WALT & SKEEZIX reviewed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Collection offers perfect chance to appreciate ‘Gasoline Alley’

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution    |    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff    |    August 10, 2005

Words and Pictures began a year ago, with a review of “The Complete Peanuts,” the initial volume reprinting Charles Schulz's classic comic. So it's appropriate that our second year begins with another classic strip, albeit one that's now nearly forgotten.

Frank King created “Gasoline Alley” in 1918 as an occasional sketch in a Chicago Tribune feature. Based on the new craze for automobiles, it showed Walt Wallet and neighbors Bill, Doc and Avery repairing their jalopies in the alley behind their homes.

“Walt and Skeezix,” the first in a series collecting King's work, reprints the 1921 and 1922 dailies. (Sunday strips, which did not tie into the daily story lines, will be done separately.) The auto-centric focus becomes a minor subplot after Walt finds an abandoned baby on his front stoop. He takes in the boy and calls him Skeezix.

The travails of a rotund bachelor raising a baby was much more interesting than four guys messing with cars, and “Gasoline Alley” soon had 30 million readers in 400-plus newspapers. King allowed all the characters to grow older in real time, so by the end of this book, Skeezix is walking and uttering his first words. Meanwhile, women are bobbing their hair, and men are losing money in phony oil stocks. An automobile trip to Yellowstone by Walt, Skeezix, Doc and his wife is an adventure in back roads, mudholes, blown tires and roadside tent camping in an era before nation-spanning highways. Walt revels in being a bachelor, but when the mysterious and attractive Mrs. Blossom rents a garage in the alley, Skeezix adores her — and soon Walt is falling for her, too.

“Walt and Skeezix” is designed by cartoonist Chris Ware (“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”), who has often cited King's influence on his work. Ware calls the strip “one of the most individual, human, and genuinely great works in the history of comics.” A solid introduction by comics expert Jeet Heer — replete with family photos from King's scrapbooks — puts the strip in historical and artistic perspective. The only flaw is the typeface — tiny and light — which makes the text a strain to read. But what counts are the strips — crisply reproduced, two to a page, they’re easy to follow.

“Gasoline Alley,” which peaked in the 1960s and now runs in only a handful of newspapers (although it's drawn with style and humor by Jim Scancarelli), is usually not cited with such classics as “Peanuts,” “Krazy Kat” or even “Dilbert.” This, Heer says, is because “as a strip that dwelt on the daily travails of ordinary people, ‘Gasoline Alley’ needs to be read in bulk to be appreciated.’ ”

Now it can be. “Walt and Skeezix” is a jewel of a book, a treasure just waiting to be discovered.

— Frank C. Rizzo

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