A Bright, Well-lit 'Alley'

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In troubled times, people often turn to nostalgia for relief — well, certain kinds of people anyway. Comic fans may be a prime example, with their almost instinctive need to horde their favorite titles and authors to keep the golden moments of the past close at hand. In what may be a comment on our times, comic publishers have begun catering heavily to this market with such complete reprint series as Fantagraphics' Krazy and Ignatz, reprinting George Herriman's "Krazy Cat," and their best-selling Complete Peanuts line of hardcovers. Now, Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly has joined in with perhaps the most nostalgic reprint yet, Walt and Skeezix (400 pages; $30), the first volume of the complete daily strips of Frank King's "Gasoline Alley." Wonderfully warm and humane, the book should come with a warning not to mix it with alcohol or old-timey music lest you lapse into irreversible reverie.

Best known for the way its characters aged in real time, "Gasoline Alley," which continues to this day, was about as popular with the World War II generation as "Peanuts" would later be with their kids. Incredibly, it has never before been reprinted. Edited and designed by the meticulous cartoonist Chris Ware, who is also behind the George Herriman series, this is the first volume of a projected 20-years-long series that will reprint the strip in its entirety up through the early 1950s when King started turning over duties to assistants. Walt and Skeezix volume one begins with the full 1921 and 1922 run, excluding color Sunday strips, the period when "Gasoline Alley" had just started to appear as a four panel strip after beginning in 1919 as a series of single gag panels. Gorgeously designed and printed on heavy, off-white paper Walt and Skeezix also comes with a rich trove of photos and archival background material, making this weighty brick of a book a revelation. "Gasoline Alley" clearly belongs in the cannon as a deeply American masterwork of cartooning.

King (1883 - 1969) studied art and spent his adult life in Chicago, and "Gasoline Alley" is ostensibly set there, though you would never know it. It takes the form of a small town comedy, based primarily on King's memories of Tomah, Wisconsin, where he grew up. Centered on an alley of garages and a core of auto buffs, the early years of the strip now read like a priceless snapshot of America's burgeoning car culture. The central group of four friends are constantly patching tires, cleaning spark plugs and trading in their old Lizzies for newer models. One clever strip has an entire conversation in car-related numbers: "34 x 4 1/2?" "95 x 5" "Do 70?" "Do 80!" "3,000!" "Offer 2250!" But the real heart of the strip began beating on February 14, 1921 when the central character, Walt Wallet, a rotund confirmed bachelor with a sharp cowlick of hair sticking out the top of his oval head, opened his door to discover a baby left on his doorstep.

Skeezix' arrival on Valentine's Day, 1921

This arrival, named Skeezix, instantly changed the nature of the strip from a boys-only car-centered daily to a domestic comedy that reflected America's collective self-image. For the first time ever, Americans could watch a set of characters growing up just as they did. Not until the advent of television would there be any equivalent mass media experience. The Wallets will go through the boom of the 20s, struggle through the Great Depression, after which Skeezix will join the military and fight in the Second World War until he comes home and raises a family of his own during the 1950s. Based heavily on King's own life, as evidenced by the archival materials provided in the book, "Gasoline Alley" would essentially become an illustrated daily diary of an American family in the 20th century.

Besides Walt and Skeezix, the cast of central characters includes Avery, the penny-pincher, Bill the affable mechanic, and Doc, "adviser to the alley both as to physical ailments and mechanical ills." Women, at least at first, have only minor roles, with two exceptions. Mrs. Blossom, an attractive young lady of mysterious background appears halfway through this first volume to create some tension with the determined bachelor Walt. These sorts of plot developments — another involves a phony oil futures huckster — give the strip a narrative drive that take it well beyond a mere joke a day about cars and kids and into soap opera territory. The other major female character arrives after Walt goes through several comically inadequate nannies. He settles on Rachel, an unfortunately stereotypical black "mammy" character. Yet, taken objectively, even the caricature of Rachel is in keeping with the pervasive racism of the era, affirming the series as a faithful record of the prevailing attitudes at the time among the Main Street Americans from whose point of view the story is told.

Walt wakes up to feed Skeezix during a trip to Yellowstone

These very early strips in Walt and Skeezix set the charming, humane tone of the series to come. Much of the humor derives from Walt's application of car mechanics to the raising of a baby. In one amusing strip, he tricks out the baby carriage with, "a bumper, windshield wings, spotlight that reels out…an awning and a set of snubbers to take the rebound out the springs." The scenes with Walt and Skeezix together are filled with genuine warmth that seems almost totally absent from many of today's family entertainments. King would even occasionally sacrifice a gag just for the sake of creating a mood. One remarkable, wordless strip shows silhouettes of the two inside a tent, as Walt wakes up in the night to feed the baby. That's it. Just like life.

This particular strip appears during the book's best sequence, about a trip to Yellowstone National Park. What could be more American than a road trip to Yellowstone? A month and a half's worth of strips detail the adventures, with each daily location noted in the lower corner, "Cedar Rapids, IA … Hastings, Neb. … Yuma, Col.," etc. It may be the first ever cartoon travelogue. King's interest in America's pastoral wilderness would become a recurring theme in the series, especially in the color Sunday strips. (The publisher intends to reprint them separately.) The color Sundays reveal King's extraordinary visual imagination, often incorporating entirely fanciful, dreamlike scenarios and bizarre layouts that counter the quotidian nature of the daily strip. Even so, the black and white dailies, reprinted at more than twice the size of today's average strip, reveal King's remarkable penmanship and eye for detail.

No fan of comics, pop culture, nostalgia or the American experience should miss Frank King's Walt and Skeezix. "Gasoline Alley," with its gently paced melodrama, its charming humor, its caricatures, its cars, its countryside and its cityscape, fairly overflows with American iconography. Ideally, it should be taken out on a back screen porch on a warm afternoon, with a glass of cool lemonade and an old Western Electric circulating fan to thrum back and forth. But even without these accouterments, you will be swept away to another, bygone world.

Please note that I will be taking TIME.comix on a summer break for vacation and to focus on other projects. It will return in early September.