GASOLINE ALLEYMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1918
Creator: Frank King
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Accounts differ as to when Gasoline Alley began. Its official start date, according to The Chicago Tribune Syndicate, which distributes the strip, was Nov. 24, 1918, but
creator Frank King recalled it starting in 1919. It's rather ironic to see such ambiguity in its recorded history, considering the strip is, itself, a history-maker — and so classic a piece of Americana, that in 1995, it was the subject of a U.S. postage stamp.
It showed little of the classic in the beginning. The Chicago Tribune ran a page on Sundays, called "The Rectangle", that was divided into little boxes where its staff artists would contribute cartoons. Some used ongoing themes; others didn't. Features such as "Pet Peeves", "Science Facts" and "It Isn't the Cost, It's the Upkeep" came and went. Frank King (who was already doing a Nemo-inspired comic called Bobby Make-Believe for the Trib) used a small corner of The Rectangle for an ongoing cast of characters — Walt, Doc, Avery and Bill — who would get together for a single weekly panel to talk about their cars. He called the continuing series "Gasoline Alley".
If that isn't a lowly enough origin, consider this: Although it appeared in the Sunday paper, The Rectangle was black and white.
Talking about cars was as popular then as talking about computers is now. On Aug. 25, 1919 (tho some sources say it was in January), a Gasoline Alley panel started appearing in the daily Tribune as well. Before long, it expanded from a panel into a full-scale strip. Eventually, the Sunday version graduated from The Rectangle to a page of its own, in color.
After a couple of years, the Tribune's editor, Captain Joseph Patterson, whose influence would later have profound effects on such strips as Terry & 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 Feb. 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, etc. More characters entered the storyline on the periphery, and some grew to occupy center stage.
In short, Gasoline Alley became comics' first soap opera — and arguably, at least, the first soap opera of any kind, ever.
It branched out into radio on February 17, 1941, with Jimmy McCallon playing Skeezix and Janice Gilbert as his girlfriend, Nina Clock (whom he hater married in the comics, and who eventually became a great-grandparent with him). The first movie, titled simply Gasoline Alley, was released by Columbia Pictures (Congo Bill, Hop Harrigan) on January 2, 1951, and the second, Corky of Gasoline Alley, on September 17 of the same year. At the time, the possibility of replacing Columbia's venerable Blondie series with this one was discussed, but nothing came of that.
Back in comics, King once boasted that he could teach anyone to be a cartoonist; and to prove it, plucked Bill Perry from the paper's mail room and made Perry his assistant. He succeeded to the point where, in 1951, Perry began writing and drawing the Gasoline Alley Sunday strip on his own.
In 1956, King hired Dick Moores, who had assisted Chester Gould on Dick Tracy in the 1930s, drawn Mickey Mouse comic books in the '50s, and done a strip of his own, Jim Hardy, in between, to assist him on the dailies. In 1959, King retired and Moores took over writing and drawing the daily Gasoline Alley. King died in 1969.
Many strips have been inherited by assistants when their creators retired or died, and in practically every case, there was a drop in quality. Dick Moores proved the exception. He quickly made Gasoline Alley his own, modernizing the style and focusing on a different set of characters than King had used, meanwhile nearly equalling — some say, actually surpassing — King's level of quality. Perry retired in 1975, and Moores then took over the Sunday strip as well.
Moores wrote and drew Gasoline Alley until his death in 1986. The strip was then taken over by his assistant, Jim Scancarelli, who writes and draws it today. Scancarelli runs Gasoline Alley with deep respect for its past, frequently referring to long-ago events and situations of the strip's history, as well as that of comics in general.
Frank King won the Reuben Award for Gasoline Alley in 1958, and Dick Moores in 1974. In addition, the National Cartoonists' Society awarded the strip a plaque for the year's best story strip in 1981, '82, and '83. In 1995, it received an even more prestigious honor — along with Krazy Kat, Li'l Abner and more than a dozen others, it became the subject of a U.S. postal stamp.
The characters' aging slowed almost to a standstill during the Moores years, but started up again under Scancarelli. In fact, he later resumed supplying numbers for birthdays, bringing the characters up to date — unfortunately for them. Doc and Avery were quietly dropped from the cast during the 1990s, and Scancarelli later said in an interview they'd died off-stage. And on April 26, 2004, as part of an intensely emotional sequence that fired up new interest among old readers, Walt's wife, Phyllis, passed on, leaving Walt, now in the early years of his second century and quite likely not long for this world, to fend for himself.
But life goes on in Gasoline Alley. Just a few weeks earlier, it had been announced that Hoogie, the wife of Walt's great grandson Rover, was pregnant.