Wednesday, 28 April 2010


Another classic strip currently getting the deluxe reprint treatment is the long-running Gasoline Alley. Drawn And Quarterly have released four volumes to date collecting some of the earliest years of the strip, notable as being one of the very few strips in which the characters age in real time.
The original Gasoline Alley started out on the Chicago Tribune's b&w Sunday page, The Rectangle in which staff artists would provide either one-shot panels, or occasionally a continuing strip. Artist Frank King brought in a panel consisting of four men, Walt Wallet, doc, Avery and Bill, who would each week shoot the breeze about cars. This panel proved popular enough and a daily strip started in August 1919. After a couple of years Joseph Patterson, the editor of the Chicago Tribune asked King to make the strip more accessible to women. Comics historian Don Markstein describes what happened next...
After a couple of years, the Tribune's editor, Captain Joseph Patterson, whose influence would later have profound effects on such strips as Terry And The Prtes and Little Orphan Annie decided the strip should have something to appeal to women, as well, and suggested King add a baby. Only problem was the main character, Walt Wallet, was a confirmed bachelor. On February 14, 1921, Walt found the necessary baby abandoned on his doorstep. That was the day Gasoline Alley entered history as the first comic strip in which the characters aged normally. (Hairbreadth Harry had grown up in his strip, but stopped aging in his early 20s.) The baby, named Skeezix (cowboy slang for a motherless calf), grew up, fought in World War II, and is now a retired grandfather. Walt married after all, and had more children, who had children of their own, etc. More characters entered the storyline on the periphery, and some grew to occupy center stage.
With the arrival of Skeezix, the strip took a huge turn. What had started as a strip about the fascination men have for cars, became the story of the Wallet family, part gentle soap opera, part mirror of American life. Characters aged, went to school, college, married, had children of their own. They worked, played and went to war.

The first of Drawn and Quarterly's lovingly compiled Walt & Skeezix volumes collects the daily Gasoline Alley strips from 1921 and 1922 including Skeezix's arrival on the scene (14th February 1921). This is slightly annoying as completists (including me) would certainly want the earliest strips included. However this minor niggle is vastly offset by the book itself. Lovingly designed and edited by Chris Ware of ACME Novelty Library fame, the collection also includes an 80(!) page introduction full of rare archival photos and ephemera by Jeet Heer of Canada's National Post. The introduction is worth the price of entry alone for its insights into the life of one of America's great cartoonists.

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