‘Walt Before Skeezix’ Captures a Slice of American Life just After World War I

'Walt Before Skeezix' offers an in-depth look at the early days of 'Gasoline Alley' in a beautifully-presented volume.

Besides being one of the longest-running comic strips in American history, Gasoline Alley is also justifiably famous as an early example of a comic in which the characters age more or less realistically. Instead of being suspended in time like the Katzenjammer Kids or (to take a more recent example) the cast of The Simpsons, the characters in Gasoline Alley grow up and eventually become old, just like real people.

So while Bart will always be in fourth grade, and Lisa always in second, readers of Gasoline Alley get to see Skeezix grow from a baby to a young man to an adult, experience vicariously his military service and marriage, and otherwise watch him go through the stages of life just like an actual person. This echoing of real life creates a sense of familiarity with the characters of the strip, as if they were your real neighbors (or your grandfather’s real neighbors, as Gasoline Alley began publication in 1918).

Interestingly, King did not begin drawing Gasoline Alley with the age-in-real-time strategy, nor did he begin the strip with the focus on family life that became one of its greatest strengths (the latter change came about as an attempt to attract a larger female readership). Instead, most of the early strips collected in this volume, which take Walt Wallet and his buddies at the car shop up to the point just before the baby Skeezix is deposited on Walt’s doorstep, focus on a loose coterie of male friends who spend a lot of time hanging out at Walt’s garage in Chicago. Sometimes they play golf or take a road trip, but theirs is consistently a male world, with women appearing only tangentially and generally being engaged in traditionally female activities such as caring for babies or doing the laundry.

Fair enough. One of the great appeals of Gasoline Alley is the way it functions as a time capsule, and the divide between male and female interests and duties was an accepted part of American society at the time. The sexism is just part of the background noise, in other words, while what’s interesting about these early comics is how they create a detailed portrait of a small slice of American life during the years when car ownership was becoming common, offering a chance to step back in time and see the world through the eyes of contemporary newspaper readers during the first three years after the conclusion of World War I.

The first Gasoline Alley panel was published in the Sunday Chicago Tribune on 24 November 1918, and like a lot of the early panels, it presents a world of guys working on cars, guys kibitzing about cars, and guys just generally being guys in a female-free environment. Everyone has an opinion about one car that won’t start—it’s the carburetor, it’s the crank, it’s the spark plugs, or maybe it’s hopeless and the owner should just junk it for scrap. One gentleman is seen sneaking off, bucket in hand, claiming he’s going for “hot water” when his more likely destination is the neighborhood saloon where it was possible to purchase a bucket of beer drawn into your own container.

Like many early Gasoline Alley panels, the characters in the first feel like part of a collective who not only know their role in the greater scheme of things but are glad to play it. The earliest episodes of Gasoline Alley were all single panels, with the first “strip” (with sequential action in separate panels) appearing near the end of the first year, on 25 September 1919. King continued to work in both formats but, for my money, his best work is in the single panel cartoons, which successfully create a timeless feeling of collectivity and shared values, while the panel comics are more likely to express conflict among the characters and often end with a punchline.

Walt Before Skeezix includes a number of extras that will particularly appeal to those interested in the real-life roots of this strip as well as its place among American comics. In his preface to the volume, Chris Ware calls King “the first cartoonist to turn the nuts and bolts of his own life into the stuff of his art” and notes how often Gasoline Alley panels are based on entries in King’s diary and other details of his daily life. Many photographs, sketches, and other archival materials including diary excerpts are included in Walt Before Skeezix, demonstrating the truth of Ware’s assertion while also taking the reader back to the real world which supplied King with the inspiration for his comics.

Jeet Heer’s introductory essay is largely biographical, noting the parallels between King’s life and that of Gasoline Alley’s main protagonist, Walt Wallet. Heer also points out that King so successfully created a small-town feel, based in part on his home town of Tomah Wisconsin, in the strip that many readers forget that most of the action takes place in Chicago. Tim Samuelson’s essay also focuses on the reality that formed the basis for Gasoline Alley, including his brother-in-law and auto enthusiast Walter Drew, who was the model for Walt Wallet, and the alleys of Southside Chicago, where men gathered to work on their cars and generally hang out.

RATING 8 / 10