Walt & Skeezix in the Edmonton Journal

“Comic strip reprints appeal to graphic novel fans: Gasoline Alley, Popeye, Walt and Skeezix and other classic daily strips finally get the recognition they deserve” / The Edmonton Journal / Gilbert A. Bouchard / January 6, 2007

EDMONTON - A wave of beautifully designed books collecting famous comic strips makes it a great time to be a fan of the classic craft, particulary as it was practised in the first half of the 20th century.

Artists and strips such as Frank King's Gasoline Alley, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre (Popeye the Sailor) and Charles Schulz's Peanuts are finally being given the artistic respect they deserve.

Leading the charge to reposition King as a seminal cartoon artist is Montreal's Drawn and Quarterly Press, who just released Walt and Skeezix: The Complete Daily Comic Strips by Frank King, 1923-1924. This is the second volume in their ongoing project to reprint the long-running strip that started its run in 1919.

"Frank King had been forgotten about for many years and was never considered to be in the same league as Alex Ross (the Flash Gordon artist) or Hal Foster (the Canadian-born artist behind Prince Valiant)," says Jeet Heer, one of the three editors of the collection.

As opposed to the aforementioned adventure strips drawn by Ross and Foster, King's long-running comic was a modest domestic strip, focusing on the relationship between the garage-owning Walt and his adopted son Skeezix.

The more subdued dramatic nature of King's work meant that he was passed over when more action-oriented and exotic strips were getting reprinted in the early '70s. But King still ended up being highly influential to a whole new generation of artists thanks to a comprehensive history of newspaper comic strips published by the Smithsonian in 1977.

"That book had a big impact on artists like Seth, Joe Matt and Chris Ware (the famous cartoonist, book designer and one of the other editors of Walt and Skeezix) -- these alternative cartoonists who were also doing work about regular people and real life," says the Toronto-based Heer.

Matt in particular was so moved by King's work that he started to collect all the Gasoline Alley dailies.

Heer says Matt eventually gave his collection to Drawn and Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros, the third editor of the Walt and Skeezix book, who decided to assemble the work into a handsome series of hardcover books carefully designed by Ware to attract fans from both back in the day as well as younger readers weaned on modern graphic novels.

"Since the '70s, people's sense of comics has changed, and readers of these new adult-oriented graphic novels, many of which have autobiographical and domestic themes, are looking for historic ancestors for these new books. These strips were the graphic novels of the 1920s."

One of the most prolific publishers of historic comic strips is Fantagraphics Books. The Seattle firm is currently publishing, among others, reprint editions of Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Dennis the Menace and E.C. Segar's Popeye: I Yam What I Yam!

Kim Thompson, one of the editors on both the Popeye and Peanuts books, has been pleasantly surprised with how popular the collected adventures of Charlie Brown have been.

Thompson credits the 2004 launch of the Peanuts reprints with the wholesale salvation of the publishing house. It had been struggling because of a series of financial setbacks, including heavy losses taken by Fantagraphics when its bookstore distributor went under.

"For our most recent books (the series is on volume six), we've been moving 50,000 to 60,000 units per volume and the first books actually made it to the New York Times bestsellers list. This is real comfort-food reading."

Thompson is convinced new readers will be impressed with how well written the early adventures of Popeye were as well as how daring the early '50s Dennis the Menace strips actually were.

"Dennis lost his edge over the years, but in the strips we're reprinting from the early '50s, he was a real rat-bastard of a child and his dad was much more of a horn-dog."

Photo: Supplied / Part of a page from Popeye, I Yam What I Yam!, by E.C. Segar, Feb. 22, 1931; Photo: Supplied / Cover of Popeye, I Yam What I Yam!, by E.C. Segar; Photo: Supplied / Walt Skeezix cover

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