A world of quiet wonder

Gasoline_alley_2

All these points in the progress of Gasoline Alley illustrate that if you mirror humanity, if people can really see themselves in your work, they will want to follow it, to go on seeing themselves. A strip family, with all its complications of in-laws and so-on, will become almost as real to the readers as their own. If you can once arrive at this interest, and then sustain it, you’re in.

—Frank King (1959)

As with so many good things, I was introduced to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley through the pages of a Drawn & Quarterly annual volume. Volume #3 (2000) features roughly 30 full-color reproductions of King’s Sunday pages from the 1920s and 1930s, most of which was loaned to the company for use by Peepshow cartoonist Joe Matt. Underneath his festering obsessions with porn, short Asian girls, and annoying his long-suffering friends, Matt apparently has an unexpected taste for the gentle and G-rated. The issue’s cover and endpapers, designed by Chris Ware, mimic King’s drawing style and arresting, warm color schemes.

Gasoline Alley’s punchlines rarely induce guffaws, but rather aim for grins or low-level chuckles. Humor or suspense, of course, were the primary entryways into newspapers for many cartoonists, so King’s strips end on mild jokes. Laughter, however, is ultimately the least of his concerns in these Sunday pages. The early pages in D&Q #3 were devoted to Walt Wallet and his gang of automobile enthusiasts. The car was the hot new thing in 1918—the year Gasoline Alley began—and the jokes and weeks-long storylines revolve around these amateur mechanics, their kooky foibles, and their finicky “newfangled” contraptions.

In February 1921, however, the strip abruptly changes. One evening, Walt hears a knock on the door and opens it and discovers a baby on his doorstep. He names the child Skeezix, and decides to take care of the boy. Through Walt’s anxious, loving eyes, we watch Skeezix grow up. Gasoline Alley is one of the first comic strips in which its characters (more or less) aged in real time. Skeezix becomes our boy. We see him take his first steps, lose his first tooth, make friends, find a girlfriend, get married, and ultimately have kids of his own. Walt grows old—his pudgy stomach solidifies, his hair gradually whitens—along with the strip. The supporting characters—the black housekeeper Rachel, the town doctor (Doc), and others—age as well. So does the town and, as it does, it grows larger and becomes more urban. Through the strip, we see America’s evolution during the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Soon after Skeezix’s arrival, Gasoline Alley’s focus shifted from vaudeville gags and slapstick to domestic life and the discovery of nature. Unlike so many strips, Gasoline Alley isn’t trying to wow us—with either striking design or with a wild punchline—but, rather, wants to slowly, almost imperceptibly astonish us with quiet wonder.

Everything—cars, houses, streets—is rounded and supple. Even hubcaps look fleshy and as organic as the lovably fat Walt and his big, soft shoes. The line between the hills and the buildings is mighty thin when King wields the pen. His line, indeed, was thin, which gives everything rendered a sense of delicacy, further developing the poignancy of his rich characterization. At the same time, though, Gasoline Alley is lush and resonant and full of depth. King’s line may have had a relatively uniform level of thinness, but his sense of perspective—particularly with regard to natural horizon lines in the outdoors—is superb.

Where he shows true mastery, though, is in his Sunday pages. The daily strips, which are being reprinted in full (at least, through the King years) by Drawn & Quarterly, concern an exaggerated, knockabout of home life. In the full-page Sunday strips, though, King lets his freak flag fly. More often than not, Walt or Skeezix—and, sometimes, both at once—goes on a fantastic daydream. They head to the North Pole, deliver toys for Santa Claus, explore the ocean depths and the world of mermaids, get shrunk to insect size, and get spooked by Halloween ghouls. Everything turns out okay in the end, but many of these pages give rise to anxieties and nightmares as rich as those in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. King experiments with design—in one, Skeezix digs his way to China and, midway through the page, the panels turn upside-down to reflect the change in hemisphere. Layout gets played with as well. Several Sunday strips are actual really big single panels that have been divided into smaller panels, so that we can read the page as a single image or as a regular, divided comic strip. (The effect is disorienting, as we see Skeezix scramble and talk throughout multiple panels, while we’re simultaneously keeping in mind that it’s really just one image that he’s traipsing through. King highlights comics’ ability to mess with time and space in the way, emphasizing how odd it is that we accept multiple images of the same characters on the same page.) Occasionally, King draws to emulate woodcut prints, intentionally eschewing his trademark style. Despite the nostalgic strain that runs through the strip, Gasoline Alley is thoroughly modern on Sundays.

