One of the sad truths about comic strips is that most newspapers don’t appreciate or understand them. Every few years, overcome by the desire to “freshen things up” newspapers will drop long-running comic strips and replace them with newer strips, which often display an alarming lack of taste on the part of the person doing the choosing. Because of this, long-running strips like “Dick Tracy” or “Popeye” get dumped, and manage to limp along with a greatly reduced circulation, while newer strips, many of which look like they’re drawn by second-graders, take their position in on the comics page, and fewer and fewer people decide to keep buying the paper.
One of these classic comic strips is Gasoline Alley. Gasoline Alley began in 1918, by cartoonist Frank King, and had the novel approach of aging its characters in real time. This comic strip saga held the attention of millions during its heyday, but many people are shocked that it’s still being produced. What’s more amazing is that it’s still better than 95% of the comic strips being published. You can read it online here. It’s one of the first things I check out every morning.
After humble beginnings as a comic strip about auto mechanics, the strip really took off when one of the lead characters, Walt Wallet, found a baby on his doorstep, and named him “Skeezix.” From that incident, the comic strip evolved into a unique creation, featuring elements of soap opera, situation comedy, and adventure. With the characters aging in real time, readers have been rewarded with a huge family tree. Currently, the strip focuses on the octogenarian Skeezix and his large family. In 2004, the strip dealt with the death of Walt Wallet’s wife, Phyllis, at the age of 105. Walt is still alive, but has a live-in caretaker.
Currently written and drawn by Jim Scancarilli, Gasoline Alley manages to tell compelling stories, which lately tend to deal with issues of aging. However, the strip is never boring or morose. The gentle humor and realistic elements of the stories make this one of the best “continuity” strips running today.
Long overlooked by the critical elite, Gasoline Alley is just starting to garner some respect. Collections of Frank King’s early strips are being published under the title “Walt And Skeezix,” by Drawn And Quarterly. Getting back to the issues I addressed in the opening paragraph, if the Gazette ever wants to revamp their comics page, and turn it into a revenue-generating circulation-booster, I’ll volunteer my services as an expert in the field.