitted in via a radio blurb totally unrelated to the goings on at hand) worthy of Ahern's longtime Sunday strip topper THE NUT BROTHERS.

For those of you wanting more, here's a later yet still Ahern delineated OUR BOARDING HOUSE for your enjoyment featuring Jason, a black character who later popped up in the comic and if I'm not mistaken even stayed there for quite a long time well into the early-seventies! Maybe this is because that although Jason was pretty much in the stereotypical black style o' the day he was (along with his jockey nephew Armistace) rather well-developed as far as being a regular character in an early-twentieth century comic goes and done without any of the more grotesque features of the comic black stereotype often seen in the day. You may disagree, but then again I will say the same thing about Ebony White of SPIRIT fame and I'm sure more'n a few avid comic catchers (and race relation regents) will agree with me! (I'm not familiar with either of 'em, but I'll betcha that against the likes of Steamboat Willie in CAPTAIN MARVEL or Whitewash Jones of THE YOUNG ALLIES characters like Jason and Ebony don't seem as bad as some people make 'em out to be!) Anyway, I'm sure a panel like this will give you more than a nice taste of what the Hoople saga was like for well over sixty years (although later endeavors talking about the Superbowl and hippies for all I know probably seemed all culture-shock to the straights who were reading these comics back in their later days!).

Of course I'm not expecting any of you typically elitist alternative music bloggers out there to understand. It's just a thing that I have with regards to all of that fun stuff that used to transpire until everything became subservient to the cause of the week. But don't you expect me (and thousands of nursing home denizens nationwide) NOT to appreciate just what great artistic endeavors these two panel comics were for quite a long period in time and who knows, perhaps if enough people buy these books more volumes will come out just like Algrove promised! Well, at least it would be better'n perusing the latest collection of MUTTS (a comic that tries to raise itself to early-twentieth century art but falls into the same predictable trap as most other current offerings, and yeah, I do know that the drummer from Steel Tips draws this but I still don't get it. Well, at least the lead singer didn't bite any of his fingers off!).

And now for those people who've tuned in for some rock & roll...sorry but nothing new this go 'round. I must say that I did receive a brand new CD release of some archival sides by a late-seventies punk band (as well as a CD-R of a Swedish underground aggregate from the earlier part of that decade) that I will be reviewing one of these days, but until I digest these items properly they will remain undiscussed and unfettered for now. However, I will mention one of my current faves which oddly enough is one of the first "progressive" sides I've ever heard, none other than the John Cale/Terry Riley CHURCH OF ANTHRAX CD (Columbia France) that has been spinning here at the abode nearly each and every night of the past week!

It doesn't seem like that long ago when I borrowed John Stanton's copy of this then-op classic and made a tape of it which I played nightly for a long time, and if it weren't for Stanton's endless streetcorner preaching about the likes of Cale and Riley, along with Eno, Nico, Roxy Music and Phil Manzanara do you know where I'd be today? Listening to Jan Garber, that's where! So let's thank Stanton for small favors, for CHURCH OF ANTHRAX sure holds its own and a lot more all these years later which is more'n I can say about some of the albums that were competeing with ANTHRAX for precious bin space at the time!
Anyway CHURCH OF ANTHRAX has everything from that classic repeato-riff Cale/Riley racket (the title track) to some straight-ahead avant garde classical/jazz crossover ("The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles") to even some good downhome Velvet Underground-inspired punk rock (Cee Dee closer "The Protege") where guest drummer Bobby Colomby of Blood Sweat and Tears fame is instructed to play like Maureen Tucker! It holds up so well and sates me on many of my teenage listening-freak levels (avant garde, punk, experimental jazz...) that I'm surprised it didn't inspire me to rockism satori at the time, and at that time I surely could've used it! CHURCH OF ANTHRAX is also best known for the solo-Cale period ballad entitled "The Soul of Patrick Lee" sung by Cale soundalike Patrick Miller, probably best known as the warbler on that famous SESAME STREET ditty entitled "We All Live in a Capital I" which was probably the only reason for anyone with the brains to watch that kiddie show for years on end!


Pat Conolly said...

Another reason the two strips are thought of together is because there weren't many single-panel strips and to fit on a page with all the usual 3 and 4 panel strips these two were placed side-by-side (at least in my paper). As a kid, I think I had the vague impression that they were both done by the same person, particularly since Out Our Way didn't have a constant recurring cast.
I got into Out Our Way because I loved westerns, and Williams' Western characterization and art are wonderful recreations.
There were several books of Williams published in the 1940's and 1950, but I'm looking forward to getting the Algrove editions.

Anonymous said...

My family purchased a home a few years ago with so much nostalgia in the basement. I have newspaper clippings of Out Our Way from the 1920's, 30's & 40's. The paper used to be called The San Francisco News (I think it's The San Francisco Chronicle now.)The clippings are loose, in a box. There is well over a thousand of them. They are in good condition. The paper has turned a bit brownish. I live in Marin County, Calif. and would like to sell these. If interested please contact;

Thank You!

Anonymous said...

I am looking for a copy of the j.R. Williams cartoon titled " My Country. Does anyone have a copy they would share??? Rich