For all the trippiness, the best Sunday pages were those in which Walt and Skeezix simply strolled or drove through the countryside having little adventures. The pacing of the strip is slow and meandering, basically requesting that you linger on each panel, on each deft stroke of line. King wants us to simmer down instead of speed up—Gasoline Alley is fundamentally, for all the concentration on cars, a rural, country strip. The comic wants you to pay attention to each flicker of the always-moving landscape. Comics scholar Jeet Heer writes:

But the pedagogic Sunday pages are more than just illustrated civic lessons. Walt is not trying to teach Skeezix how to think, but rather show him how to experience. The lessons are about noticing the world around you, paying attention to the changing seasons, the interplay of colors, styles of art. “I want you to grow up with an eye for the beauty about you,” Walt tells Skeezix on October 21, 1923. “It’s a source of much joy. Color even drops from the trees like rain after a shower. I could almost be a poet today!”

King’s poetry—the evidence of his genius—comes through best in his coloring. Instead of the solid, primary colors of most humor strips, Gasoline Alley’s colors are subtle, tender, and as close to naturalistic as the printing process would allow in the 1920s and 1930s. His grasp of outdoor life, of critters great and small, rings absolutely true even at the strip’s most fantastical, simply because of how richly the comic is colored. Even when objects are colored solidly instead of in gradations, King’s combinations of colors make each panel full of life.

The Drawn & Quarterly volumes #3 and #4 tried to reproduce these strips at their full ripeness, and approximate it well enough to engage me. But the pages they were reproducing were yellowed with age—it goes without saying that, like most newspaper strips pre-1970, the original art was discarded soon after publication. The coloring held an unfortunate brown shading. Some panels were splotchy. The pages weren’t reprinted at their original, tabloid-page size, so you have to squint to read King’s loopy, wide lettering. It’s not the company’s fault; the Montreal-based publisher holds extremely high production standards, but it probably didn’t have much to work with. King was so superb a cartoonist, though, that he survives production problems.

All the same, I’m going to recommend, quite strongly, that you spend $100 on a book. Sunday Press Books has just published Sundays with Walt and Skeezix: 1921 through 1934, and it’s easily the best Gasoline Alley compilation I’ve ever seen or am likely to see in my lifetime. This deluxe edition, edited by Peter Maresca and designed by Chris Ware, includes a full-size facsimile of a Skeezix paper cut-out toy from 1927, oversize photos of King and his family in the 1910s and 1920s, photos of some of the various dolls and board games designed as Gasoline Alley< marketing tie-ins. The inside jacket, if you remove it from the book, shows reproductions of rare, original Gasoline Alley art. The endpapers are fabulous, tiny checkerboard patterns featuring Walt’s beloved car. Essays by Heer, Donald Phelps, and Tim Samuelson give historical, aesthetic, and industrial context for the strip and King’s methods. (Heer’s essay, in particular, is enlightening and heartfelt. The quote above comes from his introduction.) So, the production is topnotch.

It’s all just dressing, however, for the comics themselves. Splendidly reprinted at their original size—it’s a huge book—and scanned at the highest resolution imaginable, the Sunday pages chosen represent the best, funniest, oddest, and most delightfully drawn and colored strips from the strip’s earliest years. The yellowing and fading has been corrected insofar as it’s possible. Each strip is carefully dated. At full size, the reader can’t help but notice King’s little details—the bluish-gray underside of clouds, the whiskers of Santa Claus, the wrinkle of bedsheets as Skeezix sleeps, the almost-pillowy look of both cars and humans—as well as his dazzling pacing and understanding of full-page layout design.

Critics call Gasoline Alley a sentimental strip, and it’s true that it’s not nearly as biting as Li’l Abner, Mutt and Jeff, or other humor strips of its era. Seeing it in this format, though, as it was originally seen, only emphasizes the strip’s sense of fragility. If King’s line weren’t so thin, or his colors were less subtle (instead of bold and self-assured), we wouldn’t be aware of the strip’s best years were created between the end of World War I and through the midst of the Great Depression. (The hard, thick, bold lines of Li’l Abner and Dick Tracy suggest a level of strength that wasn’t felt by very many people. Maybe that was the point.) Something quivers in King’s art. Something makes us want to give Walt a hug, despite the joviality he and his town projects. Sundays with Walt and Skeezix allows us to immerse ourselves in a smiling but rarely guffawing world. King pokes fun at his characters, but loves them too much to stick the knife in, or to let us forget that their world’s foundation is shaky.

King understands that gentleness is rarely rewarded in the real world, so, for about three decades, he gave tribute to it in one of the best works of American art the past century has brought us. Please pay tribute alongside him.

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If you’re still hesitant to plunk down the price of a month’s groceries on a single art book, try some sample pages at Roger Clark’s site. The comics/illustration art dealer has scanned his collection of King’s Sunday pages. When I win the lottery, this piece of original King art is mine.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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