WALT AND SKEEZIX reviewed by Gutter Geek

Frank O. King, Walt & Skeezix, 1925 and 1926

Gutter Geek    |    Gutter Geek    |    October 25, 2007

After three years, Cap’n Joe decided that Gasoline Alley needed to expand its audience. Popular enough with adolescent and adult male readers, the strip, Patterson reasoned, could, with a strategic turn of plot, attract a faithful mass following of women and children, too. He called King in and told him to add a baby to the main storyline. And to let the baby slowly grow up; women are interested in babies, Patterson told King, and children like comic strips about other children.

So on Valentine’s Day, 1921, somebody left a four-day-old infant on Walt’s doorstep. Astonished and apprehensive at first, something clicked for Walt very soon after the baby’s arrival. Naming him “Skeezix” (cowboy lingo for “motherless calf”), the young bachelor proceeds to raise the foundling, often analogizing between what cars need for maintenance and what babies probably need, and with the help of a live-in mammy named Rachel, supported by the wives and mothers of the Alley. Before very long at all, Walt has developed a ferocious love for the infant and has grown intensely protective and possessive about him. He is sometimes troubled by the arrival of lavish gifts for Skeezix that make him worry that rich and powerful relatives may sooner or later appear and claim custody of the child.

Not long after the arrival of Skeezix, another figure of mysterious and questionable origins appears in the Alley: a young woman called Mrs. Phyllis Blossom, who is as willowy chic as Walt is rotundly downstyle. The men in the alley act more like gentlemen when Mrs. Blossom is about, and their wives gossip about exactly what kind of “widow” she may be. Walt and Skeezix and most of the other characters are drawn in a winning combination of comic-cute and what would become classic clear-line style. (King’s incisive way with his pencil is said to have been determinant in Hergé’s development of the latter style in Tintin two or three decades later). In contrast with this cute/clear style, Phyllis Blossom appears to have migrated onto the Alley not just from a different comic strip, but almost from a different styleworld altogether—with her bobbed hair and flapper silhouette, all silk daygowns and chiffon overjackets, she looks (somewhat incongruously) like a paper doll out of early Vogue that some Henry Darger (a faithful collector of Tribune strips) has collaged into the frame.

Readers may be disturbed by the now-painfully obvious way in which the svelte desirability of Phyllis Blossom is implicitly “underwritten” by the strip’s only descent into the grotesque in King’s depiction of Walt’s housekeeper and Skeezix’s mammy Rachel—all malapropisms, mobcap, raccoon eyes, and dumpy, dotted mammy dress. King is sometimes able to recuperate the now glaring stereotype by consistently honoring the venerable narrative convention of clown as truthteller and exposer of the blindness of others (as when Rachel overhears Walt, as he’s in the process of falling in love with Phyllis, tell a neighbor that his house and his adopted son certainly could use “a woman’s touch,” and Rachel pointedly mutters that she wonders that he doesn’t seem to notice how much both house and child already benefit from the “woman’s touch” she provides).

As has been the case with the two previous volumes in this reprint series so far, Phyllis Blossom, the mysterious female alien from the fashionable world, brings with her all kinds of plot-generating trouble to the other, more down-home characters. Despite her and Walt’s growing affection for each other, Phyllis maintains her friendships in her “other world,” including a powerful, intimate, and fairly illegible bond with a leading European opera star, Madame Octave, whose protegé Phyllis appears to remain even after settling into the neighborhood of the Alley and beginning to accept Walt’s carefully paced courtship.

In the latter part of the 1924 strips, the toddler Skeezix is kidnapped by agents of Madame Octave, who hopes to extend her celebrity status to the States by pulling the publicity stunt of adopting Skeezix away from Walt. Although King does everything he can to suggest that Phyllis herself remains a good person at heart, he also makes it obvious that she is to some degree complicit in the kidnapping and in the other troubling goings-on around Skeezix. After a prolonged courtship, Walt and Phyllis first become engaged and then marry in a big June wedding in the present volume, and then spend a full summer’s honeymoon dude-ranching it out west.

Madame Octave repeatedly tries to woo Phyllis back from her fat fiancé, threatening for awhile to reveal the younger woman’s sordid past to Walt in order to break them up. Phyllis is finally driven to tell Walt herself that she and her opera-star friend worked together as nurses during World War I, and that Phyllis had married a dashing young officer for whom she felt pity as well as infatuation. The callow young man betrays her into taking the fall for a malfeasance of his own, getting her in trouble with the law, before his own untimely death. Over the weeks during which Octave is trying to keep Phyllis from escaping her clutches and marrying Walt, the strip reaches one of its most interesting narrative peaks. King draws the melancholy and imperious Octave with conspicuous smudge marks under her eyes—vampish mascara or the signs of a chronic insomniac or habitual masturbator? The mid-1920s was the heyday of Theda Bara and Pola Negri and other kohl-eyed film temptresses of a certain age, and it is striking how openly King depicts the strength of Octave’s woman-on-woman-dominatrix hold over Phyllis, and Walt’s accepting attitude toward his fiancée as she forms deep bonds with him and Skeezix without by any means entirely relinquishing her earlier bond with this powerful older woman.

Clearly, people who mistakenly think early comic strips were all funny animals and slapstick nerds have yet to pick up on the sado-lesbian frequencies of Gasoline Alley throughout the spring of 1925. While that vibe isn’t the main one, it’s certainly a notable and juicy part of the mix. While King has long been recognized as one of the most influential draughtsmen in comics history, we have just begun to recognize his originality and strength as an architect of extended serial narratives derived from an incoherently rich array of visual and narrative styles. With its combination of the comedy of single fatherhood and everyday domestic life with the sentimental melodrama of adoption and kidnapping and young women with “pasts,” Gas Alley was one of the first very successful and longrunning (ninety years and still counting) soap operas—along with The Gumps, a model for the radio soaps that started broadcasting a decade later, in the early Thirties. Is Skeezix Phyllis’s biological child? Madame Octave’s? Or did he come from somewhere (someone) else in Madame Octave’s glamorous and shady international circle—or from yet somewhere else? I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to tune into the next volume of Walt and Skeezix next year and see if I can find out.

—Michael Moon

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