By title alone Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe strip is compared to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. But King Brought to the strip richer and subtler understanding of the inner life of children than McCay. And yet, like McCay, King loved to play with nature and landscape, bringing out their surreal potential. But this strip foreshadows the gentle sensitivity to everyday emotional reality King was about to bring to Gasoline Alley.
On Feb. 14, 1921 the orphan who came to be known as Skeezix landed on Walt Wallet’s doorstep, forever changing the trajectory of the Gasoline Alley comic strip and making it a singular American work of art. Until then, Walt had been the main character in a small tribe of neighborhood fellas who loved to tinker with cars (hence “Gasoline Alley”) and trade quips and jibes. Male bonding, circa 1919. With the introduction of Skeezix, however, the strip became a uniquely introspective saga of everyday human connections. Unlike anything else on a comics page that included Thimble Theatre, The Gumps, Mr. and Mrs., Moon Mullins, Little Orphan Annie and Wash Tubes and Captain Easy, Gasoline Alley explored the progression of generations, community dynamics and values, the emotional cadence of everyday human interaction in a granular, gentle way.
Gasoline Alley is best known for being the only major American strip that let its characters age and even pass away. By the 1930s, Skeezix would hit early adolescence, and the strip became one of the first works of pop culture to focus on this modern phenomenon of the “teenager.” Many of the main first generation characters in this male bonding epic would die, usually quietly and off stage, several decades after the strip launched.
Authored by Frank King, Gasoline Alley was a genuinely homespun comic strip. While many American cartoonists had their roots in the Midwest and small towns, King brought that personal experience to the center of the strip. He patterned many of the characters after friends and acquaintances. Walt was based on a childhood friend. Skeezix’s growth paralleled King’s own son, including those rough teen years. But more than anything else, King based his strip on the language, rhythms and emotions of everyday exchanges. As Jeet Heer points out in his excellent introductions to the ongoing reprints of the strip, Gasoline Alley was not a gag strip or a soap opera, nor was it slapstick or satire. Strips rarely ended with a punchline or a cliff hanger. The four daily panels typically added perhaps a little insight into a character, advanced a plot line just a smidge, or showed characters interacting in a small way that expressed the depth of their connection with each other. The joys of the strip were cumulative, an extended immersion in the little interactions and feelings of a tightly knit cluster of friends and family, people who knew one another well and forever.
Which is to say that no small collection of reprinted strips here can really capture the unremarkable remarkableness of Gasoline Alley. I find that extended immersion is King’s world is truly compelling but takes days and weeks of persistent exposure. As Heer says, “Gasoline Alley achieves its hold on its audience by being ruminative and cumulative.” It lets you peer into the nuances of family, immediate and extended and the subtle ways in which people know and appreciate one another. But the strip below, which marked the first anniversary Skeezix’s appearance, hints at the kind of emotional depth and intimacy King crafted here. As a single father for the first years of Skeezix’s life, Walt proved to be the prototypical sensitive male, that rare figure in popular culture of the nurturing man. It is a good example of how King was getting at aspects of modern American culture that were not accessible in other more compressed popular arts like film, novels or even the pulps. Gasoline Alley is the quintessential comic strip. It demonstrates more than any other strip how the medium can build worlds subtly, incrementally, and over the course of decades in four panels a day.
It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.
For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.