WALT & SKEEZIX in Washington Post

The uses of cuteness: kitties, ducks, babies and a ninja.

The Washington Post    |    Douglas Wolk    |    

Back in the Alley

Babies, of course, are ground zero for cuteness, but they do complicate everything around them. Frank King's long-running comic strip "Gasoline Alley" began in 1919 as gentle but forgettable whimsy about a bunch of car buffs hanging around and chatting about their vehicles. On Valentine's Day, 1921, it changed (and improved) radically: The strip's chubby, good-natured bachelor, Walt, found a newborn baby abandoned on his doorstep -- literally a "stepchild."

Walt and Skeezix (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95) reprints the daily strips from 1921 and 1922 in a gorgeous hardcover designed by "Gasoline Alley" buff Chris Ware and supplemented by a copiously illustrated essay about King and the real-life inspirations behind the strip.

Skeezix, as the baby is known, can't do much other than eat and cry at first, although he's talking and making some mischief by the end of the volume. (The strip's characters aged in real time -- they still do, actually, although King died in 1969.) Walt, on the other hand, has had his life turned upside-down; when his friends' wives demand their time, he still laughs it off with an "I know when I'm well off," but he also knows that being a devoted car enthusiast hasn't quite prepared him to be a father. When the community tries to set him up with a pretty young flapper near the end of the book, Walt is torn among his desire to put himself above his friends' machinations, his hormones and his longing to give the baby more of a family.

Walt and Skeezix doesn't include the Sunday strips in which King really got to show off his sense of design, but the dailies are visually splendid in their own right. He took obvious relish in drawing his characters, cars and settings, especially in a long sequence in which the cast takes a trip to Yellowstone Park. And as mild as King's wit usually is, he gets a lot of mileage out of the sense of desperation that any new parent feels in caring for something beautiful and helpless.

Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly and the Believer. He is the author of "Live at the Apollo."

©2005 The Washington Post Company

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