Jun 15, 2016

The 40 Years of Comics Project - The Weekly Graphic Novel: Week 11 - The Bull of the Woods v.1, 2002


A little while back, I received a curious package in the mail. Contained within were two Spider-Man comics from the late 90s, and six volumes of a series called The Bull of the Woods. I had absolutely no idea where they came from. But there was a note inside. It was from my closest friend back in Ontario. His stepfather had recently passed away, and while sorting through his belongings, they had come across this series of comic strip collections from the 20s, 30s, and 40s about life in a machine shop. My friend's stepdad had worked in a machine shop for much of his life, and, as I've always claimed, there's a comic out there for everyone.

With that in mind, today's post is dedicated with great affection to the memory of Jake Schroeder (I really hope I spelled that right).

There was a lot, and I mean a lot, in this collection that I just didn't get. We're talking here about a comic drawn almost 100 years ago and set in an environment with which I have no personal experience. That said, it's a testament to the power of humour to overcome such boundaries, and I did find myself chuckling out loud at some of the cartoons in the collection. Williams' art is remarkably evocative of the environment of the machine shop. While the focal characters for each strip are starkly depicted, there's always business going on in the background, albeit depicted in a lighter line. One gets the sense of the busy-ness, and of the noise, of such a workshop. His style is indicative of the era in which he cartooned. I can see in this work resonances of the earlier strips that popularized the comics form in newspapers and magazine at the turn of the century.

Narratively, if we can apply such a term to single-panel comics, there's a cool kind of calling back to Greek drama. Very often, we're presented with a situation within the shop, be it an accident or a government official's visit, and then off to the side of the situation, two obviously-veteran workers will offer a Chorus-like commentary on the event, and its relevance to the larger community of the machine shop, or to the wider culture in general. There's some interesting moments of women working in the shop (during the Second World War, I'm assuming), and I've still to come to a decision as to whether or not Williams' commentary on this development is for or against the situation. Perhaps a little bit of both. From this one collection, I get the feeling that he straddled the line of tradition and innovation, which is maybe also a way of thinking through the shop culture within which he creates.

What I will say of this first collection is that it made me want to read the rest of Williams' Bull collections, as well as his collections of Cowboy strips, another career path he followed for a while in the early years of the 20th century. I expect there'll be much in all of those books that goes way over my head, but I'm looking forward very much to the bits that don't.

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