- - Thursday, March 21, 2013

GASOLINE ALLEY: DAILY COMICS 1964-1966
By Frank King and Dick Moores
IDW Publishing, $49.99, 318 pages

Newspaper comic strips, like most things in life, go through periods of reevaluation, reorganization and transformation. Those that run for decades will inevitably experience modifications in artistic style, character development and story lines, among other things.

It also goes without saying that many comic strips will experience what I like to call the “changing of the cartoonist guard.” As cartoonists either retire, move on to new projects or pass away, their creations are left in the hands of established talent, young apprentices or family members. With only a few exceptions (Peanuts), most funny page favorites like The Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, The Gumps and Blondie have witnessed this symbolic passing of the torch.

Gasoline Alley is also part of this list. Frank King had been the guiding force behind this legendary strip since its inception in 1918, developing popular characters like Walt Wallet, Phyllis Blossom, Skeezix and Nina Clock. He shifted Sunday strip duties to one assistant, Bill Perry, in 1951. Another assistant, Dick Moores, who had assumed a larger role with the daily strip in 1959, was formally given co-credit during a 1964 story line. King and Moores shared credit until the latter’s death in 1969.

IDW Publishing, through its partnership with the Library of American Comics, has reprinted the monumental King-to-Moores transition in an impressive new collection, “Gasoline Alley: Daily Comics 1964-1966.” For those who have read collections of the King-only comic strip, such as Drawn and Quarterly’s five volume set of Walt and Skeezix, this book will serve as the perfect accompaniment. For those who are familiar with one or more versions of this strip, this will bring back a flood of childhood memories while flipping each page. And for those discovering Gasoline Alley for the first time, this is a great way to begin a memorable journey.

The book’s introduction was written by Rick Norwood. He is the editor and publisher of Manuscript Press — and his magazine, Comics Revue, reprinted Moores‘ Gasoline Alley for a quarter century. (Moores drew two original covers for the publication.) Norwood obviously has a strong understanding of Moores‘career, and provides important insights into the journeyman cartoonist’s march into the land of comic strip giants.

Moores was born in Lincoln, Neb. in 1909. There was artistic talent in his family: his father’s uncle, Mead Schaeffer, illustrated classic books and popular magazines such as McCall’s and the Saturday Evening Post. After saving enough money to go to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for a year, he secured a job as an assistant to Chester Gould. He worked on Gould’s great strip, Dick Tracy, for the next five years, and was reportedly called “the best assistant he ever had.” He even created a moderately successful strip, Jim Hardy — inviting King to share his studio space, two decades before they worked together.

Norwood describes Moores as a “craftsman, not a day-jobber,” and that he “learned his craft producing countless stories for comic books and comic strips until he came to Gasoline Alley and achieved greatness.” This can be seen in his extensive body of work for Walt Disney Studios from 1942-1956. Whether it was a color panel of Mickey Mouse and Goofy, or a black-and-white panel for Uncle Remus, the time, care and precision of his craft are all on full display.

Moores was an extremely talented artist, and his big break finally arrived when King hired him in 1956. Norwood wrote that it’s “generally agreed that Moores’s best work is on Gasoline Alley, and his strips can be viewed as the greatest in this series’ long, beloved run.” While it may sound blasphemous to favor the successor over the originator, I would begrudgingly agree with this analysis.

As Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau said in an article from the New Yorker reprinted by Norwood, Moores “has a uniquely compassionate, kindly view of human relationships and he is able to satirize the small meannesses and foolishnesses of daily life without in any way losing the whimsy and good humor that pervade his vision of a contemporary American small town.”

When you look at “Gasoline Alley: Daily Comics 1964-1966,” those early signs of Moores‘ greatness are already there. The large cast of characters are sharply drawn, the humor is subtle yet charming, and the stories capture the readers’ imagination for days or weeks at a time. Walt Wallet remains an endearing figure, and Skeezix continues to grow and develop into the main character that many readers know and love so well.

This is Gasoline Alley at its finest. Once you’ve read this beautifully designed book and seen Moores’s art and stories up close, it will be hard to put down - and you’ll be craving for more.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.