Note: This is the seventh in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.
These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!
Unless otherwise noted, any image captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.
Analysis of Frank King’s Walt and Skeezix, 1921-1922—The Complete Daily Strips
By Wade Simpson
(CCS Class of 2012)
Walt and Skeezix, 1921-1922—The Complete Daily Strips, Drawn and Quarterly’s collection of the strip originally titled Gasoline Alley, features all the series’ daily strips, including a selection of single panel Saturday editions, from January 1st, 1921 through December 30th, 1922. Except for the Sunday strips, which began on October 24th 1920, it compiles the complete storyline and chronology. The writer and artist of the contents of this collection is the strip’s creator, Frank King. The formal distances between single panel Saturday, four panel weekly, and twelve to fourteen-panel Sunday strips are more than a broad leap, and the dour absence of the larger format Gasoline Alley Sunday strips in this collection is a serious loss. In order to discuss the collection, after briefly orienting its contents within their historical and cultural context, my analysis will discuss the strip’s autobiographical elements, its early relegation to a niche market while riding a wave of technology and misogynistic car culture, and finally, the eventual incorporation of an infant that signaled the strip’s transformation into a family-focused and tender consideration of the passage of time.
In the early quarter of the twentieth century, newspapers were publishing cartoons in a variety of formats. Daily cartoons, appearing Monday through Friday, were typically segmented into four-panel strips. These daily strips were episodic in nature and serialized the lives of the characters day-in and day-out. Saturday cartoons were single panel gag jokes or editorials and, like the daily strips, were published in black and white. The Sunday strips, however, were full-page broadsheets that allowed the artists to flex their creative muscles, and featured a full palette of colors to dazzle the readers. The Sunday strip, from a newspaper syndicate’s perspective, was intended to appeal to a family audience. The Sunday edition was for children and adults alike, as many Americans still observed a weekend Sabbath, and were able to spend time together, often spread out on the floor or dining room table reading newspaper cartoons.
All in all, Frank King’s mild commentary and nuances of the burgeoning leisure class was perfectly suited to the mass medium of newspapers during the 1920’s. With confident line work, King sincerely delves into widely held frustrations of early twentieth century America. The characters are drawn broadly, with consistent nib lines. The spotting of blacks is usually hatching and there are no gutters, only lines between the panels. Frank King used the four-panel grid in most cases but confidently used single panels when they were called for. The characters are not realistic but are so loose as to allow the readers to see themselves in the story. The hopeful characters are grounded in reality and don’t employ any fantasy, physical gags or super-heroics. King’s work seems as if it were inked on composite board on his lap and, in fact, he sometimes had to work on the road or car fender. The art is humble yet nimble, clear and concise. These were qualities that both he and his readers valued. Although the art is relaxed and comfortably approachable, I would not say it was the strip’s brightest highlight; as I will discuss shortly, the highlights are the writing and introduction of Baby Skeezix.
Until October 24th, 1920, Gasoline Alley was only published daily, in typical four panel layouts. The Saturday edition was a single panel gag strip that stood alone with abridged commentary on society and daily life. These Saturday “strips” were not customarily a part of the ongoing stories that connected the weekly strips’ narratives. The Walt and Skeezix, 1921-1922 daily strip collection includes the daily four-panel narrative and the single Saturday anecdotes but regrettably excludes the Sunday strips. This collection, either because of restrictions in format differentials or tonal discrepancies, cannot reconcile the smaller daily strips with the larger format Sunday strips. This is unfortunate because Frank King’s legacy was in primarily forged in the experimental Sunday strips, where three-quarter perspective was employed to create a cohesive master shot composed of individual, sequential panels. Frank King’s unique Sunday strips have become the trademark of Gasoline Alley and a part of the American comic masterpiece canon [note: we have included a couple of the later Sunday strips at the end of this post—SRB]. This collection is bereft without the inclusion of the larger scale strips.
In the early twentieth century, as radio was still a niche hobby and television had yet to be invented, newspapers were the main form of popular entertainment. The summation of being the leading entertainment source and the increasing size of the middle class meant newspapers were constantly in competition for readers. Cartoons were high profile, marquee attractions for newspapers and the search was always afoot for talented artists. Many publishers were hungry for reliable, vibrant cartoonists who could meet deadlines and capitalize on the recent sophisticated color printing techniques. Newspapers wanted to attract as many readers as possible and, additionally, the readers of the era were looking for cartoon strips that would speak to their own experiences and newly-discovered leisure time. Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, first appearing on November 24th, 1918, appealed to the both the readers and the newspaper publishers. It was a success story, as evidenced by the fact that the strip continued being published into the 1960’s.
