- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005


By Frank King and edited by Chris Ware

Drawn and Quarterly, $29.95, 424 pages, illus.


You could say “Gasoline Alley” is, if not the, then, a Great American Novel — if, that is, 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 Frank King, has been entertaining while reflecting America since 1919. This is the first significant collection of the strip and the first in a multivolume series that will reproduce every daily strip from its beginnings up through the 1950s, the peak years of King’s work. “Walt & Skeezix: 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 Drawn and Quarterly, a Montreal specialty publisher, will take years, and some might ask, Why bother? “Gasoline Alley” is, after all, “just” a comic strip, and the comic strip has always been a low estate — perhaps now more than ever, what with shrinking newspapers continually shrinking their comics pages.

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 The strips are a treat to read, both for themselves and as historical documents; the accompanying commentaries delve into the background and values of “Gasoline Alley” and the life of a great, but overlooked, American cartoonist.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 treasure trove of memorabilia provided by King’s granddaughter, Drewanna King, 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,” a men’s milieu capitalizing on a postwar car craze. 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. 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.” Mr.Ware also praises its “vaguely detectable feeling of melancholy” and “evocation of complex emotions.”

Some of this is detectable in the early strips shown here. 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 made by Jeet Heer in his helpful and informative introduction. The reason “GA” hasn’t been hailed for artistic values like “Peanuts” and “Krazy Kat,” 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, Mr. Heer observes, is to see reflected King’s concerns for family and worries about children, not just over their health or possible loss (his wife lost their first child to stillbirth ), but their growing up and growing distant. “In his strip King clung to happy memories as tightly as possible, using his masterly penwork to limn fleeting moments.”

This is understandable, for King is “among the most autobiographical” of cartoonists. He was born in 1883 in Cashton, Wis., but grew up in Tomah. 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.

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 Website bulletin board reveal. 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.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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