New Jersey Star-Ledger Review: Walt & Skeezix

Funny how life goes on

New Jersey Star-Ledger    |    Charles Taylor    |    July 27, 2005

Funny how life goes on

Sunday, July 24, 2005

When I was a kid reading the Sunday funny pages in the'60s and'70s, "Gasoline Alley" was a mystery that seemed to contain nothing so enticing as mystery. It was one of those strips, like "Prince Valiant" (with its typeface reeking of school) and "Mary Worth," that had been around forever. It was plain and, even worse, old.

I'd probably still be in the dark about "Gasoline Alley" if it weren't for "Walt and Skeezix: 1921 & 1922," the first volume of comic-art publisher Drawn & Quarterly's ambitious projected reissue of the entire run of the comic strip under creator Frank O. King. ("Gasoline Alley," now in its 87th year, is currently drawn by Jim Scancarelli. King drew the strip from its inception in 1918 until 1956.)

Some background: King began his strip at the Chicago Tribune in 1918 as a set of one-panel gags about four buddies tinkering with their jalopies at a neighborhood garage. In 1921, King's main character Walt Wallet, a bachelor soft in heart and build (based on King's brother-in-law), discovers a foundling left on his doorstep. Walt takes the baby in and names him Skeezix. Life continues much as before, only now with Walt as a daddy.

That simple adaptability is, I think, both the genius and the beauty of King's strip. It captures the way life goes on, even amidst the most momentous changes. It's that quality that has defined much of what's admirable and much of what's lamentable in American life. In "Gasoline Alley," it's admirable -- and life does go on. In what now stands as a radical innovation, but one that must have seemed entirely reasonable to the cartoonist, King made the decision to age the characters of the strip in real time.

Think about that for a moment. In order for most ongoing series -- whether they are comic strips, detective novels, movie franchises -- to have a commercial shelf life, and to give audiences the reassurance of familiarity, the characters must stay frozen in time and traits. Bertie Wooster will always be a genial ass and Jeeves his mandarin guardian angel. Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin will always be ultra- competent soulmates united in the face of deadly enemies. Lucy will always be a fussbudget, Charlie Brown will always be Charlie Brown. (TV series, which now almost all opt for limited runs and progress in their story lines, are an exception. Similarly, this doesn't apply to something like the Harry Potter books, which were conceived to cover a specific period of time.) King's characters exist outside of this pop Neverland.

In his introduction, the comic artist Chris Ware calls "Gasoline Alley" "one of the most individual, human, and great works in the history of comics." What can be seen in this volume certainly qualifies it as one of the most loving and lyrical evocations of everyday life in American literature.

To open "Walt and Skeezix" is to be handed our collective past and to feel that past come alive in front of you. I don't just mean the past in terms of slang or dress, or in the way a home is furnished, though that's part of it. This is a time before television or talkies, when radio still has the feel of a novelty, when the automobile is beginning to transform the mobility of Americans without yet having dominated national life.

It's not xenophobia or ignorance that keeps Walt and his buddies focused on their neighborhood -- that's where they turn to for comfort in a world that still feels vast, incapable of being encompassed. The characters stand in a passage between the country's past and its present. And even this world does not offer security. Walt frets over losing custody of his newfound "son." King knew that fear. His wife, Delia, had given birth to a stillborn baby girl in 1912. Skeezix is based on his son Robert Drew, born in 1916.

Loss as a condition of life enters into "Gasoline Alley" in a much more concentrated way for us than it must have for readers who followed the strip daily as it appeared. An artist who is attempting to capture life as it unfolds, rather than in retrospect, cannot foresee what lies ahead. You watch Walt and his friends fiddling with their autos, taking the odd swipe of home brew (Prohibition was in effect), giving a passing woman the once-over, and you know that life holds complications that their creator couldn't have foreseen -- the 1929 stock market crash, the Depression and World War II, in which Skeezix, by then a young man, enlists. (Skeezix celebrated his 75th birthday in the strip in 1996.)

Ware's exquisite, detailed design for this volume (with graceful touches everywhere, from the inside of the dust jacket to the gold- embossed outline of Skeezix on the spine) lavishes upon the strip the love of a family heirloom. (The volume has been generously illustrated with King family photos thanks to King's granddaughter Drewanna, to whom Ware has dedicated this entire project.)

The complete "Gasoline Alley" will appear in volumes, with each comprising two years of the strip. Collections of the Sunday color strip will appear in separate volumes. That may seem in commercial line with the ongoing reissue of the complete "Peanuts" or the recent issue of the complete "The Far Side." As with DVDs presenting TV shows season by season and CD sets of an artist's entire output for one label, it may seem part of the cultural vogue for completeness.

But what Chris Ware and Drawn & Quarterly have embarked on is, apart from the loving care of their presentation, the best tribute Frank King could have hoped for. What was to King and his characters the flow of life is, for us, a finite journey. And since the complete reissue will take two decades, anyone who embarks on reading "Gasoline Alley" will be experiencing their own sense of time passing. (I'll be in my mid-'60s when the final volume appears.) The ineffable grace and infinite gentleness of King's art takes on an increasing poignancy as you make your way through this volume. It's life presented as a gift, slipping away bit by bit each time you turn the page.

Charles Taylor is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. High & Low, a column on popular culture, appears monthly.

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