Hi, BobRo here!
I’ll be away for the next six weeks, doing my annual teaching stint in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program for gifted students. I’ve asked my official unofficial researcher, John Wells, to fill in for me, providing detailed answers to some of the questions I’ve received recently as well as some original material. Please be sure to give him your complete attention – there may be a test at the end!
Two weddings, one birth and a death. The last week of June holds a number of significant dates related to the venerable GASOLINE ALLEY comic strip. The strip, for those not familiar with the legend, began in 1918 as a series of panels about three married men (Avery, Bill and Doc) a bachelor (Walt Wallet) and the cars that they worked on in the alley. The wives of the three older men figured into the feature, too — the pregnancy of one even subtly played out in the background — but it was, all in all, a fairly masculine strip. CHICAGO TRIBUNE publisher Captain Joseph Patterson was determined to change that, convinced that the strip’s readership — and, thus, the Tribune’s circulation — would increase if more women were reading GASOLINE ALLEY.
Creator Frank King recalled, “Captain Patterson decided there had to be a baby in the strip. I pointed out that, as Walt was a bachelor, it would take quite a little time to bring this about, what with the 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 !!!” Which is how, on February 14, 1921, Walt Wallet was awakened by a doorbell in the pre-dawn hours and discovered an abandoned baby on his doorstep with a note addressed to him.
Inevitably, Walt took the child as his own, naming him Skeezix and watching him grow to adulthood over the next two decades. The novelty of comics characters aging in real time was unprecedented and, as the decades passed, GASOLINE ALLEY might spotlight a member of the Wallet family who was a child or a young adult or a senior citizen, creating a feature that held appeal for multiple generations and building readership of a size that Captain Patterson couldn’t have imagined.
Frank King didn’t stop at presenting the trials of a single father raising a baby. The 1920s were full of soap operatic elements involving custody battles and mysterious strangers — notably a widow named Mrs. Blossom who moved into the neighborhood in 1922 and held the secret of Skeezix’s true origin. Gradually, romance sprang up between Walt and Mrs. Blossom — Phyllis — and, once all secrets had been revealed, they were married — sixty-years ago today on June 24, 1926.
The courtship of the couple that Skeezix called Uncle Walt and Auntie Blossom is recounted in a fascinating article by Bob Bindig in the current issue of THE FUNNIES PAPER (# 53). The five-page piece is bursting with fascinating nuggets — from the contents of the note on Skeezix’s doorstep basket to the date of the baby’s actual birth to the identities of his parents and Mrs. Blossom’s role in the mystery. Bindig also provides a generous sampling of art, including the strip that PRECEDED Skeezix’s introduction, birthday strips from 1922, 1923 and 1924 and, of course, the panels in which Walt and Phyllis were finally wed.
In the years to come, Walt and Phyllis had a son of their own (Corky, on May 2, 1928) and adopted a daughter (Judy, left on the running board of Walt’s car on February 28, 1935). Meanwhile, Skeezix became a teenager, fell in love with a girl named Nina Clock, went off to fight in World War Two and, on leave from the Army, finally got married at the age of 23. The nuptials took place 58 years ago this week on June 28, 1944.
By the end of the 1940s, Skeezix and Nina had a son and daughter, Chip and Clovia, and the focus shifted to Corky, who got married and started a family in the 1950s. And, as the mid-1950s loomed, it was Judy’s turn for the spotlight. Now in his seventies, Frank King had begun to slow down, having already turned over the GASOLINE ALLEY Sunday strip to Bill Perry. Perry, was not a young man himself and King sought out a Disney cartoonist that he’d once known. The 46-year-old Dick Moores accepted the offer and began scripting the dailies in 1956, putting much of his concentration on Judy as she entered the work force, got her own apartment and began dating. By the time Judy married Gideon Grubb on May 4, 1961, Moores was handling the art as well. When their son (the last of Walt’s grandchildren) was born 36 years ago this week on June 27, 1966, the family was aghast when they named him Gabriel in honor of Gideon’s father. The proud grandfather relented when he discovered that the boy’s middle name was Walter.
The strip continued to bear the credits of “King and Moores” until the end of the decade. On June 24, 1969, 43 years to the day that Walt and Phyllis were married, Frank King passed away at the age of 86 in Winter Park, Florida.
It was Dick Moores, then, who would shepherd Skeezix’s children into adulthood. Despite his opposition to the war in Vietnam, Moores reluctantly acknowledged that Chip Wallet couldn’t realistically avoid the draft. One 1969 sequence (uncharacteristic for the easy-going humor strip) followed Chip through a harrowing sequence in which, guided only by radio instructions, he operated on a dying Viet Cong woman. Moores built on the story in the years that followed and Chip was inspired to become a doctor following his return to the U.S.
