Gasoline Alley is a comic strip created by Frank King and currently distributed by Tribune Media Services. First published November 24, 1918, it is the second-longest-running comic strip in the US (after The Katzenjammer Kids) and has received critical accolades for its influential innovations. In addition to inventive color and page design concepts, King introduced real-time continuity to comic strips by showing his characters as they grew to maturity and aged over generations.
The strip originated on the Chicago Tribune’s black-and-white Sunday page, The Rectangle, where staff artists contributed one-shot panels, continuing plots or themes. One corner of The Rectangle introduced King’s Gasoline Alley, where characters Walt, Doc, Avery, and Bill held weekly conversations about automobiles. This panel slowly gained recognition, and the daily comic strip began August 24, 1919 in the New York Daily News.
The early years were dominated by the character Walt Wallet. Tribune editor Joseph Patterson wanted to attract women to the strip by introducing a baby, but Walt was not married. That obstacle was avoided when Walt found a baby on his doorstep, as described by comics historian Don Markstein:
After a couple of years, the Tribune’s editor, Captain Joseph Patterson, whose influence would later have profound effects on such strips as Terry and the Pirates and Little Orphan Annie, decided the strip should have something to appeal to women, as well, and suggested King add a baby. Only problem was the main character, Walt Wallet, was a confirmed bachelor. On February 14, 1921, Walt found the necessary baby abandoned on his doorstep. That was the day Gasoline Alley entered history as the first comic strip in which the characters aged normally. (Hairbreadth Harry had grown up in his strip but stopped aging in his early 20s.) The baby, named Skeezix (cowboy slang for a motherless calf), grew up, fought in World War II, and is now a retired grandfather. Walt married after all, and had more children, who had children of their own. More characters entered the storyline on the periphery and some grew to occupy center stage.
Skeezix called his adopted father Uncle Walt. Unlike most comic strip children (like the Katzenjammer Kids or Little Orphan Annie) he did not remain a baby or even a little boy for long. He grew up to manhood, the first occasion where real time continually elapsed in a major comic strip over generations. By the time the United States entered World War II, Skeezix was a adult, courting Nina Clock and serving in the armed forces. He later married Nina and had children. In the late 1960s, he faced a typical midlife crisis. Walt Wallet himself had married Phyllis Blossom and had other children, who grew up and had kids of their own. During the 1970s and 1980s, under Dick Moores’ authorship, the characters briefly stopped aging. When Jim Scancarelli took over, the natural aging was restored.
The Sunday strip was launched October 24, 1920. The 1930s Sunday pages did not always employ traditional gags but often offered a gentle view of nature, imaginary daydreaming with expressive art or naturalistic views of small town life. Reviewing Peter Maresca and Chris Ware’s Sundays with Walt and Skeezix (Sunday Press Books, 2007), comics critic Steve Duin quoted writer Jeet Heer:
“Unlike the daily strips, which traced narratives that went on for many months, the Sunday pages almost always worked as discrete units,” Heer writes. “Whereas the dailies allowed events to unfold, Sunday was the day to savor experiences and ruminate on life. It is in his Sunday pages that we find King showing his visual storytelling skills at their most developed: with sequences beautifully testifying to his love of nature, his feeling for artistic form, and his deeply felt response to life.”
The strip is still published in newspapers in the 21st century. Walt Wallet is now well over a century old (115, as of April 2015), while Skeezix has become a nonagenarian. Walt’s wife Phyllis, age an estimated 105, died in the April 26, 2004 strip, leaving Walt a widower after nearly eight decades of marriage. Walt Wallet appeared as a guest at Blondie and Dagwood’s anniversary party, and on Gasoline Alley’s 90th anniversary Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, and Snuffy Smith each acknowledged the Gasoline Alley anniversary in their dialogue. Snuffy Smith presented a character crossover with Walt in the doorway of Snuffy’s house where he was being welcomed and invited in by Snuffy. In May 2013 at the Cartoon retirement home Walt is at a dinner when Maggie’s (of Bringing Up Father) pearl brooch is stolen; Fearless Fosdick is his usual incompetent self trying to catch the thief; cameos include “retired” cartoons such as Lil’ Abner; Smokey Stover; Pogo and Albert. There is even the appearance of an active cartoon character, Rex Morgan M.D.
The strip and King were recognized with the National Cartoonists Society’s Humor Strip Award in 1957, 1973, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1985. King received the 1958 Society’s Reuben Award, and Moores received it in 1974. Scancarelli received the Society’s Story Comic Strip Award in 1988. The strip received an NCS plaque for the year’s best story strip in 1981, 1982 and 1983.
015 pages/strips Gasoline Alley 1969
330 pages/strips Gasoline Alley 1972
314 pages/strips Gasoline Alley 1974
333 pages/strips Gasoline Alley 1975