On The Road With Gasoline Alley
A Cradle To Maturity Family Saga

Charles Schultz' Peanuts character, Charlie Brown, was "born" in newsprint in 1950. As he was approximately six at the time, by all rights he now should be at least 59 years old. Little Orphan Annie, by the same logic, must be pushing past her ninth decade, and Dick Tracy is so far over the hill that he must have exhausted his police pension by now. In real life, the only way we'd determine Alley Oop's age would be by carbon dating his fossil. Not to take anything away from these classic cartoon characters; comic strip longevity has always been a given, limited only the mortality of the creator (sometimes), the size of its readership, and the whims of its syndicate.

There are exceptions to every rule, though, and this feature deals with one of them. Frank King, creator of Gasoline Alley, was the first cartoonist to acknowledge, not resist, the relentless tread of time, allowing the cast of his strip to age just as we do. This seemingly minor innovation kindled a readership interest in the strip that would remain throughout four generations of his cartoon cast.

Frank O. King was born in 1883 in Caston, Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Tomah, coincidentally near Wisconsin's Kickapoo Hills, the very place that would serve Al Capp as an inspiration for his unearthly concoction, "Kickapoo Joy Juice." King landed his first professional art job at age 19 at the Minneapolis Times in 1901, thanks to the recommendation of a traveling salesman who spotted a cartoon sign that King had painted for a local shoe shine parlor. After working in the Times' art department for four years, King left to sharpen his art skills at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

After a year, King returned to newspaper and advertising work until moving to the Chicago Tribune in 1909, gradually easing into comics and cartoons, drawing a number of quarter and half page strips like Tough Teddy, The Boy Animal Trainer, Here Comes Motorcycle Mike!, and Hi Hopper (the story of a frog). His first jump to a full page strip occurred on January 31 1915 with his Sunday feature, Bobby Make-Believe. King also drew a second, half-page feature for the Tribune that proved so popular that poor Bobby was soon eclipsed, passing into obscurity in 1919.

The new strip soon won a full page of its own, and on October 24, 1920, Gasoline Alley was born in the Tribune (the daily commenced August 24, 1919 in the New York Daily News).

At first the strip was simply devoted to America's perpetual love affair with automobiles, based on real people the creator had known on Chicago's South Side. "My brother... had a car that he kept in the alley with a fellow by the name of Bill Gannon and some others. I'd go to his house on Sunday, and we'dgo down the alley and run into somebody else and talk cars. That was the beginning of Gasoline Alley," King said in an interview.

The strip's cast of car-tinkering buddies expanded with a significant addition on St. Valentine's Day in 1921. On that morning the amiable, somewhat bumbling Walt Wallet opened his door to find a small infant on his steps. From there on Gasoline Alley became a family strip, with the clock ticking away in real time, as the child Skeezix saw "Uncle" Walt marry "Aunt" Phyllis in 1926, gained a brother, Corky, in 1928, had his first shave in 1937, enlisted in the army in 1942, married Nina Clock in 1944, and had a child, Chipper, on April Fool's Day (!) in 1945. The progression of normal growth and change throughout the normal ups and downs of family life, school, marriage and employment has entertained the strip's fans throughout its 78-year timespan, a full four generations of the Wallet clan.

The humor of Gasoline Alley is gentle and low-keyed, following a meandering storyline of day to day life. King was well skilled at giving the readers the impression they were looking in on family life not unlike their own. The charm of the strip was well served by King's art talents which sometimes got quite playful on the Sunday page, as when King once played homage to Windsor McCay's LittleNemo with a wonderfully surrealistic page, or when he mimicked German Expressionism on another Sunday page. The artist could be just as impressive on "quieter" sequences --a walk at twilight, a stroll through the woods --drawing beautifully composed scenes that were a visual treat.

By his late thirties King had achieved great prosperity through the increasing circulation of his strip. In 1951 he retired from the Sunday page, turning it over to his assistant Frank Perry on April 29. In 1958 King won a Reuben for Outstanding story strip, and 1969, at the age of 88, he passed away.

King's replacement on the daily strip was Dick Moores, who began his career as a Disney strip artist (Uncle Remus, Scamp), and who also worked as Chester Gould's assistant on Dick Tracy, as well as assisting Floyd Gottfredson on Mickey Mouse.

After fourteen years on the Disney strips, Moores moved on to assist King in 1956, at first as a scripter and then taking on drawing tasks. In 1963, when King was in his eighties (but still inking his strip), Moores was given partnership on Gasoline Alley and allowed to sign his name with King's. When Frank Perry retired in 1975, Moores took on the Sunday page as well, meshing its continuity with the dailies.

Many feel that Dick Moores' work not only equaled Frank King's but also surpassed it. At any rate, the new characters he introduced into the strip were happy additions. There's Slim, Skeezix's well meaning but bumbling son-in-law, Mr. Pert, a shyster and miser in the neighborhood, the lovable but mentally-challenged Rufus, his crusty trash-toting friend, Joel, and the sweetly simply country girl, Miss Melba, the love of Rufus' life. Moores' gift for characterization and humor won him two Reubens; one in 1975 and his last in 1986, the year he died. Moores had ably served on the strip for a little over thirty years.

The current writer/artist on the strip, the forth to inherit it, is Jim Scancarelli, who first came aboard as Moore's assistant in 1979. Hi" earliest memories of the strip go back to his childhood when his grandfather would read the comics page to him. "Littledid I realize that 40 years later I would be sitting in the next room in that house thinking up and drawing the continuation of the Wallet family," says Scancarelli.

After the long and respected duration of the strip, it's surprising and disappointing that there are so few reprint collections of Gasoline Alley. In 1984 Blackthorne Publishing released a collection of eight months of Moores' continuity (Rover, the story of a boy raised as a dog by abusive relatives), but other than that and a few earlier reprints, Gasoline Alley has been sadly ignored. There was a wide variety of toys and other merchandise tying into the strip in the '30s and '40s (now highly desirable collector's items), and even a radio show (in the 1940s) and a movie (Columbia, 1951). As a humorous slice-of-life look at America at work and play, Gasoline Alley carries on a worthwhile tradition of narrative quality.
 

--Steve Stiles