[9 September 2010]
The automobile is an omnipresent image in American culture. To put it another way, we get a lot of mileage out of the car as a symbol of everything from social status to physical health. We run out of gas at the end of the day; we put on the brakes if a relationship is moving too fast. These descriptors are so prevalent, so convenient, it’s as if cars were invented primarily as vehicles for metaphors instead of as modes of transportation.
Frank King understood the importance of the automobile as both metaphor and mode of transport as early as 1918, when his Gasoline Alley comic strip first appeared in The Chicago Tribune. The strip started as one-panel weekly gags about cars and by 1919 evolved into a daily strip that explored the lives and automotive obsessions of the denizens of four friends. Bill, Doc and Avery were three married men whose troubles with their wives often prompted Walt, the confirmed bachelor of the group, to proclaim, “Girls! I’ll say I know when I’m well off!” Walt’s single life changes forever when, on Valentine’s Day 1921, a baby is left on his doorstep. The baby, whom Walt calls Skeezix, soon becomes the center of Walt’s life.
What King does next, though, is astonishing. The strip evolves in real time, meaning that the years that pass in the real world also pass in the Alley. Throughout King’s 41 years on the strip and on into the present day, the characters have changed and aged, and they’ve experienced marriage, birth and death—the same as real people.
This book covers the first two years of Walt’s life with Skeezix, from 1921 to 1922, and it’s a terrific introduction to these wonderful characters and Frank King himself.
In his introduction, Jeet Heer writes that King was “among the most autobiographical of cartoonists”, and that to understand the artist is to understand the strip. This lengthy introduction is supplemented by photographs from King’s granddaughter, to whom the book is dedicated. These photos are of the people and places that inspired King’s work, and images of a carriage on a snowy street or a beautiful old home feel like missing chapters of the long, unfolding stories of the stories committed to paper over the years.
Heer notes the a disconnect one often feels when looking at old photographs, particularly from the 19th and early-20th centuries. Most people look stern, uncomfortable. Here there’s a series of pictures of King himself hamming it up for the camera, with caption written by the artist himself describing the exaggerated looks on his face. Captions like “indigestion” and “DTs” show a wonderful sense of humor that he was able to translate into the best of his work.
As a biographical sketch of a legendary comic strip artist, this book is invaluable, but the meat of the book is two years worth of Gasoline Alley. There’s a month and a half of pre-Skeezix strips filled with good car gags that even non-gear heads will appreciate.
Skeezix’s arrival sets off something in both the reader and also in King, who uses Walt’s car-centric world view as a springboard for some solid jokes about infant care. “I’ve got to keep your tank full,” Walt tells Skeezix after yet another feeding. When he holds up the slouchy infant Walt says, “I wouldn’t say you were streamlined for pep and flexibility.” After mastering the art of diaper changing, Walt proclaims, “I’m getting so I can shift smoothly and everything.” Not all the strips are about cars, but everything is filtered through the lens of car references.
A single man caring for an infant now is something of a rarity, but it must have been virtually nonexistent in 1921. Walt never hesitates in his care for Skeezix, immediately recognizing the baby’s need for a parent. It’s sweet to see Walt caring for Skeezix, heating a bottle, taking him to the doctor. Walt’s appreciation for the proper care and maintenance for a car transfers easily to a child, and he approaches the job with innocent curiosity, never anger or frustration.
While some of the humor and references are obviously dated, jokes like Walt checking his supply of “home brew” after Skeezix breaks out in hiccups still feel fresh. What’s most dated about the strip is the stereotypical African American nanny character, Rachel Brown. She’s introduced over two days, her face hidden in the first strip before being revealed in the final panel of the second. She’s drawn with pitch black skin with a large white oval for a mouth, a typical depiction found in comics (or most anywhere) up until the ‘50s.
Rachel is typically just a supporting character rather than a springboard for racist jokes, but those are included, too. It’s unfortunate, but eliminating those strips from the collection would be dishonest, and including them doesn’t mean one has to like them.
Cars get us from one place to another, but without people they’re just hunks of metal and plastic and rubber. They’re a means to an end, but we still get attached to our cars. Even if you know nothing of internal combustion or gaskets, you still remember that time you hydroplaned on the freeway or got sick in the back seat of your grandma’s gigantic car. In one strip, the Alley gang looks at a car Avery wants to sell and they all reminisce about all the places the car has taken them. “That car is its own diary,” Avery says. Our things tell stories, but few more so than our cars.
“Gasoline Alley,” writes Jeet Heer, “is a comic strip by a father intensely aware that time moves on and childhood could easily be lost.” It’s the same with family and friends. The limitations of memory don’t allow us to remember everything, but sometimes the most insignificant details pop up when a loved one sneezes or wears a certain shirt.
Raising a child must be like this too, because you know your child from the very beginning of their lives (or, in Walt’s case, almost the beginning), and you amass a lot of miles together in a lifetime. These first two years of Gasoline Alley capture this feeling perfectly, and leave the reader only looking forward to more on down the road.