Gasoline Alley is unique among comics of its time because it is autobiographical. The characters and the situations come directly from Frank King’s life. King was a technophile who enjoyed the modern devices of the era. For instance, he was a shutterbug and enjoyed the sounds and study of mechanics. If produced today, Gasoline Alley might be about iPods, digital photography and Segways. Instead, as a product of the early twentieth century, Frank King offers his readers road trips, camping, fishing, and dabbling in the stock market. For example, during a delightful storyline about a trip to Yellowstone Park, Frank King writes and draws about his own experiences on the road, using real-world locations that allowed readers around America to follow his characters’ route. From August 12th, 1921 through October 13th, 1921, King signed each strip with a location tag. Nevada, IA, Omaha Neb, Hastings Neb, Overland Park, Denver, Yellowstone Park and so on, every day for eight straight weeks. Just like a bone that Bud Fisher was throwing to daily horse racing gamblers in Mutt and Jeff ten years prior, Frank King gave a nod to outdoor enthusiast of the 20’s. They were not only the places Frank King had visited himself, likely also allowed him to observe and incorporate the real-life gags that occurred there! It feels very authentic, that on September 26th 1921, Walt reads aloud from a brochure while visiting the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City “without a single nail in it,” and then, in the final panel, returns to the parking lot to find his front tire flat “with a single nail in it.” Because of its real-world locations, the realism in Gasoline Alley almost brushes into the realm of photojournalism. In fact, Frank King worked as an illustrator to accompany newspaper reports early in his career. King’s personal stamp of observation and interpretation are unmistakably his own. The gags, especially in the early years, are inside jokes for and of auto enthusiasts and wrench monkeys.
In the timeline of Frank King’s extended tome, Gasoline Alley began as a niche gag strip about car culture. As Jeet Heer comments in the collection’s introduction, the cartoon was kith and kin to today’s Car Talk on National Public Radio. The original title, “Gasoline Alley,” refers to a back alley, behind a row of suburban Midwestern homes, where the main characters share a common garage. The grease monkey characters, Walt Wallet, Doc, Bill and Avery routinely discuss the bugs and gremlins associated with early automobile ownership. Frank King’s characters develop creative jerry-rigging solutions for cars, whose ownership had recently begun to spread beyond hobbyists to a majority of Americans at the beginning of 1920’s. The humor stems from slice of life anecdotes but also tongue-in-cheek remedies to common automotive problems. The characters razz each other in period dialogue about each other’s car dilemmas yet the daily strips aren’t funny in a wahka-wahka vein. The characters make fun of each other, but the ribbing remains delicate, and the characters never descend into harmful insults or painful aspersions. As seen in their dialogue, the characters that populate Gasoline Alley stay profoundly humane and oblige each other’s lives and those of the readers. This is especially thoughtful considering the forty-year span of the strip’s publication.
For over two years, the car talk and respectful banter continued daily and, to that point, the strip seems to have one or maybe two repetitious beats. The material mileage King gets from a strip driven on custom culture alone seems to run on fumes, however. Eventually, the auto references run thin like the rubber on Walt’s “old bus” tires. A strong secondary runner in the Alley was the battle of the sexes. The characters of Doc, Avery and Bill are all married while Walt Wallet remains a bachelor. The unbearability of women is a thread of humor that fails to sustain my entertainment, but that seems to hold an endless tickle or Frank King. There is a strong gender divide in the strip, which by today’s standards caroms dangerously close to sexism. The bachelor and main character, Walt, issues the punch line “I know how well off I am” after witnessing his friends badgered by their respective wives with such regularity that I stopped counting. The “I know how well off I am” (without women in my life) gag was employed as a runner throughout the series at a frequency of five to six times a month. At one point, a woman rents a garage in the alley and Walt admits (to the reader) that he can now relate to Belgians whose lands were recently overrun by the Huns in World War I. Given the gender bias of the age in which King lived, it is incalculable whether King himself was merely a product of his era or was going overboard trying to reach male readers, belittling or disregarding the any female readers. The scenes that do feature the wives, whose names King actually gets wrong a few times (Heer 24), present the women as caddy gossips who are expensive to their husbands and vainly fixated on their vanity mirrors. It is difficult to see how this station of male dominion would attract readers of all ages and sexes or could have sustained any wider cultural impact. Therefore, Gasoline Alley may have been a quiet footnote in comics’ history until a daily strip that was published on February 20th, 1921, forever changing the tone and purpose of Frank King’s strip from a niche car culture gag to a transcendent study of life’s anxieties and joys. On Valentine’s Day of that year, everything about Gasoline Alley was altered when Walt Wallet opened his front door and found baby Skeezix on his porch step.
