Gasoline Alley by Frank King

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, December 3, 1949

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, December 21, 1950

Frank King (1883-1969) created Gasoline Alley and drew it from 1918 to 1959 (he quit drawing the Sunday strips in 1951). Since then, it has been drawn by a series of artists, starting with former assistants of King, Bill Perry and Dick Moores. I mention them because looking at these two strips from 1949 and 1950, their styles seem so distinct that it suggest that an assistant may have been helping out on one of them. (Oddly enough, the lettering is different in the two strips as well. That I have no explanation for.)

Gasoline Alley started off as a strip designed to appeal to the first generation of mass car ownership. The very masculine strip featured Walt Wallet and his friends discussing their cars. The inherent limitations of this conceit gradually dawned on syndicate head Joseph Patterson who somewhat arbitrarily instructed King to add a baby to the strip to appeal to women. (This was how decisions like this were made in the age before focus groups and data mining.) King contrived for a baby, Skeezix, to be left in a basket on Walt Wallet's doorstep in 1921. Walt got married in 1926, and from that point on Gasoline Alley became a family soap opera and one of the most popular comic strips in America.

While King occasionally veered into fanciful storytelling territory, the strip mostly sticks to realistic situations. As such, it provides an interesting, if sentimental, view into Midwestern middle-class life in the middle of the 20th century. The characters live a small-c conservative life, the kind that Sinclair Lewis satirized in Babbit. King's approach is sentimental and warm-hearted and may be contrasted to Harry Tuthill's far more cynical (and far less popular) The Bungle Family.

One innovative feature of Gasoline Alley was that he had the characters age in real-time. So Skeezix, who was "born" in 1921, ends up fighting in World War II as a young man. I suspect this was one of the features of the strip that so endeared it to readers for decades. That and its sneakily beautiful down-to-Earth art and stories.

Five very well-annotated volumes collecting Gasoline Alley strips from 1921 to 1930 are currently in print.