Walt & Skeezix in the Belleville News-Democrat (IL)

“Gasoline Alley has a proud history” / Belleville News-Democrat (IL) / Belleville News-Demcrat Staff / July 10, 2005

Fans of the comic strip Gasoline Alley would have to be around the century mark themselves if they remember seeing the very first panel in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 24, 1918.

At that time, the paper ran a page on Sunday called The Rectangle, which featured various single-panel cartoons by staff artists. The vast majority came and went with little notice, including Pet Peeves, Science Facts and It Isn't the Cost, It's the Upkeep.

But Frank King used one small corner of The Rectangle to introduce a weekly panel about Walt, Doc, Avery and Bill and their love for cars. He called it Gasoline Alley, and, since the public's fascination with cars then was like its love of high-tech gadgetry now, the strip's popularity took off like an Indy racer.

Within months, it became a daily panel which then grew into a strip. Still, Tribune Publisher Captain Joseph Patterson wasn't satisfied. He wanted what was an obviously masculine strip of guys tinkering with their autos to grab the interest of women, too.

"Captain Patterson decided there had to be a baby in the strip," King once recalled. "I pointed out that, as Walt was a bachelor, it would take quite a little time to bring this about, what with a courtship, marriage and all. But Captain Patterson said he was in a hurry to get the baby in the picture. He wanted a baby NOW!!!"

So, on Valentine's Day, 1921, Walt Wallet found baby Skeezix on his doorstep, and the rest is history. Over the next 25 years, King kept fans running for their papers each day as he told of Walt's single fatherhood, his blooming relationship with Phyllis Blossom, the birth of their own son, Corky, and the adoption of their daughter, Judy.

It was, by all accounts, the first comic strip in which characters aged normally and was, perhaps, the first soap opera of its kind anywhere. Almost fittingly, then, King died on June 24, 1969, at age 86 -- 43 years to the day that Walt and Phyllis married.

By that time, the strip was in the capable hands of Bill Perry and Dick Moores. Saying he could teach anyone to be a cartoonist, King had snatched Perry from the Tribune's mail room as his assistant. By 1951, Perry had taken over the Sunday strip.

Five years later, King hired Moores, who had helped Chester Gould on Dick Tracy in the 1930s and had drawn Mickey Mouse comic books in the 1950s. Once King retired in 1959, Moores continued the strip until his death in 1986, always equalling or, some say, surpassing his mentor's level of quality.

One episode particularly shines through. Although he reportedly opposed the Vietnam War, Moores had Chip Wallet proudly serve his country. In one particularly harrowing episode in 1969, Chip, guided only by radio instructions, found himself operating on a dying Viet Cong woman. Moores built on the plotline by having Chip become a doctor when he returned to the United States.

Little wonder, Gasoline Alley was named the year's best story strip in 1981, 1982 and 1983. And, there appears no imminent end of the road. Just a few weeks before Phyllis died, Hoogie -- the wife of Walt's great-grandson Rover -- announced that she was pregnant.

Or, if you want to go back to the very beginning, don't miss "Walt and Skeezix: Book One," Chris Ware's compilation of the first Gasoline Alley strips. The 400-page hardcover, which may be the first in a historical series, is just $19.77 at Amazon.com.

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