Monday, December 28, 2009

Walt, Skeezix, Dad, and I

"You always talk about the same thing," my wife observed after Dad's visit. "You always talk about Gasoline Alley." I suppose we do. Both of us love comics, and we're both very fond of "Gasoline Alley."

The strip began in 1918, written and drawn by Frank King. It was set in an alley where Walt Wallet and his fellow car enthusiasts, Doc Smartley, Avery, and Bill the mechanic. That alley would later spawned a garage that became a focal point for the comic. King drew the strip until 1956, when he retired and Dick Moores took over. Moores bowed out in 1986 to Jim Scancarelli, who's guided the Gasoline Alley storyline ever since.

It's been running a long time -- but so have some other strips. As youngsters, both Dad and I read "Blondie," "Little Orphan Annie," "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Moon Mullins" and many other long-running newspaper strips. But they don't generate the same level of discussion.

I think it's in part because unlike most humor strips (even the older ones) where all the characters are reset at the end of the daily strip, "Gasoline Alley" characters aged. "Dennis the Menace" has remained five years old for a half century. Ditto with the Peanuts gang. Blondie and Dagwood have had two teenagers for just about as long.

But the characters in "Gasoline Alley" have been born, grown, and -- albeit rarely -- died. When Dad was reading the strip in the 1930's Walt Wallet was raising Skeezix, the foundling he adopted, along with the help of Doc, Avery and the rest of the Gasoline Alley regulars. Dad picked up the story after Skeezix had grown from baby to teenager, and by the time World War II broke out, Dad was reading about his exploits as an enlisted man fighting in Europe.

When I was old enough to follow the strip, Skeezix was middle aged, and had long been married to his first love, Nina Clock. Their daughter, Clovia was dating Slim Skinner. I followed their courtship and marriage. Walt had retired from the furniture business he co-founded, and the Gasoline Alley garage was run by Skeezix, with mechanics (and fellow vets) Hack and Sarge.

We both followed the strip as Doc Smartley retired, leaving his practice to Skeezix's son (and Vietnam vet) Chipper Wallet. Eventually time caught up with the first generation of the cast. Doc, Avery, and resident miser Uriah Pert (uncle to Wilmer Bobble (an Eddie Haskel-like high school friend of Skeezix) disappeared, and later references make it clear that they've passed on. As did Walt Wallet's wife Nina in a major storyline from 2004.

Dad and I have kept up with the unfolding story of the Wallet clan and their supporting cast for some time now. And because, like real life, things change over time it's fun to recall great episodes of the past.

Remember that time Garfield ate the whole pan of lasagna? Probably not -- it happened ten years ago, last year, and may even be in tomorrow's strip. Garfield's static. Recurring gags don't demand much from the reader.

But the time when Slim had to take over for Hack and Sarge, or what Corky had to go through to open his diner? Only happened once. And those unique events -- like the ones in our real lives -- are fun to recall and discuss again and again. At least to a couple of comic characters like ourselves!

- Ralph

Yes, that's Dad and I. Strangely, he's the one with the hair!

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