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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

WALT & SKEEZIX by Frank King

WALT & SKEEZIX collects the compete GASOLINE ALLEY daily strips by Frank King from 1921 and 1922(*). Shortly into this run, of course, lead character Walt Wallet discovered a newborn baby on his porch, named him Skeezix, and what had been a strip largely about car-related jokes (although those also continued for a while) became one of the few long-running strips to move forward in real-time (continuing to this day, though several cartoonists later).

I was only mildly familiar with the strip, largely through reading some of the Dick Moores era stories in Rick Norwood's COMICS REVUE, a few Frank King Sunday pages from various books and, oddly, the parody "Gasoline Valley" by Kurtzman/Elder in MAD #15 (one of my favourite MAD stories).

Having now read the first two-thirds of this book, I'm glad Drawn & Quarterly have decided to make the effort to reprint them. It's a fascinating read, King was obviously a very skilled illustrator and writer from the start, but very much feeling out an entirely new form with this strip (there are some odd examples of that like when he feels the need to point out that a gap between panels represented several hours, when obviously all that would be used later is a caption saying "Hours later"). A few months into the book he does an extended sequence of some of the cast taking a trip to Yellowstone, which has some interesting storytelling and gags, and in the second year a very good storyline about the cast investing in an oil-well scam.

Of course there are a few things that don't work, mostly those that seem to involve topical references that are now obscure. And the very odd almost monthly strips showing how hen-pecked all the married men are, ending with Walt bragging about how good he has it as a bachelor. And of course the regrettable appearance of the black maid Rachel, although as is pointed out in the introduction, she's at least for the most part represented as a real character unlike many cartoons of the day with black characters of similar appearance.

There's some very impressive reproduction on the work, given the age and the newsprint source material. As a bonus, the inside of the dust-jacket (it's one of those Chris Ware designed books, so you never know where stuff will be printed) has an example of King's original art at close to full size for one strip, and while it does make you regret that the whole book couldn't be printed from similar source material, it does show that what we get is pretty faithful.

In addition to two full years of daily strips, the book also has some extensive biographical information on King, supplemented by some stunningly well preserved items from his family archives, photos going back to the 1800s and early cartooning work, a "drawing lesson" feature he did and an autobiographical piece done in the 1950s for the centennial of his hometown (and inspiration for Gasoline Alley) Tomah, Wisconsin.

A very impressive package, and future volumes should be equally interesting.

(*)the strip actually beginning in late 1918, the first two years probably to be collected down the line a bit.

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