What the #@$! are comics, anyway?
The new large, gorgeous tome, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 (edited by Peter Maresca and designed by Philippe Ghelmetti), opens a window in time, raising and suggesting answers to that question with a cascading trove of re-discovered comics masterpieces so old they seem new again. When the roots of a popular art form take on new life, vital new art emerges — and with smart, elaborate books like Society Is Nix arriving at what may be the height of the current revival of the American newspaper comic strip, we just might be headed for a comics Renaissance. The greatest value of a book like Society Is Nix is that it gives us the work of forgotten cartoonists of the distant past who were so different — and so good — that we are shocked into meeting their work in the moment, without any cultural preconceptions.
For example, consider Kate Carew.
Born Mary Williams, she worked as a staff artist at the San Francisco Examiner circa 1890-95. She was the only woman artist working on the paper at that time. In the late 1890s, she escaped an unhappy marriage with a new partner — a writer named Chambers — and traveled to New York City where she landed a job as a writer-cartoonist with Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World as a writer and cartoonist. Rewind that sentence. Think about it.
One of Kate Carew’s “Carewatures” – this time with John Barrymore and herself.
A woman. Left her marriage. Traveled to the biggest, most vital city in the world at the time. Got a job on one of the top newspapers in America, run and staffed by men. Cartooned. She did all this around the turn of the century through the early teens. American women got the right to vote in 1920. Got it? Okay, let’s go on — the story gets even more remarkable.
Mary Williams adopted the name “Kate Carew” and wrote candid, witty interviews with luminaries of the day, including Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso, and the Wright Brothers. She adorned her interviews with her unique “Carewatures,” and often drew herself into the scene. Imagine Oprah Winfrey as a liberated woman caricaturist-interviewer in 1900 and you have an idea of who Kate Carew was.
CORRECTIONS TO SOCIETY IS NIX:
***Mary Williams and Harrie Kellett Chambers moved to New York City in 1900, and later married. It was not until 1911, that Mary Williams and Harrie Chambers were estranged, after Harrie left Mary for a younger woman, Chicano writer, Maria Cristina Mina. By all accounts, Mary Williams aka Kate Carew, interviewed and caricatured celebrities for twenty years (1900-1920)
*** Carewcatures not Carewatures