Up to the Challenge
Becoming a parent changes a man, transforming him into a person he never dreamed he could be. “Person” is the the correct pronoun, because there’s a part of you which transcends traditional gender roles, a part which detaches itself from the spiritual realm and becomes an observable, if not measurable, part of one’s experience. It’s not a case of a mother being stern or a father being nurturing, it’s those moments when we become idealized versions of ourselves, when we rise to meet the day’s challenges with dignity, compassion and reason. In real life, of course, this doesn’t always happen. Luckily, there’s always the comics.
In this fifth volume of Drawn and Quarterly’s fantastic Walt and Skeezix series, Walt Wallet faces the biggest challenge of his parenting life. Skeezix is set to inherit the fortune of his estranged father, Henri Coda, and a crooked lawyer named Abie S. Corpus puts plans in motion to make sure he gets his hands on it first. Corpus pits Walt and Skeezix’s birth mother, Mademoiselle Octave, against one another, plants a spy in Walt’s office and enlists the help of a couple of enforcers.
This long melodrama dominates much of the story from 1929-1930, and throughout it all Walt can think only of Skeezix’s well being, of the good future his inheritance will afford him. Even as his wife, Phyllis, gently reminds him that the money will help them, too, Walt brushes her off, insisting he will only be the caretaker until Skeezix is old enough to manage it himself. Walt is a pen and ink version of an ideal parent: caring, thoughtful, and quick to apologize when he’s anything less.
The saga of the Coda will drags on and on through probate court both in the US and UK, and Walt is subjected to multiple meanings with his lawyer and jokes about his newfound wealth. The story become tedious and repetitive, but there are bright spots throughout, including a blossoming romance between Skeezix and a lisping little girl and Alley regular Avery’s road trip in his custom-built mobile home.
Despite the tedium, the mind goes somewhere when reading these strips, even when Walt’s going back and forth with his lawyer about parcels of Brazilian rain forest. All serials distill the boring and mundane down to a dramatic core, and the endless monotony of life disappears in the gutters between panels, but even when he’s boring, artist and writer Frank King’s work gives us a real place to visit rather than just a thing on page.
King’s art is rarely flashy, but there are some wonderful single-panel strips where King shows a sunset whose colors still shine through the black and white. His women characters all bring to mind images of flappers and silent film stars, an interesting contrast to the caricatured style of the men in the strip. The best strips show Walt listening and reacting to something someone, usually Skeezix, is saying. The humor and emotion King wrings out of a few lines is masterful. To reread a strip and only look at Walt’s face is to see the character come to life.
Series editors Jeet Heer and Chris Ware have designed this series as a biography of King as much as a showcase for his work. Heer’s essay on King, illustrated by work from the artist’s sketch book and numerous family photos, is placed a the front of the book, and it colors one’s reading of the strip. This is more than just supplemental odds and ends, this is the raw material King used to create the Wallets’ world.
Part of this material is included on a DVD filled with King’s home movies. There’s footage of King’s wife, Delia, and their son, Robert, horsing around in the snow, as well as numerous films from their vacations around the US and Europe. The best video was produced by The Chicago Tribune in 1925 as a promotional film for the paper. In the segment included here we see many cartoonists of the day working at their drawing boards, including King and Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray.
The King family’s first child was stillborn, Jeet Heer writes, and after that tragedy the cartoonist, “...used his art to explore parental anxieties about separation and loss.” King’s explorations led him to Walt Wallet and the rest of the Gasoline Alley gang, but his cartoon family wasn’t a substitute for the real thing. King’s art helps us understand the strange territory of family, and with the right guide there’s no finer place to find yourself.