WALT & SKEEZIX reviewed by Shepherd Express

Great American Cartoon

Shepherd Express    |    Roger K. Miller    |    September 7, 2005

You could say “Gasoline Alley” is a great American novel—if your definition of great encompasses big or long and your concept of the novel embraces serial publication and graphics. The comic strip “Gasoline Alley,” created by Wisconsin native Frank King, has been entertaining America while reflecting its culture since 1919.

Walt & Skeezix: Book One (Drawn & Quarterly Books) is the first significant King collection and the first in a multivolume series that will reproduce every daily strip from its beginnings up through the 1950s. Book One covers 1921-22; subsequent volumes will also take in two-year periods as well as, separately, Sunday color strips.

The ambitious undertaking by Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly will take years, and some might ask, “Why bother?” “Gasoline Alley” is, after all, just a comic strip, and comic strips have always been a low estate.

This delightful volume is its own answer. The strips are a treat to read, both for themselves and as historical documents; the accompanying commentaries delve into the background and values of “Gasoline Alley” and the life of a great, but overlooked, American cartoonist. Dozens of photos from a trove of memorabilia provided by King’s granddaughter enhance the text.

“Gasoline Alley” first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in November 1918 as a section of another feature drawn by King called “The Rectangle.” It was launched as a daily continuity strip in August 1919, and its tone shifted sharply in a domestic direction in February 1921 when a baby boy, later called Skeezix, was left on the doorstep of the main character, bachelor Walt Wallet.

In a helpful and informative introduction, Jeet Heer says he believes this unusual cartooning development grew out of a personal sorrow. King and his wife—he married his childhood sweetheart, Delia Drew—suffered the loss of their first child to stillbirth in 1912.

It was the first strip in which characters age in real time, a characteristic that makes it attractive as a chronicle of American life. In a preface, Chris Ware, author-illustrator of the popular novel-in-comics “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” says he admires “Gasoline Alley” for trying to “capture the texture and feeling of life as it slowly, inextricably, and hopelessly passed by.” Ware also praises its “vaguely detectable feeling of melancholy” and “evocation of complex emotions.”

Some of this is detectable in the early strips shown in Book One. Reading them, you gradually sense how slow-moving, gentle and mundane the strip is—and talky. Those were the days when newspapers printed strips big and there was room for lovely—and loving—detail and expansive speech balloons.

This neatly illustrates a point that Heer makes. The reason “GA” hasn’t been hailed for artistic values like “Peanuts” and “Krazy Kat” have, he notes, is that it “needs to be read in bulk to be appreciated,” which takes time and effort. (Not unlike a novel, we might say.) It is “ruminative and cumulative.”

To read “GA” over time, Heer observes, is to see reflected King’s concerns for family and worries about children, not just over their health or possible loss, but their growing up and growing distant. “In his strip King clung to happy memories as tightly as possible, using his masterly pen-work to limn fleeting moments.”

This is understandable, for King is “among the most autobiographical” of cartoonists. King “gave” Walt Wallet his own background, and from time to time over the years Walt would recall with fondness his Wisconsin childhood and make references to the Kickapoo Valley.

King acknowledged that his wife’s brother, Walter White Drew, was the model for Walt Wallet, and that other “GA” regulars—Avery, Doc and Bill—had their origins in Tomah residents. “Gasoline Alley” itself was inspired by a Chicago neighborhood near where King lived.

Though King is strictly speaking a native of Cashton, where he was born in 1883, he has always been associated with Tomah, to which his family moved shortly after his birth. There he grew up with his younger brother Leland. His father, John J. King, had worked as a carpenter before becoming co-owner of the King Bros. General Store in Tomah.

King’s artistic talents flourished early. He drew for the high school newspaper and for the Tomah Herald. Before turning 19 he was a staff artist for the Minneapolis Times. In 1905 he began studying at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts while working weekends at the Chicago American. A serious artist, he was always experimenting in all genres of art and illustration and kept abreast of art trends.

He worked at the Chicago Examiner from 1906 to 1909, when he went to his final newspaper home, the Chicago Tribune, whose syndicate distributes “Gasoline Alley” to this day. Before hitting on “Gasoline Alley,” he tried several strips, working alongside others who also later became famous, such as Sidney Smith, originator of “The Gumps.”

(Smith is another cartoonist with Wisconsin connections; a statue of his comic character, Andy Gump, stands on the grounds of his former estate in Lake Geneva. For that matter, the boyhood home of still another well-known cartoonist lay not terribly far from King’s Tomah: H.T. Webster, creator of Caspar Milquetoast, grew up in Tomahawk.)

Will “Gasoline Alley” make it to 100? Hard to say. Its circulation is way down from the hundreds of newspapers it appeared in during its heyday, though it has a fiercely dedicated, vocal and critical readership, as postings on a Web site bulletin board reveal.

Frank King retired from the strip in the early 1960s and died in 1969. Two other cartoonists had already begun taking over some of the cartooning chores: Bill Perry on the Sunday strips and Dick Moores on the dailies. Jim Scancarelli has written and drawn “GA” since 1986. Though he often takes it far from its original characters and setting, now and again he wanders, seemingly compelled, back to its roots. It is good to have this volume, and its successors, to learn how deeply they reach into America.

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