Rob Clough at TCJ reviews WALT & SKEEZIX BOOK FOUR

“Wheelhouse: Walt & Skeezix Book Four: 1927-1928” / The Comics Journal / Rob Clough / September 22, 2010

After a four-year hiatus, Drawn & Quarterly has once again started to release new volumes of Gasoline Alley reprints. Of all the classic comics strips that have been reprinted in the last decade, the Walt & Skeezix books have been the biggest revelation and have benefited most from collecting material chronologically. That’s not only because it is a true continuity strip where characters grew older, and the events of the strip reflected the events of the day; but also because the accrual of quotidian moments become more poignant when read all at once. In a time when most strips went after anarchic gags or pursued adventure stories, King sought to create a world that was easy for anyone to relate to, as well as inspired by events from his own life.

The archival material that series editors Jeet Heer & Chris Ware have put together is nothing short of astonishing for anyone interested in the minutia of King’s life and how it affected the strips. Heer’s commentary on what influenced King to embark on certain storylines is especially useful. Heer notes this King was perhaps influenced by the melodramatic flair and political subtext of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie; he seems particularly on point here, as the latter strip was one of constant separation of child and parent figure, rollicking adventure and eventual reuniting…only to start the cycle all over again. Gasoline Alley couldn’t have been more different up to that point, focusing on foundling Skeezix and his adoptive father Walt Wallet.
While the first cycle of stories — wherein young Skeezix is kidnapped by his birth mother Mme. Octave — in the previous volume pack a certain thrill, that is partly because the notion of a cross-country search filled with dead-ends and mysteries is a novelty for a strip that is otherwise solely concerned with the ups and downs of daily life and parenting. The eight-month sequence in 1927 that features the emergence of Skeezix’s birth father, Col. Coda, and a prolonged custody battle drags interminably. The problem with this storyline is that it is neither fish nor fowl. King excelled in portraying small moments and their concomitant emotions. The extended Coda sequence, which expands to include veiled political commentary about the Soviet Union and isolationism, not only takes the characters (and the reader) out of that familiar sphere, it does it in a way that isn’t very exciting.

Indeed, most of the “battles” in the custody hearings take place off-panel. In-panel action mostly consists of lawyers making long speeches. Heer is forgiving of this storyline, noting that King’s humanism even extended to making Mme. Octave and Col. Coda characters with some redeemable qualities. That is true to an extent, but King was careful not to tip the balance too far in their favor, making Octave a gold-digger and implying that Coda was mostly interested in Skeezix for political reasons. If King was trying to provide a fair hearing for the “nature v. nurture” argument, he pretty clearly stacked the deck in favor of his preferred side.

The real problem with the storyline is the way King yanks the reader back and forth: first Skeezix is in danger of being taken away, then he wasn’t, then something melodramatic happened and put the family’s harmony in danger once again. King simply wasn’t adept enough at melodrama to make these twists interesting over an eight-month period. If this story was being fueled by his own personal life, as Heer suggests, then King lets readers down in dragging the storyline out.
Once that storyline is settled once and for all, the strip not only evolves in a slightly different direction, it attains a level of day-to-day quality that is simply astonishing. The protracted legal battle took a toll on Walt Wallet’s finances, forcing him to find a job. That simple change not only makes Walt a more sympathetic and relatable character, it creates a new set of daily dynamics from which King is able to draw gentle humor. 1928 cemented once and for all Gasoline Alley‘s status as a strip about a particular family (the Wallets) as opposed to a strip about the increasing popularity of automobiles and a group of neighbors who gathered around to talk about them.

The strip is still built around the relationship between amiable goof Walt and Skeezix, now a rambunctious and clever 7-year-old. King’s line is at its best when portraying these two. Walt is pear-shaped and hulking, his blobby physique informing his status as a wonderfully funny-looking character of good humor and kindly nature. The reader can’t help but root for him, nor take their eyes off of him, as his size tends to make him the focus of every panel (especially with his ever-present black pants). Skeezix is always in motion, his body language practically screaming his fidgety nature when he tries to stand still. King’s mastery of gesture is readily apparent, especially in how to accurately depict children. That duo stands out a bit oddly when one considers Walt’s now-wife, Phyllis, who is drawn in a realistic (and somewhat idealized) fashion, consistent with many artists of the age. One simply doesn’t want to linger very long on Phyllis, which is somewhat problematic considering that she became a key character in the series.

King further cemented the familial nature of his strip when he introduced Corky, Walt and Phyllis’ first natural-born son, and Lora, Walt’s teenage cousin who came to live with him. Corky not only brought back the cute factor of having an infant in the strip, it also gave King a chance to explore sibling dynamics. Skeezix was depicted as feeling ambivalent toward his baby brother, eventually expressing his feelings of being abandoned to his parents, who were able to make him feel better. Lora was an equally interesting case. A country girl, she added an additional feminine presence to the strip while also providing a rough-and-tumble older sibling surrogate for Skeezix.

Adding these new characters gave King a wealth of new material and characters for the audience to identify with. Adults could empathize with Walt worrying about money, down to trying to playing the risky stock market in a desperate attempt to come up with extra cash. Children could enjoy Skeezix’s antics and antipathy toward homework and saving money. What is important is the way King makes the reader care about trips to visit one’s mother, being scammed out of money, sitting around a fireplace with one’s family and the general vicissitudes of life.

For the modern reader, King’s depiction of African-Americans is troubling at times. There is no defense for the visual depiction of Walt’s live-in maid Rachel (the stereotypical “mammy” character speaking in dialect), even if it was of its times. Though she was depicted visually as a stereotype, King took great pains to flesh her out as a character. She has a tight bond with Skeezix (castigating Walt for claiming to have raised him on his own), fiercely defending his right to stay with Walt in court. She visits her family down south (acknowledging the Great Migration to Chicago) and in general gets much more face time than the members of the Alley Gang, who mostly receded into the background much of the time.
Thanks to his real-time aging of his characters, King was able to keep himself on his toes with stories that had to evolve simply because his characters were changing. He was able to dip back into older stories by introducing new characters appropriate for such ideas. In 1928, he got away from melodrama, which didn’t suit his talents, and instead further explored the rich tapestry of family life. Considering that the stock market crash and Great Depression were just a year away, I’m intensely curious to see how that particular turn of events affected the Wallet family.

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