Gosh all fishhooks! Fire up your flivvers and tea-carts, birds, because Drawn & Quarterly is at it again. The publisher continues its release of Gasoline Alley comics compilations with Walt Before Skeezix, a collection of some of creator Frank King's very first strips. Gasoline Alley later became known for its long-running stories and minute eye for domestic life. In this early incarnation, though, King's just drawing a jokey strip focused on four average guys who hang out in each other's garages, bonding around cars and their need for a male retreat.
King drew these strips at a time when the automobile, just 10 years earlier a toy for the capricious rich, had become an attainable part of the American dream. In 1900 the country had 8,000 cars; by the late '20s there were 23 million. With cars had come car buffs — or what series star Walt importantly dubs "the motor fraternity."
As that fraternity multiplied, so did the comical elements of car culture. King makes hay out of men's love of tinkering, the duplicity of mechanics and the complexities of financing. In the Alley, that financing could be extremely creative. When Doc tries to sell his car, "One bird offered to trade me a couple of lots he had in Hollywood ... another gink offered to take the bus as first premium on $42,000 life insurance. I didn't accept because if I get rid of the bus I expect to live through the year."
Driving may not have been as dangerous as all that, but motorists who headed out of town were taking on new risks. If they didn't get bogged down on an unpaved back road and have to hit up a local farmer for a tow, they might wind up lost. "I'm going to follow this Route 27 along the river and then cut over onto 94 to Reedsburg and Tomah," Avery says, pointing to a page in his guidebook. "You poor fish, Avery!" says Bill. "That's a 1913 road guide! Those are Indian trails."
Though he started out as a commercial illustrator (getting into the newspaper game at the Chicago Tribune in 1909), King also had a fantastic ear for contemporary slang. The book bursts with brassies, niblicks, hummingbirds and pieces of cheese. Walt, shown here before the arrival of the foundling baby Skeezix, isn't a bachelor — he's a "batch."
Between the adorable language, the window onto early automotive life and the plain fun of reading comics from that era, this volume is a delight for any cultural history buff. Plus, it's got far more to offer than just the strips. Aside from absorbing and well-illustrated essays by co-editor Jeet Heer and cultural historian Tim Samuelson, the editors also packed in excerpts from King's diary, early sketches and several pages of explanatory endnotes.
The book is delightful on a purely physical level, too, with much thought and expense clearly poured into every detail. It even smells good. The one flaw? A typeface like ant tracks. That's probably co-editor Chris Ware's doing; those familiar with his previous work know he harbors a freewheeling disdain for the bespectacled reader. In this case it impairs enjoyment of the essays and Ware's own incisive (though sadly brief) preface.
"[King] ... was the first cartoonist to turn the nuts and bolts of his own life directly into the stuff of his art," Ware notes. (Apparently. It really is very hard to read.) "King [tried] to present life in its minutiae in a very approachable, humble, and human way — and in a medium largely at that point which was ... developed to tell gags and adventure stories."
It's that love for the quotidian, for ordinary people in all their ordinariness, that makes these strips so pleasurable. Even when you don't get the joke, you still get a glow.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.