This is the moment that changes the route for Gasoline Alley from a slice-of-life cartoon with narrow appeal to a deeply resonating character study reflective of American family’s most precious moments. In fact, for many generations, Gasoline Alley was known by many readers as “The Skeezix Comic.” Whether Frank King knew what he was getting into when he placed Skeezix on Walt’s doorstep is a matter of further research, but by introducing the child, he took his characters to places most comics creators at that time, or since, would never venture: into the future. The character of Skeezix was based on King’s own son, Robert, just as the characters of Walt and Doc and others were incarnations of King’s personal friends. King’s introduction of Skeezix transforms the cartoon’s existing static (and arguably limited) characters and forces them to face their timely mortality. More specifically, King’s characters must age since their relationship to fast-growing Skeezix has been strongly established from his arrival on Day One.
Their aging means that the characters, especially Skeezix, grow up in real time. Hence, at the end of this collection, Skeezix is eighteen months old. By the time the series finishes its run in the 1960’s, Skeezix has grown up and raised a family of his own. Through the plodding publication of daily and Sunday strips, then, readers couldn’t help but watch their lives ticking away, as they grew older and endured total generational shifts. In this way, King was capturing moments in time, as with nostalgic photography, that would add up to a fictional characters total lifespan. The aching acknowledgment of the passage of time creates a tension and a sadness when reading the strip. The dilemma of measuring time through panels while holding onto the past is aptly summarized by Donald Phelps, who writes, “King was very aware of the dual nature of comic strip time; the combination of frozen moments and sequential time.” For King and the readers of his comic, compulsorily acknowledging the individual moments so sincerely, in recognition of both the past and the future, was a bold experiment in which to take part.
As the readers became invested in “the upbringing” of Skeezix, they must also have recognized his growth, maturity, and the consequent and increasing melancholy of his (and our) days gone by. On some level, any parent knows that his baby will grow into a toddler, and from a toddler to an adolescent, and that these moments are gone forever, but for photographs, letters and keepsakes. In his knowledge, King was a master of capturing magically simple moments and connecting with his readers. Day after day, his characters observed, practically paying respects, to specific instants in time. The strip holds an obvious appreciation for the quiet tones that forced readers to stop and absorb the placid stillness of life and the unbearable beauty of the natural world. Further, in many strips, King seems to be winking at the reader, calling attention to the brief commonalities that every American was universally experiencing in the 1920’s.
For example, a recurring theme in Gasoline Alley and a chapter of Frank King’s life is the idea of losing a child. King and his wife, Delia, suffered a stillborn birth early in their marriage, King’s character Walt frequently wakes from night terrors of losing Skeezix. Again, King returns to autobiographical realms. There is the ever-present concern of Skeezix’s biological mother coming to retrieve him, thus robbing Walt of his growing and cherished bond. The theme of child-loss is handled gently and rendered most cogent in the fleeting moments between one father and his ever-growing son.
Balancing the dual full-time occupations of child-rearing and automobile maintenance, as well as the overlap between the two, seems to be the main source of humor in the strip. Many strips compare Skeezix’s baby stroller to a supped up hot rod and many others gauge Skeezix belly as if it were an empty fuel tank. In a less obvious foil, in the cartoon on July 25th 1921, Walt evades a speeding ticket by explaining to the investigating officer, “I had Skeezix on my knee and he’s growing so fast I didn’t realize he was so heavy on the gas pedal.” Shockingly, at least by modern safety standards, the officer lets Walt off with a warning. Walt and Skeezix, 1921-1922—The Complete Daily Strips collects a pivotal time in Gasoline Alley, a newspaper strip that reflected and shaped America. It provided a necessary sense of place and ultimately, with its introduction of a growing baby, time, in America’s history. The strip beats with a liveliness that exists beyond the proscenium of the panel’s borders.
Sources: “List of works referenced”:
Heer, Jeet. “Introduction” to Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, Sunday Press Books, 2007.
Heer, Jeet. “Introduction” to Walt and Skeezix, 1921-1922—The Complete Daily Strips, Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly Books, 2005.
Phelps, Donald. “The Boys of Winter” in Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, Sunday Press Books, 2007.
[The above essay is ©2010 Wade Simpson, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]
About the author/student:
Wade Simpson is a freshman at the Center for Cartoon Studies; at present, Wade has no blog or website he cares to refer you to. We’ll post those links once he’s got a presence online (soon!).
Further reading & resources:
Most of these volumes—along with other, earlier book collections of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley strips—are in the Schulz Library collection.