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Everyday dreams
Frank Kingís Gasoline Alley comes to hardcover

In Frank Kingís Walt and Skeezix, editors Jeet Heer, Chris Oliveros, and Chris Ware have produced a handsomely designed, sweet-souled book. They intend to continue their labor of love through a multi-volume set that will put into print all of Frank Kingís Gasoline Alley comic strips. The "longest story ever told" in American comics, it still appears under the pen of Jim Scancarelli. In his preface, Ware states that the project means to address the "mystery" of why Gasoline Alley has run for so long. But the editors, Iím happy to say, do not attempt to answer this question. They seem to believe that those who look at the strip will have plenty of their own thoughts. One quick one is that Gasoline Alley proceeds day by day. Itís more a novel ó the editorsí word for it ó than a collection of self-contained stories or adventures.

Born in 1883 in Cashton, Wisconsin, King grew up in nearby Tomah, where, as he revealed in a 1955 essay, he first got to know the real people on whom he based Gasoline Alleyís characters. Since the introduction to Walt and Skeezix is illustrated with photographs, you can see for yourself the spot-on resemblance between Gasoline Alleyís Walt Wallet and Kingís brother-in-law Walter Drew. They have the same cowlick of hair falling over their foreheads ó itís a cartoonistís dream, like FDRís jutting chin and Richard Nixonís ski-jump nose, the instantly identifiable feature. Both also have plump, pear-shaped bodies. Walt Wallet looks like a child ó the other characters smoke and he doesnít ó in a manís body. Heís not mature so much as overgrown. His weight is often referred to in the strip, and his bachelorís figure is clownish and endearing.

King began Gasoline Alley on New Yearís Day 1921, and baby Skeezix got left on Waltís doorstep on Valentineís Day that same year. Over the life of the strip, Skeezix, like the other characters, ages. I have no reason to doubt the editorsí claim that this is unique in American comic strips. I do remember that Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, and Terry and the Pirates were unchangeable, immortal like the gods.

Skeezix is at the center of the strip. He takes it out of the alley where Walt and his friends Avery, Bill, and Doc tinker with their cars into the larger domestic world. Because of him, Waltís mother, black maid Rachel (of the Stepinfetchit genre of comic American negro characters), and Phyllis Blossom, who has designs on Walt, have roles that move the strip out of the manís world and open up comic possibilities. But to my eye this is not the answer to the "mystery."

One place to look is Kingís drawing. Heís in the line of American comic-strip artists descending from Krazy Katís George Herriman who in the space of a single panel can bring to life recognizable characters in action. All of Kingís characters, but especially pinch-faced Doc and Bill, cigar-chomping Avery, and baby-faced Walt, have the quirky features that are the core of the cartoonistís art. They communicate the way the figures in so many Quattrocento frescoes do. How like comic-strip faces are the crowds in Giottoís Arena Chapel! Kingís drawing is both easy to read and physically present, the very quality that appealed to Pop artists.

When King puts this easy presence at the service of daily life as lived by ordinary men and women, Gasoline Alley feels like our world, but we happily accept that it isnít. No one lives a life in which every day brings a domestic comic disaster, embarrassment, or triumph. We watch daytime soap operas because we love the formula if it is done with a straight face, and King, as this book shows, took pains to make his strip like life yet not quite. He does us the honor of not winking, of not reminding us that itís a fiction.

Thatís just one partial answer to why Gasoline Alley has endured. The volumes to come may provide others, but my feeling is that this "mystery," like the melancholy the editors find in the strip, doesnít require explanation. We like to be told the same old stories, the stuff of our common anecdotal lives, again and again, so long as the telling is fresh. King had the gift. Leave it at that.

Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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