Over the course of the 1960s, Moores had also cultivated the friendship of Clovia Wallet with a goofy, overweight kid named Slim Skinner. The on-again, off-again relationship finally reached a turning point in January of 1973 when a near-tragedy made Slim and Clovia realize that they loved each other. The ensuing months built to a big June wedding only to have the couple realize, after the invitations were in the mail, that they really didn’t want to get married. It was a sweet, touching story, part of a remarkable year that also saw Chip graduate from medical school and a major new character known as Melba join the cast. At the height of his powers as a writer and artist, Dick Moores was awarded the Reuben for 1974’s Cartoonist of the Year in the spring of 1975.
The relationship between Slim and Clovia wasn’t over, of course, and Moores continued to play it out into the mid-1970s, culminating with a lengthy sequence in the spring of 1977. The confluence of several factors, notably a new neighbor and a fire inspector, finally brought the star-crossed couple together in a May 31 wedding. Within a year, they’d be parents. From the latter half of 1980 through 1981, Moores entered another sustained period of superior comic material that began with the refusal of Slim and Clovia’s daughter to talk and ended with a boy named Rover being adopted into the family. Moores’ efforts were recognized with a Reuben for Outstanding Story Strip in the spring of 1982.
GASOLINE ALLEY lives on today, easily found on the Web if not in newspapers, and continued by Jim Scancarelli, who inherited the strip following Dick Moores’ death on April 22, 1986. Today Slim and Clovia’s children are grown, Skeezix is 81 and long-retired and Walt ? well, he’s got to be over 100 years old now but he’s still alive and kicking.
Literally years of Dick Moores’ stories from the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have been collected in issues of the long-running independent comic book, COMICS REVUE. The prelude to Slim and Clovia’s marriage is currently being reprinted in the magazine for the first time, culminating with the wedding in issue # 200 later this year. Previous issues include the 1973 near-wedding experience (# 107-115) and the 1969 Vietnam story (# 150). The magazine’s website address is http://www.io.com/~norwoodr/
Details on the aforementioned FUNNIES PAPER, issues # 50, 52 and 53 of which contain Bob Bindig’s articles on the early GASOLINE ALLEY, can be found by e-mailing publisher Donald V. Cook at TFPzine@aol.com
And, finally, the 2000 and 2001 editions of DRAWN AND QUARTERLY (# 3 and 4) collectively reprint 59 of Frank King’s stunning GASOLINE ALLEY Sunday strips from the 1920s and 1930s. Their website address is http://www.drawnandquarterly.com
For years, fans have bemoaned the fact that such an important, trend-setting comic strip hasn’t been formally collected in a series of books. That, according to the DRAWN AND QUARTERLY website, is going to change. It reports that Chris Ware (of JIMMY CORRIGAN fame) will be “the designer of a new book series collecting the complete Frank King GASOLINE ALLEY newspaper dailies. The first edition will collect the years 1921 and 1922 and will be published by October.” A compilation of Skeezix’s formative years from a publisher with impeccable production standards? I know what I’m asking Santa Claus for this year!
FROM THE EMAILBOX:
In what issue of what book did the Marvel Comics villain Cottonmouth (featured in THUNDERBOLTS and BLACK PANTHER fairly recently) first appear?
– Jim Buckley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Quincy “Cottonmouth” McIver, the man with the sharp teeth and the big, big mouth was one of the villains that Mark Gruenwald created specifically to fill out the membership of the Serpent Society. Cottonmouth — and the Society — debuted in 1985’s CAPTAIN AMERICA #310.
MORE COOL STUFF!
Another nifty item arrived in my mail box recently and, like THE FUNNIES PAPER, it’s a throwback to the glory days of xeroxed, stapled fanzines. Gene Phillips’ SUPERCHICKS OF THE SIXTIES takes a fascinating look back at pretty much all of the costumed heroines and a good share of the villainesses who appeared in comics during the decade. It’s packed with fascinating insights and delivered in a nice breezy style. A quick show of hands: how many of you recall Kree-Nal or Tavane and Zulena ? Gene’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
JOHN WELLS, otherwise known as Mikishawm, loved comics before he could read and advanced through Carl Barks duck comics and newspaper strips like GASOLINE ALLEY, STEVE CANYON, CAPTAIN EASY and BUZ SAWYER before discovering DC’s super-heroes comics. This was the era of the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars and Limited Collectors’ Editions and they were addictive. By year’s end, John had been exposed to dozens of characters, most of them in stories selected from periods when they were in their prime. The rest was history.
During the 1980s, he began compiling a massive database of appearances for all of DC’s heroes, villains, et al. and has been writing articles for a plethora of comics-related magazines ever since ? occasionally under the user name of Mikishawm. John lives in Batavia, Iowa, a little town southeast of Des Moines and is not, sad to say, the producer of “E.R.,” “THIRD WATCH,” et al.
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Copyright ? 2000 to 2003 by Bob Rozakis. All Rights Reserved.