thrift store finds: through history with j. wesley smith

This week, we’re looking at Through History with J. Wesley Smith (abridged) by Burr Shafer, published through Scholastic Book Services in 1964.

Cover price was fifty cents; if I had to make a guess, this book was likely sold through school book fairs or book club mailers.

Shafer was a prolific cartoonist in the first half of the 20th century; he did a lot of work for various publications who used cartoons to spice up their pages. You can see one great example over here. That particular comic comes from the late, lamented Gourmet Magazine; my wife was a fan until it ceased publication in 2009. Shafer did a lot of work for the Conde Nast family of magazines, including the illustrious New Yorker. During Shafer’s career, it was possible to make a living by selling gag cartoons to magazines and newspapers. Sadly, that is no longer the case, but Shafer’s work was perfect for that market.

Shafer’s line of J. Wesley Smith books, of which Through History is one, are a heaping variety of gag panels based around both American and world history. His grumpy Smith character appears through all the eras of man:

…from caveman times

…to the reign of the Greeks

…onward through to the founding of America and beyond.

I imagine a book like this must have been catnip to even the most traditionalist of librarians, as it takes major historical events and made them palpable for younger readers… even if I’m not sure that they would have been Shafer’s target audience. I can’t imagine young ‘uns would have needed to know much about Henry David Thoreau, but there are no less than two Walden Pond gags in this collection

…and therein lies a small problem with the book. While there are so many great gags to be had here, Shafer inevitably ends up repeating the same ones.

While I admit those are slightly different jokes, they are so similar as to hit the same target in almost exactly the same way. A lot of the setups in Through History work this way. The gag’s main character, J. Wesley Smith, will say something in context which will have, given the fullness of history, be proven to be untrue or unwise. Here are two such gags:

See? The joke is, Rudyard Kipling WOULD find Gunga Din interesting. It’s the opposite of what is true! Despite the repetitive nature of some of the strips, they are still pointed and very funny at times.

Shafer’s work on these comics has a lot less depth than the Gourmet gag panel, but understandably so. These gags have the appealing look of being quickly inked scribbles and I love that. Everyone has super-sharp brush-stroked shoulders with a little divot sticking out. J. Wesley Smith has two default looks: perplexed and squinty-eyed frustration. It also goes without saying that Shafer’s sense of composition on these comics is so well done- that second Thoreau comic up there in particular is a favorite.

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