An old comic about modern fatherhood

Chris Ware first discovered the work of the late cartoonist Frank King in the 1980s, in the seminal anthology “The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics”. Alley,” King’s long-running comic about the Chicagoan Walt Wallet and his adopted son, Skeezix, a baby left behind in 1921. Ware, an art student in Austin, Texas at the time, was looking for comics that he could connect personally. Intrigued by his first sample of King, he quickly purchased a year’s worth of snappy “Gasoline Alley” newspaper clippings at a comic book convention in Dallas. One of King’s great innovations in visual storytelling was to show his cartoon father and aging son in real time, like a cartoon version of “Boyhood”; during his decades of drawing the comic, from 1918 to 1959, readers watched young Skeezix grow into adulthood, go to war, become a parent himself, and witness the passing of Walt generation. In Ki ng, Ware said, he “finally found the example of what I was looking for—something that tried to capture the texture and feeling of life as it passed slowly, inextricably, and desperately.”

For decades King’s work remained almost entirely out of print and no collected volumes of “Gasoline Alley” were published. (A version of the cartoon, drawn by Jim Scancarelli, continues in newspapers today.) But with Ware’s help, Drawn & Quarterly embarked on a massive effort to revive the strip. Since 2005, the imprint has published a series of collections under the title “Walt & Skeezix”, designed by Ware, with biographical sketches of King’s life by cultural historian Jeet Heer. (The upcoming seventh volume contains tapes published between 1931 and 1932. The Dark Horse Press of Portland and the Sunday Press Books of Palo Alto have also published King volumes in recent years.) It is not uncommon for old tapes be reprinted, but few have been so dramatically saved. from obscurity, let alone feel so easily at home in the world of modern literary comics. Like the work of Ware, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel or Adrian Tomine, “Gasoline Alley” is subtle, semi-autobiographical and emotionally eloquent, a combination unheard of in King’s Day comics.

“Gasoline Alley” debuted in Chicago Grandstand in 1918, as a gag on the growing popularity of automobiles among middle-class Americans. Used car salesmen, flat tires, vehicle knocks and dents – all were fresh comedic material in those early days of mainstream car ownership. Walt Wallet, who emerged as the strip’s protagonist, was a likeable Chicagoan, somewhat adolescent in his obsession with cars, and an early study in “dadbod.” The strip came to the heyday of newspaper comics as “funny pages”, dominated by slapstick strips like “The Katzenjammer Kids” or “Mutt & Jeff”, which featured loud, screaming characters, with a strong emphasis on ethnic jokes and puns. . King’s straightforward, conversational humor stood out like a calm voice in a jam-packed clown car.

the Grandstands Comics publisher at the time, Joseph Patterson, saw figures such as King as the future of the art form. A scion of the conservative family business Grandstand media empire, Patterson had a populist streak that made him politically the black sheep of his family (he voted for socialist Eugene V. Debs in 1908), and he wanted to present characters that readers could relate to. identify through stories rather than gags. Under his aegis emerged such iconic and socially conscious strips as “Little Orphan Annie” and “Dick Tracy”, and “The Gumps”, by Sidney Smith, which is often cited as the first long-running narrative comic strip. To extend the appeal of “Gasoline Alley” beyond car enthusiasts, Patterson came up with a not-quite-original suggestion: why not add a cute baby? King agreed, but he wasn’t about to conjure up a child out of nowhere. In a 1948 interview, he recalled discussing the idea with Patterson: “I pointed out that since Walt was single, it would take a little while to get there, with courtship, marriage and everything. “

Walt Wallet discovered baby Skeezix on his doorstep in King’s February 14, 1921 comic strip.Image courtesy of Drewanna King Schutte / Drawn & Quarterly

To speed up the process, King came up with a solution as current as his car gags. The 1920s saw a wave of adoptions in America, a result of, among other things, the orphaning of children during World War I. On Valentine’s Day 1921, Walt, wearing one of his loudly patterned bathrobes, heard a knock on his door and, looking outside, found a few-day-old baby on his doorstep. He nicknamed the boy “Skeezix”, a breeding term for a motherless calf; Skeezix always called him “Uncle Walt”. Like Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” which was released the same month and featured a tramp left the same way with a baby, “Gasoline Alley” rolled out a predictable flurry of bachelor jokes with a baby: Walt applies his mechanical skills to the stroller, for example, adding headlights to make night walks easier. But more complicated emotions also surfaced as Walt adjusted to parenthood: he stayed up all night nursing Skeezix through scarlet fever; he later found love and married a widow named Phyllis Blossom. Like Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’ or Ware’s ‘Building Stories’, the stories of Walt and Skeezix find their rhythm in the pauses of life. King plotted lightly, allowing major events—Skeezix’s stressful adoption hearings, Walt and Phyllis’ wedding—to sit on the horizon, creating moments of anticipation and self-reflection for his characters. In King’s comic strip, which eventually appeared in four hundred newspapers across the country, readers saw a new type of modern family being formed.

In real life, King’s relationship to fatherhood has never been easy. His wife Delia’s first pregnancy ended in stillbirth in 1913. Three years later their son, Robert Drew King, was born, but according to King family diaries, they were emotionally distant parents. In 1924, they sent Robert to boarding school. “I never knew who my parents were,” Robert said years later. “I only saw them in the summer.” In the Drawn & Quarterly volume of “Walt & Skeezix” from 1923-4, Jeet Heer writes: “It was the comic about a warm father-son relationship by a man who would have wanted such a close bond in his own life. but who could not have”. I do not have it.

Frank King with his son, Robert, circa 1921.Photograph courtesy of Drewanna King Schutte / Drawn & Quarterly

King’s initial popularity coincided with the election of President Harding and his promise of a return to “normalcy,” that imagined era of pre-war calm. At first glance, Walt personified this conservative ideal. The radios, the jazz, the indie streak of Phyllis, and the bobbed hair: all initially receive secondary glances and banter from the Midwestern mechanic. King wasn’t edgy enough to be above ethnic jokes and racial caricatures. (Walt’s African-American housekeeper, Rachel, was drawn as a stereotypical domestic mom.) But just as much King’s humor comes from gently undermining the status quo. In “Gasoline Alley” from November 2, 1930, the Sunday comic, Walt takes Skeezix to visit a museum, where they admire a landscape painting done in a mishmash of Cubist and Expressionist styles. “Modernism is a bit beyond me,” says Walt. “I would hate to live where this painting was painted.” “Yeah, but I’d like to go,” Skeezik replies. “Come on, Uncle Walt.” With that, father and son enter the painting, where they encounter a local with a monkey face from Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, a series of lightning bolts by Feininger, a violin by Chagall, a road to colored stripes a la De Vlaminck’s “potato pickers”. Most of King’s contemporary cartoonists would have reduced such outrageous artistry to a mocking punchline. In King, the scene is visually witty, beautifully drawn, and the source of a true father-son moment. From Skeezix’s arrival in 1921 until King’s retirement in 1959, “Gasoline Alley” remained warm and poignant. It was, as Ware likes to say, “the first compelling love story to appear on the Daily Comics page.”